WASHINGTON – The framework agreement over Iran’s nuclear program dramatically changes the Middle East. Hard-liners and hawks may complain all they want, but things will never go back to the way they were.
I believe the change is clearly – perhaps historically – for the better. In that part of the world, however, there is always the possibility that things will get worse. What is certain is that the post-1979 status quo of deaf, dumb and blind hostility between Iran and the West has ended. At President Barack Obama’s initiative, a new phase of the relationship has begun.
The deal itself appears to place considerably tougher restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities than skeptics had expected. Iran would have fewer uranium enrichment centrifuges and more years of comprehensive restrictions and monitoring than anticipated.
Here I must add the important caveat that many technical issues remain to be worked out – and, since a nuclear program is by definition technical, these unknowns are no mere details.
For me, here is the biggest unanswered question: What happens if international inspectors come to suspect the existence of an undeclared nuclear facility somewhere in the Iranian hinterland? Do they have the right to go anywhere in the country and look at anything they want?
When New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman asked Obama that question in an interview Saturday, the president gave this response:
“Obviously, a request will have to be made. Iran could object, but what we have done is to try to design a mechanism whereby once those objections are heard, that it is not a final veto that Iran has, but in fact some sort of international mechanism will be in place that makes a fair assessment as to whether there should be an inspection, and if they determine it should be, that’s the tiebreaker.”
Translation: Um, we’re still working on that.
But think for a second. What ability do we have right now to even identify potentially suspect nuclear facilities in Iran, let alone inspect them? Not much.
We know what our satellites and spies tell us, but Iran is a huge country – and we’ve been surprised in the past to learn of nuclear sites we’d previously known nothing about. If there are undeclared facilities, we’ll have a much better chance of finding them if inspectors are on the job. So even on this shaky question, the deal is an improvement.
One more point about the agreement itself: The restrictions are intended to ensure that the “breakout” time for Iran to produce enough fuel for a nuclear weapon, should it decide to do so, would be at least a year. At present, the necessary fissile material could be produced in two or three months.
The alternative to this deal, critics say, is a better deal. But how would that be achieved?
Most hawks advocate more sanctions – which haven’t stopped Iran from building a vast nuclear infrastructure. A few bellicose voices call for military action – which would set back the Iranian nuclear program by a few years but likely make the government irrevocably determined to build a bomb.
The argument will rage about the merits of the agreement. But what the negotiators achieved in Lausanne, Switzerland, will be difficult to complete but even harder to undo.
Hardly mentioned in the debate here is the fact that the United States was joined in the talks by Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany. If the Senate decides the deal is no good and there should be draconian new sanctions, that’s all well and good. The idea might sell in Paris, where the government has been notably hawkish. But it probably won’t in London or Berlin, and definitely won’t in Moscow or Beijing.
The regime in Tehran is an odious theocracy, but like most governments it displays an interest in self-perpetuation. With its size, population and oil wealth, Iran does not need nuclear weapons to be a regional superpower. What it needs is the economic development that will come as sanctions are lifted.
I believe the Iranians have decided that for now, at least, it makes sense to mothball the nuclear program and build a greater nation. Obama and the allies are gambling that after a decade or so of growing prosperity, Iran’s influence in the region will become less malign. That’s not a sure bet, but there’s no real alternative to taking it.
Amid all the historic upheavals we’re seeing in the Middle East, this is one of the biggest.
Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.