Commentary / World

The Iran nuke deal is fine, but 10 years late

by Gareth Evans

The only thing to lament about the agreement reached by Iran and the P5+1 (the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members — China, Britain, France, Russia, and the United States — plus Germany) in Vienna this month is that it was not signed and sealed a decade ago. In the years that it has taken for diplomatic sanity to prevail, the Middle East has endured myriad avoidable tensions and lost opportunities for security cooperation.

From 2003 to 2006, Iran made clear to anyone willing to listen that it would agree to all the key elements of the recent deal, including measures to block uranium and plutonium pathways to a bomb and obtrusive monitoring mechanisms to ensure ample advance notice of a likely breakout. All it needed in return — beyond, of course, the lifting of sanctions as implementation proceeded — was formal recognition of its “right to enrich” uranium.

In discussions with the European Union in 2003-04, Iran voluntarily froze its then-minimal enrichment program, pending negotiation of a full accord. Iran also declared its willingness to apply the “additional protocol,” allowing for much more far-reaching and stringent monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency than is called for under standard arrangements.

Those commitments ended in 2005, owing to the continued insistence by the EU, backed by the U.S., that Iran abandon uranium enrichment entirely. This stance disregarded the “inalienable right,” clearly acknowledged in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (as much as one might wish otherwise, in an ideal world), of NPT parties to engage in all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle as part of a peaceful nuclear energy program.

If, at that time, the West had been prepared to settle for effectively containing Iran’s nuclear program, rather than destroying every last sensitive component of it, a deal would have been possible. And, indeed, in early 2006, the International Crisis Group published a comprehensive “delayed limited enrichment” proposal that included all of the key features of the deal that has now been signed in Vienna.

I am confident, on the basis of many hours of productive dialogue with senior Iranian officials in Tehran, New York and elsewhere, that this proposal could have broken the deadlock. It had all the right elements of an effective compromise. But with the U.S. not talking to Iran at any level, and the EU talking but not listening, the effort went nowhere.

The Iranians were never going to accept what they perceived as second-class status under the NPT. It was only when U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration acknowledged that, and commenced direct back-channel talks in 2011, that progress became possible. The key was the recognition that Iran’s sense of honor had to be accommodated.

Critics of the Vienna deal in the U.S. Congress, Israel and the Arab world tend to assume that Iran has no honor. They believe that Iran has always been hell-bent on building nuclear weapons, and that its leaders signed the deal, which imposes limits on the country’s nuclear program for 15 years, only to relieve the enormous sanctions pressure now crushing its economy. Iran is biding its time, the critics charge, and will inevitably attempt to break out again.

While no one should be under any illusion that Iran has been a model international citizen, or is likely to become one any time soon, this perception of the country’s nuclear ambitions involves a fundamental misreading of the dynamics in play. My judgment, based on more dialogue with senior Iranian officials than most of the critics have conducted, is that Iran — whatever engineering research it may have carried out in the past, and whatever fuel-making and missile-delivery capabilities it may have developed more recently — has never been close to deciding actually to build nuclear weapons.

Iran has always been keenly aware of the multiple risks involved in crossing that red line. It knows that it would face attack by a much more heavily armed Israel, whether supported by the U.S. or not; that Sunni powers in the region could move quickly to counter a “Shiite bomb” with their own nuclear weapons; and that additional crushing international sanctions could be imposed. And there is another factor that should not be instantly dismissed, as it usually is by cynical critics: Iranian leaders’ repeated strong rejection of weapons of mass destruction on religious grounds.

The question, then, is why has Iran walked the precipice for so long by building a visible breakout capability bound to spook the West, Israel and its Arab neighbors? The answer, I believe, is overwhelmingly national pride — its peoples’ desire to demonstrate that Iran is a power to be reckoned with, a country that has impressive technical prowess, and that there are limits to its willingness to suffer international humiliation.

It is understandable that many will not readily be persuaded of Iranian sincerity, not least because the national negotiating style — among moderates and hard-liners alike — tends to be anything but frank and direct, with private reason often accompanied by public thunder that makes it hard to assess real intent. But the Vienna agreement deserves wide support, and not just because the alternatives — continuation of acute regional tension at best, and catastrophic military conflict at worst — are so unappealing.

In fact, there is every reason to believe the agreement captures and reflects the real interests not just of Iran, but also of the international community. It keeps intact a global non-proliferation regime that has been showing signs of falling apart, and gives new hope for wider regional security cooperation. Intelligent diplomacy beats brute force every time.

Gareth Evans was foreign minister of Australia from 1988 to 1996 and cochaired the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament 2009.© Project Syndicate, 2015

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