The Iran Nuclear Deal
by Reza Marshi
Moderator Dale Sprusansky: With that history in mind, we now advance to the current happenings with Iran and the nuclear deal. For that, we turn to Reza Marashi, who is the research director from NIAC, National Iranian American Council. Before joining NIAC four years ago, he was with the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs. He’s a commentator all over the place these days. If you have a TV, you’ve probably seen him. He’s logged many hours over in Europe covering the talks. He will give us the latest update on the nuclear talks.
Reza Marashi: Thank you very much. I appreciate that kind introduction. Thank you all for coming. Hopefully, talking about Iran at the end of the day is a nice change of pace. Because as I looked at the agenda and followed the interesting stuff you guys were talking about before the Iran panel came up, it looked like it ran the gamut. Let’s spice things up. Let’s talk about Iran a little bit, which, in theory, is completely separate from a lot of the stuff that you guys were talking about over the course of the day. In reality, nothing in the Middle East is ever really separate from one another. It’s one big dirty, nasty, beautiful mess, so let’s try to unpack this particular part of that mess as best we can. The reality of this situation here is that there’s absolutely no way to cover the Iran nuclear deal in the amount of time that I’ve been allotted. It would take an entire panel, an entire conference just to discuss this one particular issue. That’s actually kind of sad.
But the saving grace is that I’m going to give you what I think are the three most important and three most digestible bits related to this expansive topic. Then I’m hoping that once we get to the Q&A portion, you can ask questions. My two colleagues and I will do our best to answer whatever questions you guys have. We’re operating on the elementary school premise of there’s no such thing as a stupid question.
Why is this deal important? Gareth [Porter] calls it a manufactured crisis. The Iranian foreign minister calls it an unnecessary crisis. I think President Obama is just relieved that he’s one step closer to resolving this crisis. The reality of the situation is we’re talking about what could potentially be the most dangerous weapons known to man existing inside of Iran in the eyes of some countries. In the eyes of other countries, including Iran itself, they’ve never had the aspirations to have these weapons. The reality is probably somewhere in between. Rather than talk about the past, I want to talk about what’s going on now and what lies ahead. I think that’s the most interesting thing. That’s what’s most pertinent to hopefully securing a peaceful future.
Why is the Iran nuclear deal important? I think it’s important. You can ask ten different people. They’ll tell you ten different things. I think it’s important because the reality of the situation is we are talking about an issue of war and peace. Ladies and gentlemen, it is that simple. It is an issue of war and peace. The reason why it’s an issue of war and peace is because in my view, there are only two ways to solve international problems in the world. You have war and you have diplomacy. Now, the word “solve” here, it is a loosely defined term.
War or diplomacy, that’s what you have. You have two options, right? Everything that happens between war and diplomacy, whether it’s sanctions or secret assassinations or cyber warfare, and these are all things that happen to Iran’s nuclear program, whether from the United States or allies like Israel or other countries as well. These are all stalling tactics that kick the can down the road and delay the inevitable choice between these two options: war and diplomacy. The dirty little secret that they don’t tell you is that everything that happens before diplomacy, including war, is for leverage to try to stack up as many bargaining chips as you can possibly get because inevitably, every conflict ends with a negotiation, including war.
Let me give you an example. The Iraq war starts in 2003. Before George W. Bush leaves the White House, he negotiates what’s called a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government that was part of the withdrawal plan that was set for the end of December 2011. President Obama comes in to office. For a variety of reasons that we don’t need to get into here, he decides that he might like to extend our troop presence in Iraq beyond the withdrawal date that was set by the Bush administration, December 31, 2011. As we start to negotiate with the Iraqis, the government that would not exist if it wasn’t for us going in and invading the country and bombing it in 2003. As we are negotiating with this government, they say, “We don’t mind if your troops stay, but we’re not going to give your troops immunity.” Now, America does not send its troops anywhere unless American troops have immunity from prosecution under the law of that country. That was the Iraqis way of basically saying, “don’t let the door hit you on the way out, okay?”
How did that war end? It ended with a negotiation. It ended with a negotiation in my view that didn’t go that well for the United States, all things considered. Fast forward to the Iran issue here and we have successive administrations that, in my view, predate the Bush administration when this issue really came to the forefront of every newspaper headline in the world. They’re trying to figure out how to deal with this Iran issue. Then when the nuclear file was put at the forefront of the Iran issue —because let’s not forget, before Iran’s nuclear program was ever reconstituted, before it ever became front-page news— Iran was front-page news because of the hostage crisis and because of a variety of other issues, from terrorism to God knows what else. That we, as the United States and the United States government more specifically, said we find this to be objectionable behavior, right?
Then the nuclear program, because we are talking about what are conceivably the world’s most dangerous weapons, catapulted it to a higher level. Then for reasons that Gareth [Porter] outlined and a whole other variety of reasons, it became an even more tangible issue for not just the average American but especially the DC establishment and folks inside Washington, DC. This is why I think it’s becoming an important issue. It’s this idea of war versus peace. If we don’t use the diplomatic track to try and resolve this issue peacefully, then the only option that exists is war. It’s not a very popular option amongst the American people or people in other western countries for that matter. That is why I think President Obama deserves credit in his second term for being courageous and taking steps that none of his predecessors really had the wherewithal or the courage to take, in my view, in my assessment. That’s one, okay?
War versus peace. At least right now, it looks like the United States of America has chosen peace over war. Two thumbs up, that’s a very good thing.
What actually happened in Switzerland and what’s been happening in these negotiations over the past 18 months? I’ve had the good fortune or depending on who you talk to the burden of attending almost every round of these negotiations to cover them, to meet with the negotiators, speak with journalists on the ground, et cetera, et cetera. I consider it to be the good fortune because I think what has happened over the past 18 months more generally and in Lausanne, Switzerland more specifically, I consider this to be historic.
I think it’s historic for two reasons. One, you would be hard pressed to name another agreement of any kind, whether it’s a framework agreement, a finalized deal, or anything in between that was negotiated by the U.S. and Iran irrespective of whether other countries were a party to it. You’d be hard pressed to find another agreement that was negotiated between these two countries that proved to be ultimately successful. You might find one or two here or there, but certainly nothing of this magnitude. Two countries that would call one another enemies for over three decades were able to sit down at the negotiating table and have a civilized conversation. You could probably count the number of times that’s happened over the past three decades on one hand. For that reason alone, I find it to be historic.
I think it’s even more historic because of the actual tangible things that both sides are getting in this agreement. The compromises that were made are far more reaching than I thought that they would be at this stage of the negotiations and I think set us up for a successful future going forward to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is verifiably peaceful and that we avoid another war of choice in the Middle East. What stands out to me about what we, as the United States and our allies and the P5+1, or permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, are tangibly getting from this. We’re getting the most intrusive inspections regime of any nuclear program in the world. Iran is going to be signing what’s called the additional protocol, which is essentially assuring verification of a higher degree than what Iran currently allows the IAEA to have. I’m summarizing here because I don’t want to go into all the various details of the additional protocol and bore you with them.
It’s a very good thing. More inspections and more access to the various aspects of Iran’s nuclear program is a very good thing. Iran is also agreeing to additional transparency measures beyond the additional protocol for the life of its program. Meaning that if you hear people go out to the media and say, “Well, this deal is only good for 10 to 15 years and under the sunset clause, all the concessions that Iran’s giving is going away.” It’s nonsense. When this deal is done, Iran’s nuclear program will continue to be the most heavily inspected nuclear program in the world—period, full stop. Also, after this deal is signed, if in fact it’s signed, I want to acknowledge that it’s not a foregone conclusion, but I am beyond cautiously optimistic at this point. Now, I would just call myself optimistic. The IAEA will be spending more money per year of its budget on Iran than any other country.
If I’m not mistaken—and somebody in this room I’m sure can correct me if I’m wrong— I think only the South Korean program or the Japanese program, either/or, gets more money allocated towards inspections and things of that nature from the IAEA than Iran’s program. That will change. Iran will be the most heavily inspected. It will have the most resources directed towards it. This is very, very good because the essence of this is that every aspect of the supply chain in Iran’s nuclear program is going to be monitored, inspected, and verified. In layman’s terms, that means we’re going to know what Iran is doing every step of the way.
Another perk is that the majority of Iran’s enrichment—actually all of Iran’s enrichment, let’s be honest— is going to be happening in one facility with slightly over 5,000 first-generation centrifuges, technology that’s over 30 years old. So to a certain extent, a very large aspect of Iran’s nuclear program is going to be essentially frozen in time. Even if they’re able to make advancements on the research and development of various technical aspects of their program, they’re not going to be able to go and test it in the real world. Doing things in labs and doing things in the real world and testing it for real world viability and functionality are two very different things, right? Iranian scientists will continue to be employed and will be able to continue making progress on what they consider to be important aspects of research and development of their nuclear program. But the real world application of Iran’s scientific advancement is not going to be actually operationalized in ways that presents a proliferation threat to the United States and its allies in the world. This is a very good thing.
Also, two of Iran’s nuclear facilities, the fundamental infrastructure of them are going to be changed. What was going to be a plutonium facility is essentially having the heart taken out of it. It’s going to be reconfigured completely, two thumbs up. Then Iran’s underground facility called Fordow will be allowed to have 1,000 centrifuges to continue spinning. But they’re not going to be spinning uranium. You have the Energy Secretary of the United States, Ernest Moniz, who’s a nuclear physicist, MIT-trained, going on television and saying because Iran has 1,000 centrifuges in this facility that are not spinning uranium anymore, this reduces the proliferation throughout, if not outright eliminates it. Again, tangible compromises that were achieved in this framework agreement dramatically improve our ability to verify that Iran’s program remains peaceful. This is a very, very good thing.
Obviously, we have given concessions as well when it comes to sanctions relief and number of centrifuges even though the number of centrifuges, the only, or by any case of the imagination, the most pertinent aspect of Iran’s nuclear program. But I want to point out to you here what the United States is getting because we have a propensity in the American media to point out what America is giving. I think that what we are getting out of this deal is absolutely tremendous. It’s more than I thought we would get. It’s more than what most people in Washington, DC thought would be agreed to at this point in time. Overwhelmingly, this is a good thing for security.
Now, the last bit I want to talk about is if in fact this deal proves to be successful, which I am optimistic that it will be, why is this a good thing for regional security? The Middle East is on fire. I think Iran is really the only country in the region that I could think of right now that isn’t actively fighting a war. You could even say that they are—because they’re in Syria. Really, at the end of the day, you have every Middle Eastern country fighting a war in some way, shape, or form. That’s not really a good thing. If this crisis over Iran’s nuclear program can be solved and if it can be taken off of the ledger, taken off of the balance sheet, what that provides in terms of opportunities is unprecedented. It provides an opportunity for Iran and the United States to use the nuclear agreement as a foundation to have conversations about regional security issues from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria to Yemen. If you can name a regional security problem in the Middle East, chances are Iran and the United States have not been talking about it in any substantial way for at least a decade, if not longer.
If you talk to political officials in Tehran, you talk to political officials in Washington; they tell you either, “We don’t want to talk about it.” This is the minority of people. Or the majority of people say, “We’d like to talk about it, but this nuclear issue is the 8,000-pound gorilla in the room. And it’s preventing us from having the political space that’s necessary to address these issues.” I’m of the opinion that it frees up space in Tehran and in Washington to have a conversation that frankly is long overdue about: a) whether or not our interests overlap tactically or strategically. I’m of the opinion that they do in more than one area but not every single area in the Middle East. If Iran is brought into these conversations, it could help find political solutions to problems that frankly haven’t been able to be solved because Iran hasn’t been at the table.
Ladies and gentlemen, durable solutions to any major conflict require the buy-in of every country with the capacity to wreck the solution. If Iran has the capacity to wreck a political solution in Syria or with regards to Israel-Palestine or in Yemen or Iraq, then they have to be brought to the table and engaged if in fact you’re trying to find a political solution. We’ve been trying for over two decades, if not longer, to work around Iran, to isolate Iran, to prevent it from being at the table. It hasn’t worked. Here’s another point where I give the Obama administration credit. They realize that this is in fact the case. I’m of the opinion that they’re willing to test the propositions of having these conversations with the Iranians in an effort to try and build a better future in the Middle East and solve problems peacefully rather than dropping bombs and firing bullets.
The last thing that I’ll say—because this little timer here says that I have two and a half minutes—is that there are spoilers that are trying to get in the way. Naturally, we have a hostile Congress to really anything that President Obama is trying to accomplish, foreign or domestic policy. They’re going to be pushing hard and trying to torpedo the gains that were made in Switzerland and prevent either a final deal from being signed or to prevent the United States from fulfilling whatever obligations it signs onto in any final deal. That includes AIPAC. That includes the Israeli government. That includes the Saudis. That includes Gulf Cooperation Council countries. But to the Obama administration’s credit, again, they are reaching out to each of these actors and trying really hard to prevent them from doing so. Some might even say they’re fighting to protect the political investment that they’ve made that the vast majority of Americans support them making.
In that sense, we do have a fight on our hands. But this is a fight that I think the president is willing to fight demonstrably. This is something that the president is making an investment in now, in ways that he certainly did not during the first term of his presidency. I think that while there is still risk involved, the president and the White House have a good strategy in front of them. It is a higher likelihood that they’ll win than they will lose. But I want to emphasize to you that creating the political space that’s necessary for the White House to do the kinds of things that I think everybody in this room would like the White House to do requires citizens, interest groups, you name it, across the board to be active and to create the political space for them. It’s not the White House’s job to create the political space for you and I. It is the job of interested citizens, interest groups, think tanks—you name it—to create the political space for the White House.
If people like you and I lead, I think you have a willingness in the White House to follow. Let that be a message, if nothing else resonates with you going forward, not just on the Iran issue but frankly any other issue. Politicians are only as brave as constituencies who are willing to support them in their next election. Let me stop there. Thanks for listening. I appreciate it.
Moderator Dale Sprusansky: In 18 minutes, that’s about as strong a
case as you can make for the nuclear talks.