Analysis & Opinions - Financial Times

Imperfect deal will help an uneasy peace

| April 3, 2015

Iran now has the knowledge and expertise needed to build a nuclear weapon, writes Nicholas Burns

It may be the biggest foreign policy bet of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is also a sensible step forward for Iran and the west. Ten years in the making, the framework nuclear deal announced on Thursday in Lausanne makes it reasonable to hope that a final written pact can be hammered out by the summer, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

This tentative progress is testament to the power of diplomacy. President Obama and John Kerry, his secretary of state, deserve credit for persisting with negotiations despite trenchant opposition from some quarters in Congress. Still, the tortuous negotiations in Lausanne this week, along with Iran’s record of deception on the nuclear issue, also testify to how hard it will be to conclude a final deal.

Speaking at the White House, Mr Obama set the bar high. Iran’s once flourishing uranium enrichment industry would be subject to strict limits at every stage, closing Iran’s path to a bomb. Another route, to a plutonium bomb, would be blocked by dismantling the core of the heavy water reactor at Arak. Iran’s commitments would be policed by intrusive international inspections, and many of the sanctions that have degraded its economy would be lifted only if Tehran complies at every step.

These are the essential elements of a deal that Iran needs far more than the west does. The Islamic Republic is a pariah government, isolated by the international community after years of nuclear transgressions. It will be the big loser if the talks ahead do not succeed. Tehran must demonstrate beyond doubt that it is sincere, and western negotiating teams must remember that they occupy a position of strength.

Even then, the deal will not be perfect. It is far from what was once envisaged at the State Department, where I worked on Iran policy in the middle of the last decade.

Back then, we hoped to place far more stringent limits on Iran’s nuclear programme. But Tehran refused our offer to negotiate in 2006 and again in 2007, instead accelerating a dramatic build-up of its nuclear capabilities. As a result, Iran is now much further along the nuclear continuum.

There are those who object that 6,000 centrifuges are far more than Iran should be allowed to keep, and that the current deal does not demand an Iranian capitulation.

But it is unrealistic to try to resurrect the demands of a decade ago. Iran now has the scientific and engineering knowledge needed to build a nuclear weapon. But the framework agreement will put the country at least a year away from having enough weapons-grade uranium to make a bomb.

That is a deal worth getting, even if it does not seem so to Benjamin Netanyahu or to some conservative US lawmakers. Imagine if America had walked away from the talks, as the Israeli prime minister in effect urged when he spoke before Congress last month. Our European allies might not have left with us. Russia and China would have faulted Washington for the breakdown; they and others would have enlarged their trade links with Iran. Tehran would have broken free from the restrictions that have weakened its economy and frozen its nuclear programme for the past year and a half.

Still, the Obama administration will have to fight to convince Congress that this is the right deal. It will need Europe’s help to force a country that has lied before about its nuclear activities to live up to its commitments. We have to assume that Tehran will again try to cheat. Europeans should resist the temptation to restore full commercial and political relations with an Iranian government whose hardliners may yet try to scuttle the deal. The west must resolve to impose tough sanctions again if Iran reneges.

This is merely the latest step in the cat-and-mouse struggle over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Europe and America may need to return to the negotiating table time and again to ensure full Iranian compliance. Those western romantics who are already calling for a strategic rapprochement with Iran, especially on the crises afflicting a burning Middle East, need to be restrained.

Even if the agreement holds, we face the mounting challenge of rising Iranian power in the heart of the Sunni world. In Iraq, Tehran plays godfather to powerful Shia militant groups, and wields unsettling influence over the government in Baghdad. In Syria, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command is the Assad government’s most effective partner. Iran is the key ally of radical Houthi rebels who have instigated a civil war in Yemen. It also exerts substantial control over Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, as they seek to weaken Israel and the moderate Palestinians.

All this should motivate Mr Obama to shore up America’s base of power in the Middle East with Israel and America’s Arab partners, notably Saudi Arabia. If there were ever a time for Washington to reset relations with an obstreperous Turkish government and a recalcitrant Israeli leader, this is it.

The deal with Iran is a major accomplishment for the US and Europe. It will help us to keep an uneasy peace. But it does not end the decades-long struggle for power with a wilful and often untrustworthy Iranian government. In many ways, that struggle has just begun.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Burns, Nicholas.“Imperfect deal will help an uneasy peace.” Financial Times, April 3, 2015.