Editorial: Striking a terrible bargain
Aug 29, 2022 | Colin Rubenstein
The European Union released a self-described “final” proposal to Iran in mid-August, aimed at closing the gaps between Teheran and the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) and trying to revive, in some form, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal on Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons program. Recently, there has been a flurry of reports suggesting a deal is close, even imminent.
Yet the reality is Iran rejected the EU’s “final” offer out of hand, while deftly signalling it would offer counterproposals using the EU text as a starting point.
Meanwhile, reports on the content of the EU draft itself, if accurate, alarmingly suggest the crossing of numerous red lines once considered sacrosanct – including potentially making it harder to reimpose sanctions in the future; allowing Iran to keep advanced centrifuges it has built illegally; limiting or circumscribing ongoing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigations into past illicit Iranian nuclear weapons activities; and easing unrelated sanctions that have been imposed for Iranian terror activity.
Analysts have detected a shift in the talking points by the Government of hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to the Iranian people. Previously, Iranian officials had downplayed the need for a deal, but they have recently pivoted to promoting a narrative whereby accepting a deal on Teheran’s terms – either now or down the road – would be a great triumph for the regime over hostile foreign interlocutors.
The key words above are “on Teheran’s terms”.
There’s no denying sanctions have been a thorn in Iran’s side, reducing its ability to sponsor global terrorism and the aggressive, expansionist, military destabilisation Teheran is continuously instigating through proxies such as the Houthis of Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza.
Yet if the cost of having sanctions removed is permanently abandoning nuclear weapon ambitions, that is a price Iran’s leaders have never once shown a genuine willingness to pay – though they have clearly been prepared to make empty promises.
As former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu put it, Iran’s thinly disguised goal is to have its “yellowcake and eat it, too.” That is, achieve sanctions relief, and still become, if not a fully-fledged nuclear-armed power, then, at minimum, a nuclear threshold state with the ability to weaponise at a moment’s notice, and thus able to enjoy the full strategic and status advantages of being a nuclear power.
Disturbingly, it looks like the P5+1, led by the US Biden Administration, may be preparing to strike a deal to allow Iran to achieve exactly this outcome.
The most fundamental flaw of the JCPOA nuclear deal was the fact that it offered Iran open-ended sanctions relief for limited and temporary nuclear concessions. This was clearly acknowledged by then-US President Barack Obama, who noted in 2015 that, even if Iran abided by the deal, its advances in centrifuge technology under the deal’s terms would eventually shorten its breakout times “almost down to zero.”
That “eventually” is now imminent. As Jacob Nagel and Jonathan Schanzer explain in this AIR edition, the “sunset clauses” of the JCPOA, gradually lifting all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment, are all going to come into effect in just a few years.
Moreover, in exchange for this almost uselessly weak deal, Iran is going to gain a financial windfall credibly estimated to be US$275 billion (AU$396 billion) during the first year in effect and US$1 trillion (AU$1.44 trillion) by 2030.
Even if it briefly delays Iran’s nuclear progress, the deal’s financial benefits to the regime will supercharge Teheran’s ability to target the oil fields, tankers and refineries of Gulf states, driving up energy prices; wage missile and drone wars against Israel and the Arab Gulf states through its proxies; hunt down dissidents and political adversaries; and threaten to obliterate Western countries in a nuclear holocaust by developing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
How can we be so sure Iran’s clerical rulers will go down this devastating path rather than moderate through increased acceptance and concessions from the West? Because they are in fact already heading down this extremist path as much as possible even with the sanctions in place.
In August alone, we saw it all: a pro-Iranian zealot nearly assassinated author Salman Rushdie, the subject of a death warrant by Iranian clerics for decades; an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) assassination plot against former US officials John Bolton and Mike Pompeo was uncovered; an apparent Iranian-sponsored attempt was made to murder prominent Iranian dissident Masih Alinejad in New York; a bomb was uncovered at a festival in Sweden where an Iranian dissident singer was to perform; the IRGC released a video threatening to build nuclear missiles capable of “turning New York into hellish ruins”; and last but certainly not least, a threatened major terror attack on Israel by the Iranian-funded and controlled Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) was thwarted in a brief but intense three-day escalation that saw more than 1,100 rockets launched by PIJ from Gaza at Israel, even as Teheran hosted its leader.
We know Iran’s intentions because we’ve seen this movie before. After the JCPOA was approved in 2015, Iran poured billions into its war machine instead of improving the lives of ordinary Iranians.
The terrible bargain being struck here seems obvious – at best minimal and brief restraint on Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for greatly empowering a rogue regime to murder, destabilise, proliferate, become more powerful and threatening, and also intensify active and genocidal plans to try to surround, overwhelm and destroy Israel.
As Nagel and Schanzer note, there are better alternatives. It will be a strategic error of monumental proportions if these better alternatives are ignored in favour of a wilfully blind belief in some quarters that the always inadequate JCPOA, now made much weaker by the passage of time and the imminence of the sunset clauses, is the answer to Iran’s increasingly dangerous and illegal nuclear program.