Helpful Context on the Iran Deal

We now know that President Obama was able to persuade enough Democrats to uphold the Iran nuclear deal and see that it gets implemented. But the battle on this agreement is still far from over. Opponents in Congress have promised new efforts to try to sabotage the deal, and many presidential candidates are threatening undo the agreement as soon as they inaugurated. In light of this ongoing struggle, I wanted to write up some detailed responses to common questions and misconceptions about the situation, in no particular order.

(Note that I’ve linked to most of my sources inline below, but feel free to ask if you’re curious where I got anything.)

Does Iran have a “right to enrich” uranium?

This has been a major subject of debate throughout the Iran nuclear controversy, and was particularly important during the recent negotiations. Under President George W. Bush, the US concluded that Iran did not have a right to enrich uranium, while the Obama Administration’s position was somewhat grayer. This is a critical issue because many opponents of the Iranian negotiations suggested that a “good deal” would require a complete dismantling of Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities (for example, this), a demand that no Iranian leader could possibly comply with and survive politically. In this way, politicians and pundits pushing this line pretend to be in favor of negotiations, but are really in favor of continued conflict. This is similar to how the Obama government has paid lip service to the idea of closing Guantanamo and ending the practice of indefinite detention, but has taken few practical steps to actually achieve this end.

The potential source of the Iran’s right to enrich comes from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), an international agreement to which both the United States and Iran are signatories (along with the vast majority of other countries). The NPT was created in 1968, in the context of the growing nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. At the time of its creation, there were five nuclear weapons states, comprised of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: USA, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, France, and China. These nations collectively feared that a new, potentially less stable country could acquire a nuclear weapon and upset the current balance of power that had thus far prevented any actual use of nuclear weapons post-WWII. Accordingly, the five nuclear weapons states sought to get other countries that did not currently possess nuclear weapons to voluntarily agree not to pursue those weapons. But of course, most countries would not voluntarily agree to restrictions on their own military capabilities unless there was a compelling argument or incentive for them to do so. The incentive that was ultimately offered in the NPT was assistance in acquiring peaceful nuclear technology. Essentially, the deal for non-nuclear states was this: We’ll help you develop nuclear power if you promise not to develop a bomb (and let us inspect your place just to be sure). That’s the agreement Iran signed in 1968 and ratified shortly thereafter, and it remains in effect today (along with some amendments).

So now we come directly to the question of a right to enrich. The text of the NPT itself does not explicitly state one way or the other, but the general principle it outlines is informative. Article IV of the treaty states: “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.” Uranium enrichment is an essential part of the nuclear fuel cycle that is necessary for generating nuclear energy. Just as you don’t pump raw crude oil from the ground into your car’s gas tank, raw uranium ore isn’t too useful either. If a country wants to use nuclear power, it has to either enrich the uranium itself or import the enriched uranium from somewhere else. And given Iran’s checkered history in its dealings with other countries (especially western ones), it should not be surprising that they ultimately decided to develop this capability in-house rather than outsource it entirely. It’s also worth noting that several other countries have robust uranium enrichment programs, such as Germany and the Netherlands, and yet we do not see the same open talk of military options to stop the Dutch from pursuing a nuclear weapon. Obviously, our relationship with these countries is quite different, but the point stands that Iran’s activities are not entirely unique.

Isn’t Iran sitting on millions of barrels of oil? What could they possibly want with nuclear energy unless it’s to create a nuclear weapon?

Obviously, the notion of a Middle Eastern country turning to nuclear energy for purely economic reasons does seem somewhat ridiculous on its face. Nuclear power is not a cheap source of power nor a readily accessible one. So the fact that Iran has a nuclear program at all does beg the question. But having said that, the United States is actually responsible for kickstarting Iran’s interest in nuclear technology. Back when the Shah of Iran (read: a US-supported dictator) was still in charge during the 1950s, the United States and other Western countries began assisting Iran with the development of nuclear technology. Initially, this was not done on a scale that would be useful for electricity production, but our assistance increased in the mid-1970s when Iran had an ambitious plan for diversifying their energy resources. The Shah was still in power at this time, Iran was in the NPT, and we were still friends. Additionally, this remained something of a golden age for nuclear energy. Costs had come down considerably since the technologies were first commercialized in the 1950s and the first high profile nuclear accident at Three Mile Island had not yet occurred. Thus, while this decision by Iran may seem bizarre, it’s worth noting that the economic prospects were very different when the decision was initially made.

Doesn’t Iran always say they want to wipe Israel off the map? What’s up with that?

Well, sort of. Iran’s most powerful leader is their Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, so he’s the one we should look at for the answer this question. And Khamanei’s has been quite consistent. In essence, he thinks Israel is an illegitimate country because it stole land from Palestine and continues to occupy it. But his proposed solution will surprise you if you’ve never heard it before. It almost sounds like the musings of an idealistic political philosophy professor who genuinely believes that self-determination is all we need. I’ll let you be the judge:

There is only one solution to the issue of Palestine, the solution which we suggested a few years ago. This solution is to hold a referendum with the participation of all native Palestinians, including Muslims, Jews and Christians, the Palestinians who live both inside and outside the occupied territories. Any government that takes power as a result of this referendum and based on the Palestinian people’s vote, whether it is a Muslim, Christian or Jewish government or a coalition government, will be an acceptable government, and it will resolve the issue of Palestine. Without this, the Palestinian issue would not be settled.

Now there’s a lot of things you could say about that statement. Impractical, simplistic, naive, whatever. But it’s clearly not a call for war. Surely, no conceivable Israeli government would agree to it and it’s hard to imagine a sufficient coalescing of international sentiment to have the UN implement such a solution. So yeah, it probably wouldn’t work. But the common short-hand used by the media–that Iran wants to “wipe Israel off the map”–is clearly misleading. That phrase strongly implies the use of force, but Iran’s favored solution is political.

All of which may have you wondering, where the hell did that “wipe off the map” phrase come from in the first place? And it turns out, like many other inaccurate representations of America’s enemies, this one came courtesy of a mistranslation by the New York Times. This article provides a good summary of the history of the phrase and the debate over the appropriate translation. Basically, there isn’t a direct translation from Farsi to English for what was actually said, and the NYT kind of misinterpreted it. But ultimately, regardless of the exact phrasing, a little more context on the actual policy could have given readers a more accurate and nuanced understanding in place of the apocalyptic one we currently have.

Are we really giving the Iranians billions of dollars as part of the deal? Won’t they use that to sponsor more terrorism?

Again, sort of. When you hear politicians on TV say that we’re giving Iran hundreds of billions of dollars, they’re not technically lying. It’s true that Iran will receive money as part of this deal. What they don’t often mention, however, is that it was Iran’s money in the first place. We took it as part of the sanctions. So it would be more accurate to say we’re giving back hundreds of millions of dollars to Iran, and that’s a big difference. Take a real life example. If you go to the towing company to get your car back, you aren’t going to thank the company for its generous gift of your car. You’re probably going to curse and swear at them, insult their character, pay the fee, and then seriously consider vandalizing their tow trucks the next time you see them. But Iran’s better than you. They’re just paying the fee (additional inspections, converting most of their uranium stockpile, etc.) and moving on.

As for terrorism or the threat of Iran further “destabilizing the region” as they sometimes say, this is sort of a confusing position. On the one hand, the US accusing anyone of destabilizing the Middle East is really a bit silly. We are the undisputed champions of destabilization since the late 1980s, and we are currently leading or supporting airstrikes in at least Somalia, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen right now. In other words, I think it’s safe to assume Iran isn’t going to be able to hone in on our action there. But morbid comedy aside, the accusation against Iran is even more confusing because the US and Iran actually share the same primary enemies right now. Iran, which is a majority Shi’ite country with very friendly relations with Iraq (also Shi’ite dominated), is primarily concerned about the growing threat of Sunni extremism from the likes of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, or the Al-Nusra Front, which is Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. So even if we were to accept the premise that Iran is going to pour all their new money into their military and their allies (primarily Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iraqi and Syrian regimes), they would actually be fighting on our team. But in fact, as this article makes clear, it’s likely that Tehran will actually spend a lot of the money domestically to help their economy. You see, one of the major selling points of the deal for the Iranian people was that it was going to improve their economy and their daily lives; now that the deal is done, the leadership in Tehran is going to be expected to show some results. But again, even if they do decide to go all out on the military, it’s not exactly clear why Americans are supposed to be super worried about that.

Before I get criticized for glossing over too much context here, it should be noted that Iran is also accused of supporting Hamas (in the Gaza Strip) and the Houthi rebels. Hamas is no longer in an active conflict with Israel at the moment (thankfully), so it’s unlikely they would be a major recipient of aid. Meanwhile, as for the Houthis, Iran actually tried to dissuade them from overthrowing Yemen’s previous autocrat. So it looks like Yemen isn’t quite the proxy war that it’s being made out as. In any case, it’s unlikely Yemen would be as big of a priority for Tehran as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

The Ayatollah said this deal isn’t going to stop them from making nuclear weapons. It’s like he’s laughing in Obama’s face, right?

In a word, no. You most likely heard this from Rand Paul, and he just straight lied about it. Here’s what the Ayatollah actually said; Rand just quoted the first part that’s in bold:

The Americans say they stopped Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. They know it’s not true. We had a fatwa, declaring nuclear weapons to be religiously forbidden. It had nothing to do with the nuclear talks.

The Ayatollah was making the point that the agreement wasn’t going to stop them from getting a nuclear weapon, because they haven’t been pursuing one in the first place. More on this later. Meanwhile, Rand Paul quoted him to mean, the deal isn’t strong enough to stop their ambitions. You don’t need me to tell you how ridiculously dishonest this is.

Is Iran really trying to get a nuclear weapon?

In virtually every, semi-mainstream discussion you see on this subject, this question is treated as rhetorical and ridiculous. Of course, Iran’s trying to get nuclear weapons. Most of the time it isn’t even discussed; it’s just assumed. But there’s actually good reason to question it. For starters, you should know that most of the people harping on Iran, usually give scary speeches about Iran being x months/years away from the bomb. But according to these experts, Iran’s been within a couple years of a bomb for almost 20 years. The trouble is that you can only be on the edge of an accomplishment for so long before you outright accomplish it. So from this, we have to conclude at least one of the following is true:

*The current safeguards agreements are already working to prevent Iran from getting a bomb

*Iranians are really bad at science, or

*Maybe Iran isn’t really trying to make it at all.

I know, I know. Some obscure reference to that one time with the Germans that proves diplomacy can never work ever*1. But let’s get past that. On the face of things, it makes sense why Iran would want to actually have a nuclear weapon. They get threatened with war just about every time one of our politicians opens their mouth on this subject. And maybe if Iran had a nuke, they’d be safe from US intervention. It’s a reasonable line of thinking. After all, except for a few close calls, it generally worked for us and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and I’ve noticed that talk of bombing of North Korea died down pretty quickly once it was believed they might have nuclear weapons of their own. So intuitively, it makes sense that Iran would be pursuing nukes, and I think that’s why it gets taken for granted so often.

But here’s the thing. Iran has actually suffered existential threats previously in its brief, post-revolution history, and the way it responded then is instructive. I’m speaking of the Iran-Iraq war which took place from 1980-1988. The conflict involved extensive use of chemical weapons by Iraq, which are believed to have killed some 50,000 Iranians during the war. In response to these deadly weapons, the Iranians were faced with a decision about retaliating with chemical weapons of their own. The full story of this decision is told in a fascinating long-form piece by Gareth Porter, who is an expert on the history of the Iranian nuclear program. Ultimately, the Iranians decided against using chemical weapons because the Ayatollah (Khomenei) of that era believed them to be forbidden under Islamic Law. When the current Ayatollah (Khamenei–confusing I know), issued his fatwa (religious decree) on nuclear weapons, he said that it was following in the tradition established by his predecessor on the chemical weapons front. And given that Iran is a theocracy, it may be plausible to put a little more stock in their religious decrees than we would in the declarations of our own leaders. Like remember that time when Obama said we have near-certainty that our drone strikes won’t kill civilians anymore?

But alas, your conclusion that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons need not rest on trust alone. In fact, this assessment is actually shared by the US intelligence community as reported in their 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, and even the Israeli Mossad (their CIA) as late as 2012, as reported in diplomatic cables that were leaked. In short, US and Israeli politicians are fond of accusing Iran of making nuclear weapons, but their own intelligence agencies disagree. So who are you going to believe, politicians pandering in the public domain, or intelligence agencies writing reports they intended to be classified?

*1 – If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you clearly haven’t watched enough awful TV news lately and you’re better for it. I’ll just leave it there.

Did we really give them a 24-day window to postpone inspections at their nuclear sites?

No, we did not. All aspects of Iran’s nuclear program will be subject to an unprecedented level of comprehensive inspections by the IAEA, from the mines to the reactors to the waste. All of it, all of the time. This level of inspections is well above the amount required under the NPT and will be more extensive than any arms control regime in history. What the 24-day window refers to is when the international community wants to inspect something that is outside of their currently known and understood nuclear program. That is, some country may uncover evidence that it thinks suggests Iran is cheating on the deal and is really going after nukes. Presumably, this activity would be taking place at some new location outside of the currently inspected facilities, like a conventional military base. Then, there is a formal process by which Iran can object to the allegations and the appeal / decision process, altogether, could hypothetically take up to 24 days. But again, this is for new accusations outside the nuclear fuel cycle. There is a surprisingly good analysis on this issue over at Vox*2, and I’d encourage you to take a look.

Now you may think that 24 days is a very long time. But here’s the thing, if they were really doing something with nuclear weapons, it would have to involve highly enriched uranium (~90%) rather than the kind used for nuclear power (3-5%) or the kind used for medicinal research (20%). (By the way, these latter two types aren’t a concern from a nuclear weapons standpoint.) Anyway, so it’s a very different material that would be involved, and the IAEA’s inspection methods are incredibly sensitive; they can detect a particle that’s as small as a trillionth of a gram. And if, somehow, the Iranians were able to clean up every microscopic dust particle of incriminating material, they’d still be in trouble because of the highly enriched uranium would have been omitting radiation the whole time, which can also be detected after the fact. Youssef Butt, a former nuclear scientist, has all the details on this here if you’re interested, but the bottom line is this: Iran could not effectively hide evidence if they were given 24 days.

Given the above, it seems the 24 days thing isn’t such a big deal from the perspective of the international community. But it is a big deal for the Iranians. Just think about it, would America give one of its greatest adversaries the ability to inspect any military base at any time? Of course not. The politician that signed onto such a deal would be denounced for surrendering to the enemy and maybe accused of treason. So why is it reasonable for us to demand the same of Iran? It’s not, and if you think about it for a minute, you realize it was never going to happen.

Finally, it should be noted that Iran has been subject to a long series of allegations of wrongdoing over the past 10 years. Iran has maintained its innocence and denounced much of the evidence against them as falsified and baseless. And at first, you might say of course they’re going to deny it! They’re Persians and that Xerxes looked like an evil bastard in 300 so this makes perfect sense. The problem is that they’ve been right. Like that time when the National Council of Resistance of Iran said they found a secret tunnel leading to a secret testing facility, and they even had a picture of big steel door that was supposed to be the entrance. But then it turned out the picture was actually a Photoshopped advertising image from an Iranian safe company. Or David Albright’s recent claim that Iran was going to try to clean up one of its old alleged testing grounds based on his analysis of a few satellite photographs. His analysis, however, pretty much discredits itself, so I’ll link you directly to it. Basically, he saw a couple new vehicles and crates at the facility, and astutely concluded that Iran must be trying to cover up the evidence of nuclear work back from 2005. Because obviously 10 years out is the best time to do it? Anyway, read it and laugh through the tears; after all, this was actually a big story in the news just a few weeks ago. There are other examples, but those are two recent favorites of mine. Anyway, suffice to say, Iran has dealt with questionable accusations before, and the appeals process worked out in the deal is an imminently reasonable solution to that problem.

*2 – The author of this piece is Max Fisher, and this is literally the first piece I’ve read of his on foreign policy that didn’t make me deeply angry. That said, he seems to have taken Obama’s side on the Iran deal, and his analysis seems pretty solid here. Just don’t take this as a more general recommendation on his work in this sphere.

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