Gary Samore's speech to the 2013 Manama Dialogue

Samore IISS Manama Speech

Gary Samore, the Belfer Center’s executive director for research and former White House coordinator for arms control and WMD, recently addressed the IISS Manama Dialogue in Bahrain:

The agreement is not a Historic Breakthrough that ushers in a new era of American-Iranian condominium and geopolitical realignment the region. Nor is it a Historic Blunder that signals US acceptance of Iran as a nuclear power. Instead, the interim deal is simply a six month truce.  

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Gary Samore on Middle East Security and Non-Proliferation

Manama Dialogue 2013, Fifth Plenary Session, Bahrain

Delivered December 8, 2013

I think the Nov. 24 Joint Action Plan is a useful first step to resolve the nuclear issue but it’s a small step.

Much of the commentary – both pro and con – has been vastly exaggerated.

The agreement is not a Historic Breakthrough that ushers in a new era of American-Iranian condominium and geopolitical realignment the region.

Nor is it a Historic Blunder that signals US acceptance of Iran as a nuclear power. 

Instead, the interim deal is simply a six month truce.  Iran freezes or slows expansion of its nuclear program with some modest rollback and additional monitoring and the P5+1 agree not to add new sanctions with modest rollback of existing sanctions.

Neither side gives away its biggest bargaining chips, all actions are reversible, and the most difficult issues are kicked down the road into the final status negotiations.  

In other words, this is exactly the kind of first step interim agreement you would expect in any negotiation in which the two sides are deeply divided but both sides are looking for a way to avoid conflict.

I understand the upset and resentment of US allies in the region who are shocked by how quickly the interim agreement came together and upset that they were not told about the secret US-Iranian talks in Oman.

But the truth is President Obama has been looking for a diplomatic opening with Iran since 2009.  When Iran rejected his overtures, he created an international coalition that imposed unprecedented sanctions that finally forced Iran to the table.

Obama decided to use some of his bargaining chips to grab this opportunity while it was available rather than risk that it would slip away because of opposition in Washington or Tehran.

In moving quickly, he broke some crockery - both in Congress and in the region – but it was his crockery to break and now Washington needs to show that it intends to strike a hard bargain in the end.   

When President Obama announced the interim deal he said that in a final deal “Iran must accept strict limitations on its nuclear program that make it impossible for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.” 

The administration has already signaled through Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that this will include:

  • Dismantlement of significant portion of existing centrifuges and LEU stockpiles
  • Closure of Fordow
  • Elimination of Arak heavy water research reactor
  • Resolution of weaponization issues
  • Additional inspection and monitoring beyond AP

These measures would deny Iran the physical ability to produce significant quantities of weapons grade material quickly – before detection and disruption could take place - and strengthen verification to detect cheating.

Yet Very few people believe Iran will accept these terms now.  Doing so would require Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program, at least for the time being.

As President Rouhani has said, Iran refuses to dismantle any of its existing nuclear facilities and insists on developing an industrial scale enrichment facility (tens of thousands of centrifuge machines) – enough for a quick dash to a bomb or - more likely - cover for hiding a secret enrichment facility. 

At the same time, Obama cannot afford to agree to let Iran have a credible option to produce nuclear weapons – much less possess nuclear weapons - because it would pose unacceptable security risks to the US and its Middle East allies such as the increased likelihood of war and further nuclear proliferation.

In truth, an agreement that allows Iran to become a nuclear threshold state is not politically viable in Washington, even if the White House was prepared to accept it.

Now that the situation has been stabilized, neither side is under great pressure to quickly make big painful compromises to get a final deal.  In fact, there may be incentives for both sides to stick to their maximal positions to show that they are not compromising too readily. 

So, I predict that the six month negotiations will not reach agreement on the central issue: whether or not Iran can become a nuclear threshold state under the guise of developing a civil nuclear energy program.

At same time, neither side wants the negotiations to collapse – that means going back to the cycle of more sanctions and more nuclear activity – increasing the risk of military confrontation, which both Washington and Tehran want to avoid.

Therefore, the most likely outcome of six month of negotiations is another interim agreement, perhaps with some additional nuclear constraints in exchange for some additional sanctions easing.

This process of rolling interim agreements could last for some time, maybe years, maybe through the remainder of President Obama’s term.

In the meantime, the two sides will be arguing over implementation of the Joint Action Plan (which is full of ambiguities and silences) and waging an undercover contest over the sanctions regime.

The White House claims that sanctions relief under the interim agreement amounts to about $7 billion, but that the most significant oil and financial sanctions will remain in place.

Understandably, Iran will seek to undermine and circumvent these remaining sanctions to improve its economy and reduce pressure to make additional nuclear concessions, while the US and its allies will be working hard to enforce the remaining sanctions so they have leverage to trade for additional nuclear concessions.

There’s a debate among sanctions gurus whether it’s possible to selectively ease the Iran sanctions – which have been painstakingly built up over several years – without eviscerating the entire apparatus, as countries and companies maneuver in anticipation of resuming business with Iran.

Frankly, I don’t know the answer but the outcome will be crucial to the nuclear negotiations.  If the Iranians believe that the sanctions will fade away on their own, they are not going to make difficult concessions for final deal.  If you can get it for free, why pay for it?

But, if the major sanctions remain intact - and there is a credible threat that additional sanctions may be imposed - then Iran is more likely to make additional nuclear concessions.

Since no one really knows what will happen to the sanctions regime in six months or one year, this is another reason to wait and see before making major concessions.

So, to conclude, the Joint Action Plan is an opening bid in what will likely be a protracted and difficult negotiation with uncertain results. 

What will happen in the end? 

Pessimists say that the current interim agreement is likely to suffer the same fate as the previous interim agreement.

In 2003, fearing they were next on the American hit list, the Iranians agreed to suspend its enrichment program in exchange for European agreement (UK, France, and Germany) to block US efforts to move the Iranian file to the Security Council.

After two years of frustrating negotiations and squabbling over implementation, Iran calculated that the US military machine was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and decided to renege on the deal and restart enrichment.

Optimists say this time is different.  In 2003, President Bush rejected Tehran’s overtures, forcing Iran to turn to the Europeans to save themselves from the perceived threat of an American invasion.   

This time, President Obama has embraced the opportunity to negotiate directly with Iran, both to resolve the nuclear issue and eventually normalize relations with Tehran.

In addition, some Iran experts think that President Rouhani plans to build on his diplomatic victory to pursue a broader policy of political and economic reform at home and moderate foreign policy abroad.

In this scenario, Rouhani needs to neutralize the nuclear issue in order to keep his domestic opponents at bay and therefore Iran might eventually accept a limited nuclear capacity under close supervision, but short of the ability to quickly produce significant quantities of fissile material.  

Of course, Supreme Leader Khamenei would have to be persuaded to go along with this strategy.

Either way it makes sense to pursue this opening. If it succeeds, it will be a remarkable diplomatic achievement that averts the excruciating choice between Iran with a bomb and bombing Iran.  If it fails, the US will be able to better justify to itself and to others the need to take other actions.

Gary Samore is executive director for research at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. From 200913, he was President Obama's White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction.