Last week, the Field Guide took on the critics of the Iran deal. This week we get further into the deal’s specifics, showing why it’s by far the best option for the US and world community, in its effort to head off Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon.
Nuclear weapons can be fueled by plutonium or uranium. The Iran deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), tackles Iran’s ability to use either material as a basis for a weapon.
Plutonium does not occur in nature – it must be produced. Production requires a specific type of nuclear reactor. Iran has such a reactor at Arak. However under JCPOA, Iran will modify that facility to minimize plutonium production. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will participate in Arak’s redesign and reconstruction, and the entire site will be subject to constant IAEA surveillance – before, during and after.
Uranium, by comparison, is relatively plentiful in nature. But for uranium to be used in a nuclear weapon, it must first be “enriched.” Uranium enrichment is a complex process requiring, among other things, the use of sophisticated centrifuges. JCPOA controls both the quantity and quality of Iran’s centrifuges, while also placing hard and fast limits on the quantity and quality of enriched uranium that Iran can possess. The reductions in Iran’s nuclear infrastructure are dramatic. Iran’s operational basic centrifuges will be reduced by more than two-thirds. All of their advanced centrifuges will be shut down. Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium will be reduced by 98%. Relevant sites will be subject to constant IAEA monitoring. Iran’s release from sanctions is contingent on the IAEA’s verification of compliance.
JCPOA’s strictures are tough enough to have won the endorsement of many nuclear scientists. Other commentators suggest that Iran’s considerable concessions are without precedent for a country that was not defeated militarily. Abroad, there is no real debate on the virtues of JCPOA – the other parties (China, France, Russia, UK, Germany) are poised to move ahead. So why, then, does the US Congress appear so divided? The main reason is the influence of pro-Israel lobbying groups. But this only begs the question: why is Israel opposed to the deal, particularly if several leaders within Israel have warned that Iran will shortly be able to obtain nuclear weapons under the existing sanctions regime, in the absence of JCPOA?
Israel has more skin in this game than any other player, and so their trepidation must be taken seriously. As detailed in an insightful article in the Atlantic, Israel is faced with two unattractive and unavoidable outcomes. Under sanctions alone, Iran will remain relatively impoverished, but will obtain a nuclear weapon, and more likely sooner than later. Under the deal just struck, Iran will grow wealthier, but is much less likely to obtain a nuclear weapon. As the article puts it, “Israel either has an Iran with nukes, or an Iran that is powerful regionally in every other way.”
Our best guess is that Israel, wisely or not, wants to have it both ways. They want Iran to be kept in financial straits under sanctions. And should Iran come too close to developing a weapon, Israel would use a military strike to keep them in check, as they did in 1981, when the Israeli air force destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak.
There is an even more cynical interpretation. Israel remains the beneficiary of three billion dollars of US military aid per year. Having made peace with Egypt and Jordan, and with Syria a shambles, that aid is increasingly difficult to justify. Since Iran is now Israel’s only significant regional threat, it could be that elements within Israel see a warming of relations between the US and Iran as undercutting the remaining rationale for the flow of all that cash.
Taking the broadest of views, over the long haul, the US and Iran are not adversaries across every dimension. JCPOA is not a zero-sum game: as trade between Iran and the US and its allies increases, all sides will grow richer. Over time, close trade relations can become a basis for better relations in all areas, and can grow into a bulwark against aggression. As the Field Guide has frequently noted, trade and affluence are democracy’s best foot-soldiers. As Iranians grow wealthier, they will come to demand political power commensurate with their material well-being. This is the dynamic that secured democracy across the globe, from France, England and the US, to Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. In the very long term, the wealthier Iran becomes, the more likely that its interests, and those of the West, will align.
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