by Peter Jenkins
On the eve of Adoption Day (October 18) for the July 14 nuclear agreement with Iran, two strikingly similar articles appeared, one by Michael Crowley in Politico and the other by David Sanger and William Broad in The New York Times.
Both articles ponder the likelihood that Iran will “cut corners” in order to ensure that the agreement’s Implementation Day arrives as soon as possible. The journalists also rehearse the risk—a stock-in-trade of congressional opponents of the deal—that Iran will cheat on the agreement at the first possible opportunity.
To justify these themes, Crowley makes use of comments by two distinguished arms control experts who worked on Iran nuclear issues for the Obama administration during the years when the gaps between the Iranian and US positions proved unbridgeable: Robert Einhorn and Gary Samore.
Crowley quotes Einhorn as saying: “There’s no way they can do it [the work required of Iran between Adoption Day and Implementation Day] properly or effectively in a matter of weeks. Hopefully that doesn’t mean they are planning to cut corners to get it done quickly.”
“The Iranians may try to cut corners to help [President Hassan] Rouhani politically, but I think we are in a very strong position to insist on vigorous compliance” is Samore’s contribution.
For their part Sanger and Broad portray the work required of Iran during the coming months as “one of the largest and most complex projects of nuclear dismantlement in history” the better to cast doubt on whether the work can be completed “in record time” and whether it can be monitored adequately by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “overstretched inspection staff.”
They go on to assert:
Whether [the deal] is a historic success and a major part of President Obama’s legacy or a failure could be determined by whether the work of carrying out the deal is marked by strife over what constitutes compliance and what constitutes cheating. Each side fears that the next few weeks and months will be fraught with possibilities for disagreement and cheating around the edges.
I would be a fool to express certainty that Iran will not cut corners or cheat. But I judge the probability of either at this early stage in the agreement’s life to be sufficiently low that it is perverse, in my view, to mark Adoption Day by focusing on such possibilities.
IAEA inspection staff may well be over-stretched in relation to their worldwide responsibilities, but we can be sure that the inspection effort in Iran will be adequately resourced. Verifying implementation of the July 14 Iran agreement is one of the most important and sensitive tasks ever entrusted to the IAEA. This work can burnish or break the Agency’s reputation. It will be undertaken to the high standard that member states expect of the secretariat. If necessary, resources can be deployed to Iran by temporarily reducing the inspection effort in Europe, Japan or Canada, for instance.
This situation is well understood by Ali Akbar Salehi, chairman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). For four years Salehi was Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA. He knows how misguided it would be to imagine that the AEOI could cut corners without detection by the inspectors charged with verifying the dismantling required by the July 14 agreement. Besides, he is not the sort of man who would tolerate corner-cutting on his watch, as, I suspect, will have been apparent to Secretary Ernest Moniz and other members of the US nuclear negotiating team.
Meanwhile, for President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif the nuclear agreement is the culmination of a 12-year ambition to undo the damage done to Iran’s reputation by non-compliance with IAEA safeguards obligations prior to 2004. The idea that they would permit any kind of cheating at this early stage in the agreement’s life is nonsensical. They understand better than any the degree to which compliance with the July 14 agreement is in Iran’s short-, medium-, and long-term interest.
President Rouhani may hope that Implementation Day will precede the legislative elections due at the end of February and so will encourage the AEOI to complete the necessary work expeditiously. But securing an ephemeral political advantage by cutting corners, at the risk of an agreement that can add luster to his presidential legacy, will not hold any attraction for him.
Of course, a conservative minority in Iran dislikes both the nuclear agreement and President Rouhani, just as in the US a conservative minority (over-represented in Congress, unfortunately) dislikes the nuclear agreement and President Barack Obama. But, unlike their US counterparts, Iranian conservatives can be kept in check by a higher authority: Iran’s Supreme Leader. The evidence to date is that President Rouhani has convinced Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the nuclear agreement can bring many benefits to Iran at little cost. Iranians who might want to sabotage the deal by cheating are going to be kept on a tight leash, unlike those in the US who seek to sabotage the deal by demonizing Iran.
Indulging Worst-Case Beliefs
I will resist the temptation to speculate about the motives of Crowley, Sanger, and Broad. I imagine that US opponents of the deal want to delay Implementation Day for as long as possible, because only on Implementation Day will EU sanctions be lifted and US sanctions suspended. But it would be unjust to infer from what these three have written that delay is their objective.
Indulging the appetite of readers who like to believe the worst of Iran, and Iranians, seems a more likely aim. Many years will pass, I fear, before worst-case beliefs cease to bedevil US debates on Iran. I feel fortunate to reside in Europe, where nowadays worst-case beliefs are rarely heard and the market for anti-Iranian copy has shrunk.
Photo of Ali Akbar Salehi by Dean Calma/IAEA via Flickr