The Risks of No Iran-Nuke Deal

Facing Republican/neocon pressure, President Obama balked at a final deal with Iran over its nuclear program, extending talks but increasing chances that political forces in Iran might repudiate more moderate leaders favoring a deal, a risk that ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar says would not serve U.S. or Iranian interests.

By Paul R. Pillar

The single most important fact about the extension of the nuclear negotiations with Iran is that the obligations established by the Joint Plan of Action negotiated a year ago will remain in effect as negotiations continue.

This means that our side will continue to enjoy what these negotiations are supposed to be about: preclusion of any Iranian nuclear weapon, through the combination of tight restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and intrusive monitoring to ensure the program stays peaceful.

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks sith Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu about Iranian Nuclear Talks in Vienna. (State Department photo)

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks sith Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu about Iranian Nuclear Talks in Vienna. (State Department photo)

Not only that, but also continuing will be the rollback of Iran’s program that the JPOA achieved, such that Iran will remain farther away from any capability to build a bomb than it was a year ago, and even farther away from where it would have been if the negotiations had never begun or from where it would be if negotiations were to break down.

Our side, the United States and its partners in the P5+1, got by far the better side of the deal in the JPOA. We got the fundamental bomb-preventing restrictions (including most significantly a complete elimination of medium-level uranium enrichment) and enhanced inspections we sought, in return for only minor sanctions relief to Iran that leaves all the major banking and oil sanctions in place. If negotiations were to go on forever under these terms, we would have no cause to complain to the Iranians.

But the Iranians do not have comparable reason to be happy about this week’s development. The arrangement announced in Vienna is bound to be a tough sell back in Tehran for President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif. The sanctions continue, and continue to hurt, even though the Iranian negotiators have conceded most of what they could concede regarding restrictions on the nuclear program.

There will be a lot of talk in Tehran about how the West is stringing them along, probably with the intent of undermining the regime and not just determining its nuclear policies.

That the Iranian decision-makers have put themselves in this position is an indication of the seriousness with which they are committed to these negotiations. This week’s extension is of little use to them except to keep alive the prospect that a final deal will be completed.

Also indicating their seriousness is the diligence with which Iran has complied with its obligations under the JPOA. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed today Iran’s compliance with its final pre-November 24th obligation, which had to do with reducing its stock of low-enriched uranium in gaseous form.

Because the P5+1 got much the better side of the preliminary agreement, the P5+1 will have to make more of the remaining concessions to complete a final agreement. The main hazard to concluding a final deal is not an Iranian unwillingness to make concessions. The main hazard is a possible Iranian conclusion that it does not have an interlocutor on the U.S. side that is bargaining in good faith.

We push the Iranians closer to such a conclusion the more talk there is in Washington about imposing additional pressure and additional sanctions, as people such as Marco Rubio and AIPAC have wasted no time in doing in response to today’s announcement about the extension of negotiations.

We have sanctioned the dickens out of Iran for years and are continuing to do so, but the only time all this pressure got any results is when we started to negotiate in good faith. Surly sanctions talk on Capitol Hill only strengthens Iranian doubts about whether the U.S. administration will be able to deliver on its side of a final agreement, making it less, not more, likely the Iranians would offer still more concessions.

Any actual sanctions legislation would blatantly violate the terms of the JPOA and give the Iranians good reason to walk away from the whole business, marking the end of any special restrictions on their nuclear program.

Indefinite continuation of the terms of the existing agreement would suit us well, but completion of a final agreement would be even better, and without one the Iranians eventually would have to walk away, because indefinite continuation certainly does not suit them.

And besides, the sanctions hurt us economically too. To get a final agreement does not mean fixating on the details of plumbing in enrichment cascades, which do not affect our security anyway. It means realizing what kind of deal we got with the preliminary agreement, and negotiating in good faith to get the final agreement.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

5 comments for “The Risks of No Iran-Nuke Deal

  1. bobzz
    November 25, 2014 at 18:05

    @Joe: “Why not let Netanyahu take over from there?” Funny you should say that, Joe. During the last presidential campaign, CBS showed footage of Mitt and Net smiling together with Mitt saying, “We’ll follow your lead”. Were I Obama, I would have jumped all over that. Vote the Net/Mitt ticket; two presidents for the price of one. Why would we need an American president? If America has not disintegrated by 11/16, we will be in fighting in Iran by 2/17.

    • Joe Tedesky
      November 25, 2014 at 21:15

      bobzz, I always thought that everything changed with the assassination era; JFK/MLK/RFK/X , but it may have been more like 1947. I’m talking about Truman recognizing Israel as a state. There is to much history from then to now, but by not enforcing the Logan Act this is what you get…a NEOCON guided government. It’s not a government for the people , as much as a government of empire.

      While our fortunes are spend waging endless war, our country falls apart due to decay. We are so obsessed with military we are now arming our neighborhoods. Instead of money used towards social infrastructure we overdevelop our SWAT police.

      Okay, I’ll quit, but you are right just hand it over …they bought it!

  2. Joe Tedesky
    November 25, 2014 at 11:45

    Here is a scary thought, by next June the US will have in place a Republican House and Senate. Need I paint you a picture of despair? Why not let Netanyahu take over from there? Obama will be short timing as is, so don’t look there for any relief. Could losing someone like Hagel matter? You bet it does. When you complain about so many Neocon’s being in high places, remember that’s no accident. Arrogance is the rule of the day, and that’s all there is to it. This is the American/Israeli policy for the 21st century, ‘our way or the highway’!

  3. November 25, 2014 at 07:41

    Negotiations? I cannot imagine President Obama John Boehner and John
    McCain together announcing a significant (=meaningful) reduction of sanctions
    to “the American people”. I have not been able to follow these meetings
    with the expertise of Paul Pillar, but I have always been suspicious of them.
    A meaningful debate should include Israel, its signing of the PRN and
    the dismantling of all Israeli sites for the manufacture of WMD’s under
    thorough and random inspections by the IAEA. Why is the largest nuclear
    nation mysteriously immune?

    I am not myself a “believer” but some early words of the Qur’an have a mysterious

    [And if someone says to them: ‘Do not sow discord in the earth’ they
    answer: ‘We are merely trying to bring people together.’ In truth, they are
    sowers of discord, but they know it not.] Qur’an 2:12

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  4. Zachary Smith
    November 24, 2014 at 23:38

    If negotiations were to go on forever under these terms, we would have no cause to complain to the Iranians.

    My jaw fell when I read this – in my innocence I had assumed the US would negotiate honestly.

    Indefinite continuation of the terms of the existing agreement would suit us well, but completion of a final agreement would be even better…

    I believe Mr. Pillar is mistaken here: yes, the US would benefit in the latter case. But the people controlling the negotiations aren’t interested in what’s good for the US.

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