The Deal with Iran: Five Arguments to Watch Out For

by Gary Sick

As the nuclear talks with Iran enter the final stretch, and as the media coverage reaches the point of hysteria, it is useful to step back a bit and offer a few observations about how to approach the kinds of revelations and arguments that we might expect in the coming days or weeks.

Here are five things to watch out for.

First, pay attention to definitions. People in a hurry–or people with an agenda–tend to speak in shorthand. If you don’t pay attention, that can be misleading.

For example, what is “breakout?” Put simply, for purposes of this agreement, “breakout” exists when Iran masses enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) needed for one nuclear device. Note that “breakout” does not mean Iran will have a nuclear device. It is the starting point to build a nuclear device, which most experts agree would require roughly a year for Iran to do–and probably another two or more years to create a device that could be fit into a workable missile warhead. Plus every other country that has ever built a nuclear weapon considered it essential to run a test before actually using their design. There goes bomb No. 1.

So when officials, pundits, and interested parties talk about a one-year breakout time for Iran, what they are really saying is that if Iran decides to break its word and go for a bomb, it will take approximately one year to accumulate 27 kilograms of HEU. The hard part follows.

Second, beware false prophets. There are a lot of people who have an interest in creating a panic about Iran’s nuclear capabilities. So be sure to take a look at their track records.

Some have been telling us for years that Iran is on the brink of having a nuclear weapon. The all-time winner in this category is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He first warned officially that Iran was 3-5 years away from a nuclear weapon when he was a member of the Knesset in 1992. Yes, that was 23 years ago, when Iran was emerging from the devastation of an eight-year war with Iraq and had not one single centrifuge operating.

He repeated this warning almost every year since, culminating in a speech to the United Nations in September 2013 where he displayed a cartoon bomb that was filling with 20 percent enriched uranium (weapons-grade is 90 percent enriched). When he spoke to Congress on the same subject recently, he did not mention the bomb, presumably because it had subsequently been drained of its fuel as a result of the interim nuclear agreement negotiated by the Obama administration in November 2013. But if anything, his warning of an imminent Iranian bomb aimed at Israel was no less dramatic.

We also have recently had a spate of calls to bomb Iran, specifically by Joshua Muravchik in The Washington Post and John Bolton in The New York Times. Both of these gentlemen were in the front ranks of those encouraging the invasion of Iraq, and both have well-established records of proposing a military attack on Iran as their preferred approach.

Bolton in the summer of 2008 proclaimed without qualification that Israel would attack Iran before the George W. Bush administration left office. That was at a moment when the Bush White House, to its credit, was internally floating the idea of a diplomatic opening to Iran and was putting in place a system to produce a young crop of American Foreign Service Officers who would be qualified to man a U.S. consulate or embassy if one ever came into existence.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), when running for president, got a lot of attention with his call to “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” That didn’t work. Just last week, on the floor of the Senate, he encouraged Israel to “go rogue” and attack Iran.

The moral here: take the trouble to learn something about the track records of people who are preaching panic.

Third, pay attention to history. Those who offer a bland, one-size-fits-all version of history are almost always wrong.

For example, a few days ago the noted historian John Boehner (R-OH) commented about the negotiations that “Iran has no intention of keeping its word.” Others claim that Iran has always cheated on every agreement they have signed.

Actually, this is a subject I know something about. In January 1981 when I worked on the Iran desk at the White House, the United States and Iran signed the so-called Algiers Accords that ended the hostage crisis. There was an absolute deadline–Ronald Reagan was about to be inaugurated–and both sides had to make concessions at the last minute.

I won’t go into the details except to note that candidate Reagan denounced the agreement as negotiated under coercion and did not need to be observed by a new administration. However, when President Reagan and his advisers examined the small print, they realized that the Iranians had made extraordinary concessions that were important to U.S. interests. He quietly changed his mind, and five presidents have enforced the agreements. It has been meticulously observed by Iran, even at great cost. And by the way, the agreement was never sent to Congress for approval.

Fourth, when faced with the inevitable harsh criticism of whatever agreement may emerge, just think to yourself – is it worse than 2013?

That was the year when the Iranians were adding new centrifuges every day, when they were producing a growing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, when the hardliners in Iran had nearly full control, and when there was talk of a military strike on Iran and a new Middle East war.

That threat should not and will not justify a bad deal. But at the same time, judging the agreement in terms of a perfect deal–what I call a unicorn deal because it does not and will not exist–is equally false and misleading.

Finally, do not believe in miracles. A nuclear agreement with Iran will not solve all the problems in the Middle East.

The Syrian catastrophe will not suddenly end. The Islamic State will not vanish. Sunni-Shia distrust will not be overcome. The political fallout of the Arab awakening will still be with us. Iran’s human rights record will not suddenly turn benign, and their hardliners will predictably continue to make distasteful statements.

But it is fair to ask yourself whether any or all of those problems will be made worse by such an agreement. One can argue about specifics, but in general we are likely to be better off after an agreement than we are now.

Photo: John Bolton by Gage Skidmore

Gary Sick, a scholar at Columbia University, served on the National Security Council under Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis.

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  1. Excellent, especially on breakout. A nuclear warhead can’t be built with gas, it must be converted to metal, a hazardous, tortuous process.
    Also, a “nuclear agreement with Iran” at the executive level must receive de facto ratification by the Congress when it comes to removing sanctions, which are the law of the land. I doubt that will happen, myself, which will deepen the US isolation from the rest of the world.
    Oh yes, it is the US that is isolated, not Iran which is the BS we are shoveled.
    I would also add, on false prophets, that there is never any political downside in the US to lying abut the “Iran threat” and a forceful response to it, in fact it is rewarded. And being factual is often punished. I have been banned from commenting on The Atlantic because I took on Jeffrey Goldberg’s repeated false rantings about “the crazy mullahs.” Goldberg is golden, apparently.

  2. Abid
    Thanks for recalling memories of three decades, which made many things clear. But here, one point is missing most important. Shia believes in Willayat Fiqeh(Supreme/Spritual Leader) concept and both late Imam Khomeni and Khmnei gave fatawa or religious decision nuke bomb are against humanity, their desire is haram (pharamohibited in Islam) and no Ijtihad can be consider on this but it is still convicted Israel in worried condition because they know the politics of crooknes by tricking and decieving.

  3. Good post. When all is said, where do we stand? The chances of bombing Iran as Netanyahoo & the stooges in Congress plus the wannabe sycophants of theirs, doesn’t take in the other side of the coin, that being all hell let loose upon Israels population, the U.S. Fleet in the Gulf, probably the Oil fields in the Gulf, along with what else can go wrong? Will sanity rule the day, or will the idiots/madmen rule?

  4. I am more hopeful than most of the critics.;the very election of Rouhani was a sign that most Iranians were fed up with Ahmadinejad. That did not surprise me. I went to Iran in ’06 and ’07 to teach in a technical university in Isfahan, and was treated as a VIP. Not a single student made any objection to things I said; on the contrary one woman who was a teacher and married to one of men I taught quizzed me in extenso about coed high schools in America, contraception, etc. Six of my students asked me to chat with them in one of the dorm rooms:”why Muslim countries are so much further behind than Western countries,” they asked. The Mullahs were going around denouncing unmarried couples, but I have a picture of one holding hands in public at that university. Iran has a huge population under 25, most of whom admire the U.S. The strategy of mandating rigorous controls over Iran’s nuclear experimentation reflects a shrewd calculation that the hardliners will lose power in the next ten years. Wasn’t it Benjamin Franklin who made the remark that honey attracts more flies than vinegar? It won’t hurt us if we recognize that Iran can–and probably will–change, become less aggressive, and contribute its own share of honey.

  5. I welcome Gary Sick reminding readers of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s adherence to the terms of the 1981 Algiers Accords because it shows – by disproving a central untruthful assertion being advanced by the opponents to the present nuclear negotiations – that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a credible and trustworthy potential treaty-party and that the view of those who allege the contrary can be rejected outright or merely ignored.

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