Former American ambassadors and nuclear non-proliferation experts support the Iran nuclear agreement

The New York Times reports today that 100 former American ambassadors wrote to President Obama, calling the deal a “landmark agreement” and urging Congress to support it. Former U.S. Diplomats Praise Iran Deal:

GenevaMore than 100 former American ambassadors wrote to President Obama on Thursday praising the nuclear deal reached with Iran this week as a “landmark agreement” that could be effective in halting Tehran’s development of a nuclear weapon, and urging Congress to support it. American Ambassadors Letter (.pdf).

“If properly implemented, this comprehensive and rigorously negotiated agreement can be an effective instrument in arresting Iran’s nuclear program and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the volatile and vitally important region of the Middle East,” said the letter, whose signers include diplomats named by presidents of both parties.

They wrote that they recognized the deal “is not a perfect or risk-free settlement of this problem.”

“However,” they added, “we believe that without it, the risks to the security of the United States and our friends and allies would be far greater.”

The accord, they continued, “deserves congressional support and the opportunity to show it can work.”

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Signers of the letter, spearheaded by the Iran Project, a New York-based organization that is dedicated to “a peaceful resolution to the nuclear standoff,” include prominent retired diplomats appointed by Mr. Obama and his Republican and Democratic predecessors.

Richard Boucher, who served as the spokesman for secretaries of state of both parties and the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, signed the letter, as did Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon first named by President George Bush and later by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Mr. Obama.

R. Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state who led the Iran diplomatic effort for the younger Mr. Bush, is a signer, as is Teresita C. Schaffer, a former ambassador to Sri Lanka first named by the elder Mr. Bush who also served under Mr. Clinton.

Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt who served under Mr. Clinton and the younger Mr. Bush, also signed the letter, as did four other onetime American ambassadors to Israel: James B. Cunningham, William C. Harrop, Thomas R. Pickering and Edward S. Walker Jr.

 Max Fisher, foreign editor at Vox.com, writes that Aaron Stein, a Middle East and nuclear non-proliferation expert with the Royal United Services Institute (as well as the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the Atlantic Council), says This is an astoundingly good Iran deal:

When Aaron Stein was studying nuclear non-proliferation at Middlebury College’s Monterey graduate program, the students would sometimes construct what they thought would be the best possible nuclear inspection and monitoring regimes.

Years later, Stein is now a Middle East and nuclear proliferation expert with the Royal United Services Institute (as well as the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the Atlantic Council). And in April, he told me that the Iran nuclear deal, the broad strokes of which had just been announced, looks an awful lot like those ideal hypotheticals he’d put together in grad school.

“When I was doing my non-proliferation training at Monterey, this is the type of inspection regime that we would dream up in our heads,” he said at the time. “We would hope that this would be the way to actually verify all enrichment programs, but thought that would never be feasible.”

Stein concluded it would make “an excellent deal” — if the negotiators could turn those broad strokes into a formal, finalized agreement. This week, they did exactly that.

The full, final Iran nuclear deal “exceeds in all areas,” Stein said on Tuesday. “It makes the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon in the next 25 years extremely remote.”

Like many observers, I doubted in recent months that Iran and world powers would ever reach this stage; the setbacks and delays had simply been too many. Now here we are, and the terms are astoundingly favorable to the United States. Arms control and nuclear nonproliferation experts are heralding it as a huge success.

The deal requires Iran to surrender some crucial components of its nuclear program, in part or even in whole. Here are the highlights:

  • Iran will give up about 14,000 of its 20,000 centrifuges.
  • Iran will give up all but its most rudimentary, outdated centrifuges: Its first-generation IR-1s, knockoffs of 1970s European models, are all it gets to keep. It will not be allowed to build or develop newer models.
  • Iran will give up 97 percent of its enriched uranium; it will hold on to only 300 kilograms of its 10,000-kilogram stockpile in its current form.
  • Iran will destroy or export the core of its plutonium plant at Arak, and replace it with a new core that cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium. It will ship out all spent nuclear fuel.

Iran would simply not have much of its nuclear program left after all this.

A shorthand people sometimes use to evaluate the size of Iran’s nuclear program is its “breakout time.” If Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei woke up tomorrow morning and decided to set his entire nuclear program toward building a nuclear warhead — to “break out” to a bomb — as of today it would take him two or three months. Under the terms of the deal, his program would be so much smaller that it would take him an entire year to build a single nuclear warhead.

These terms are not abject surrender [what the GOP Iran war hawks demand]. Iran is allowed to keep a small nuclear program, and it won some concessions of its own. For example, what little uranium enrichment is allowed will be done at Iran’s facility at Natanz — a hardened, reinforced-concrete structure that was once used for covert enrichment and that the US had hoped to close.

Iran will also be allowed to do some research at Fordow, another hardened facility the US had wanted to close, though the research is restricted and will be barred from using fissile material. These are not big concessions, and they matter mostly for their symbolic value, but it’s something.

Still, when you look at many of the specifics laid out in the deal, the hard numbers and timetables and the detailed proscriptions, those all tend to be quite favorable to the United States.

The result is pretty clear, Stein said: “The intention of this agreement is to take the weapons option off the table for the next 25 years, and the agreement does that.”

The deal is strong on many terms, but it strongest on what was always going to be among the most crucial: inspections.

Whatever number of centrifuges Iran has or doesn’t have, whatever amount of uranium it’s allowed to keep or forced to give up, none of it matters unless inspectors have enough authority to hold Tehran to its end of the deal — and to convince the Iranians that they could never get away with cheating. To say the US got favorable terms here would be quite an understatement; the Iranians, when it comes to inspections, practically gave away the farm.

“I would give it an A,” Stein said, in April, of the framework. When I asked why: “Because of the inspections and transparency.”

There are two reasons inspections are so important. The first is that super-stringent inspections are a deterrent: If the Iranians know that any deviation is going to be quickly caught, they have much less incentive to try to cheat, and much more incentive to uphold their side of the deal.

The second is that if Iran were to try a build a nuclear weapon now, it likely wouldn’t use the material that’s already known to the world and being monitored. Rather, the Iranians would secretly manufacture some off-the-books centrifuges, secretly mine some off-the-books uranium, and squirrel it all away to a new, secret underground facility somewhere. That would be the only way for Iran to build up enough of an arsenal such that by the time the world found out, it would be too late to do anything about it.

Really robust inspections would be the best way stop that from happening. They would prevent Iran from sneaking off centrifuges or siphoning away uranium that could be used to build an off-the-grid nuclear weapons program, without the world finding out.

Under this deal, the inspections are so strong, Stein said, that if Iran tried to cheat on the deal, “the likelihood of getting caught is near 100 percent.”

The inspections issue has not gotten much political attention. When I spoke to Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury’s Monterey Institute of International Studies, back in March before the framework was announced, he seemed worried that negotiators would not focus on it much.

* * *

Lewis suggested that a top item on his wish list would be inspections so robust that inspectors don’t just get to visit enrichment sites like Natanz and Fordow, but also centrifuge factories. That, he said, “would be a big achievement.”

Sure enough, Lewis got his wish and then some: centrifuge factory inspections is one of the terms in the framework, and it’s pretty robust. For the next 20 years, inspectors would have “continuous surveillance at Iran’s centrifuge rotors and bellows production and storage facilities.”

That’s part of why, when I asked Lewis to grade the final deal this week, he gave me the same answer that Stein had: “I would give it an A.”

“I was shocked to read that they got them to agree to let us walk around their centrifuge production facilities. That’s amazing,” Stein said in April, when the first terms came out. That provision is now part of the final deal.

It’s not just centrifuge factories. Inspectors will have access to all parts of Iran’s nuclear supply chain, including its uranium mines and the mills where it processes uranium ore. Inspectors will also not just monitor but be required to pre-approve all sales to Iran of nuclear-related equipment. This provision also applies to something called “dual-use” materials, which means any equipment that could be used toward a nuclear program.

“The inspections and transparency on the rotors, and the bellows, and the uranium mines is more than I ever thought would be in this agreement,” Stein added.

Stein then walks through the particulars of a number of “what if Iran cheats” scenarios, and explains how the agreement is designed to address each one of these scenarios.

But if this worst-case scenario should happen, then the deal is still a net positive for the US. “I think the US hand is actually strengthened in this, to be honest with you,” Stein said. “A full accounting of where everything is [gleaned from invasive inspections and monitoring] is a wonderful targeting mechanism for the Pentagon.”

The terms in the agreement are just about the best that we could hope for — even better, in some ways, than many had thought possible. The concessions from Iran are painful and many; the concessions by the US minor and few; the details surprisingly robust.

“As a framework it’s very good,” Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, tweeted in April when the broad terms were revealed. He added, “A sharp critic of Iran and skeptic of the talks told me after the announcement that it seemed to be heavily tilted in favour of the West.”

The Arms Control Association issued a statement saying that the “historic” agreement “promises to lead to one of the most consequential and far-reaching nuclear nonproliferation achievements in recent decades.”

Daryl Kimball, the Arms Control Association’s chief, told the Guardian, “The deal is a major nuclear nonproliferation breakthrough that promises to prevent the emergence of another nuclear-armed state and head off a nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region.”

Andrea Berger of the Royal United Services Institute called it “an incredible achievement that much of the nuclear community will enthusiastically support.” And on and on.

The way that all of this works is quite technical. But once you understand things like enrichment and inspections regimes and sanctions snapback, you see that the deal is actually pretty simple. Lewis put it well when we spoke:

I see it as a really straightforward measure to slow down an enrichment program that was going gangbusters.

So you ask, “Does it slow it down?” Yes. “Does it slow it down in a way that is verifiable?” Yes. “Does it slow it down more than bombing it would?” Yes. “Okay, good deal.”

Only Neocons who believe that war is the answer to every question have knee-jerk opposition to this Iran agreement, because they want their war with Iran.

4 responses to “Former American ambassadors and nuclear non-proliferation experts support the Iran nuclear agreement

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  2. One thing not mentioned in your glowing reports, which was bragged about last night on the short wave, was all of Iran’s military sites are off limits to inspectors. It is only the 20 or so civilian sites that are open for inspections. Unfortunately, 5 of the hardened nuclear deep bunker production sites were on military bases, which cannot be inspected.

    Iran is also laying the groundwork for justifying it’s violation of the Treaty by pointing out that China and Russia rountinely violate International Treaties and, as signatories to the Agreement, Iran is hoping they will not violate this Treaty. Given Iran’s history of violating international treaties, you have to wear rose colored glasses not to be a little skeptical about their reliability on this one.

    I honestly hope the Treaty works. Unfortunately based on Iran’s track record, I think that, within a year, we will hear the inspector’s complaining and we will hear rumors about the Islamic Bomb being back on the table. By that time the coalition that held steady with sanctions will have been disbursed and Iran will have a functioning economy with Russia and China buying it’s oil. I hope not, but time will tell.

    • AZ BlueMeanie

      You say not to believe the Iranians, yet you are willing to believe the state-run media propaganda that they broadcast to the Iranian public? Many years ago when I was getting a political science degree, I was studying for a state department job in “Kremlinology,” the art of deciphering Soviet media propaganda for kernels of intelligence. Never believe the state-run media propaganda, that stuff is designed to mollify the citizenry and to bluster other governments.

      • You haven’t read some of my other posts about this subject. I understand propaganda and the Iranians are very good at it. But what they broascast is not all propaganda…sometimes they just tell what is going on. I know this from listening to it and reading it for more then 30 years.

        I don’t trust them, but I want this Treaty to work.