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The Great Iran PMD Freakout

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It was always going to happen this way. As talks between Iran and key world powers approached a June 30 deadline, the toughest issues would emerge not only as sticking points in the negotiations themselves but as political footballs to be fought over by opponents of talks on both sides. Such a case came to the fore over the past week: the so-called PMD issue, what diplomats call the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program.

News came down last week, in a report from the Associated Press, that the five UN Security Council countries plus Germany—known as the P5+1—appeared poised to accept a final deal that did not resolve these questions. Rather, the deal would lay out a process by which Iran would provide answers to questions about its alleged past nuclear weapons-related work to the world’s nuclear regulatory body, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), over the course of the deal. That set off a firestorm of criticism that reached a crescendo this week after statements by Secretary of State John Kerry in a press conference. In response to a question from a reporter, Kerry said:

[T]he possible military dimensions, frankly, gets [sic] distorted a little bit in some of the discussion, in that we’re not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in. What we’re concerned about is going forward. It’s critical to us to know that going forward, those activities have been stopped, and that we can account for that in a legitimate way.

PMDs were always at the heart of talks, in spirit if not substance. Had there been no indications whatsoever that Iran had at any point pursued weaponization, its nuclear program would be of much less concern to the world, America, and Israel, with the latter informing so much of American policy in particular. But credible questions about a military element to Iran’s efforts have always swirled around its nuclear program. That said, Kerry was abundantly clear that the questions would be addressed, just that this might not happen in advance of an agreement or in the text itself.

The criticisms, however, didn’t stop pouring in. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), a moderate critic of the nuclear deal, had already fired off a letter criticizing the apparent tack. David Albright, a nuclear expert who often works closely with hawkish think tanks, called it “a weakening of the United States’ prior position.” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the most prominent Democratic Capitol Hill opponent of negotiations, then took to the Senate floor and quoted Albright at length, among others (including a briefing paper from the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs’ neoconservative-dominated Iran Task Force, albeit by a respected nuclear expert from the group). And that’s to say nothing of the largely pro-war neoconservative pundits, who went positively ape shit.

Dealing with Iran’s Full Monty

There are many things to say about this complex facet of Iran talks, and the first should be that this is, indeed, complex. Contra what the critics are saying, deferring exploration of PMDs until the implementation phase rather than including the issue in the negotiations phase doesn’t mean that the deal is worthless. Those critics are right in the sense that having clear and full information about Iran’s nuclear weapons work would help in mapping out enforcement of a deal, but not having it isn’t a deal-breaker.

Last fall, Edward Levine, a veteran congressional staff member who has worked extensively on non-proliferation issues, articulated all this beyond my means to do so. “Iran’s failure so far to provide full information on its past nuclear activities need not be a showstopper in negotiations on a comprehensive solution,” he wrote. “Rather, the agreement itself should combine transparency requirements with a stringent verification regime, tied to P5+1 commitments, that will ensure and confirm Iranian compliance in the years to come. That linkage would be needed even if Iran were to fully explain its past nuclear activities.”

Striking a slightly different note, the nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis last fall noted the political difficulties for Iran to come entirely clean on its past work in a post that, harnessing his strong sense of humor, compared such a move to “Iran’s full monty”: “This is a terrible idea. A full frontal of the Iranian nuclear weapons program is a guaranteed mood-killer.” Why? Because an Iran deal will “depend on very fragile political coalitions” in three ways: in Iran itself, in the international coalition confronting Iran’s program (read: those countries partaking in the sanctions effort), and of course in America itself. On the latter score, Lewis really nails it:

Iran has denied all interest in a nuclear weapons program, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. If Iran simply admits the full scope of its nuclear weapons program, dropping a few surprises here and there, public sentiment will turn against any deal very quickly. We told you they are liars! They’ve been fooling you all along!

There’s something more to be said about this. Kerry said at his press conference, “We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in.” His critics have rightly contended that this statement doesn’t fit with nearly every other statement from every authority on the subject. Although this body of knowledge is considerable, it is not absolute; it might best be called imperfect. Yet the same folks now criticizing Kerry for his statement have declared with unabashed certainty that Iran absolutely had a weapons program for years—some have insisted with absolute certainty that this program continues.

The Politics of Compromise

Lewis and Levine’s pieces also speak to another issue with the hawks: that every Obama administration “concession,” as the hawks would put it, makes the deal worthless. This tells us more about the opponents of a deal than it does about the emerging accord’s quality. The hawks have posited, for example, that a position of “zero enrichment”—that Iran can have no domestic enrichment whatsoever, most recently re-articulated by the undaunted hawk Matthew Kroenig—was the only way forward. And yet that position was never politically tenable. It didn’t mean, as Israeli prime minister and his allies have it, a “better deal.” It meant no deal. This is a larger lesson that the PMD flap provides: that the perfect non-proliferation agreement would be just dandy if all sides didn’t have their own domestic and international political constraints.

What these critics of diplomacy seem to miss at every step, then, is that a deal was always going to be a compromise. When many critics spit out the word “concession” with derision, what they’re actually talking about are “compromises”—the foundation of any successful nuclear deal. Critics, if they want, can consider each compromise a “cave-in” or “collapse” of the American position, but that’s how negotiations work: both sides have opening bids and they meet in the middle.

Yet the critics want none of it, and that makes perfect sense: they don’t really want a deal. Instead, they want a fantasy version of an unobtainable deal, or war, or regime change in Iran, or sometimes all three. They are demanding a surrender on the larger issues and, specifically on the PMD questions, a “confession,” as a State Department spokesman aptly put it in his clarification of Kerry’s comments.

Thus, the evaluation of these compromises—for example, the resolution of the PMD issue in the course of a deal rather than as part of its inception—need to be weighed, like the larger deal, against the realistic likely alternatives. The fantasy of a perfect deal that neatly ticks off every single box in what a non-proliferation expert might ask for in a verification regime simply won’t happen. It can’t be said often enough that the alternative to a reasonable deal would be eventual confrontation. The maximalist positions and the sky-is-falling rhetoric of every compromise, from both sides, seem almost designed to get us there. As with so many things, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger probably said it best. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well, you might find you get what you need.

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