April 21, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: Iran is Afraid of 2017. We Shouldn't Be

Last week’s approval by the US Senate Foreign Relation Committee of the Corker-Menendez bill to review any nuclear agreement with Iran did not bother Tehran much. Iran’s leaders understood the bill would have minimal impact on reaching a final deal and reacted accordingly. President Hassan Rouhani voiced his indifference, noting Iran is negotiating with the world powers, not the US Congress. The Iranian parliament’s Nuclear Committee published their aspirational (and meaningless) version of the nuclear framework agreement to mock the US State Department’s Fact Sheet.

What is Iran worried about? 2017, to be specific. A deal reached at the end of June will not be fully implemented for at least six months, a year before President Obama departs office. That leaves at most twelve months of (relatively) unsanctioned economic activity in the international markets and freedom from any military threats before a new US president is elected. This is why the Supreme Leader remains anxious to reach a final deal this summer, why he insists on as much upfront sanctions relief as possible, why he is quite pleased with President Obama’s efforts to help him save face with his domestic constituencies, and why he will be paying close attention to any Iran comments coming from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Conversely, the GOP has made its position quite clear.

The looming post-Obama security environment is also why Iran is so eager to solidify the long-awaited deal with Russia to deliver the advanced S-300 air defense missile system. Although Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan stated Iran will receive an updated S-300 model that does not require Russian consultants or advisers, it may still take two years before the S-300 is fully operational around Iran’s sensitive nuclear sites. Come 2017, Tehran will be very happy to have a more credible deterrent to a potential Israeli military strike.

But will a nuclear deal even happen? The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) andother security leadersbacked by the Supreme Leader, are insisting that military sites will not be subject to inspections under a final nuclear agreement. Iran believes that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which would be charged with such monitoring, is riddled with Israeli and Western spies. The IRGC’s rhetoric is not surprising, but no inspections of military sites would blatantly preclude a successful IAEA resolution of its investigation into Iran’s possible nuclear weapons research.

The P5+1 was likely heading toward an ambiguous arrangement to close out the IAEA investigation. The IAEA might have acknowledged the unresolved concerns and set up a mitigated inspections regime that Iran could live with, yet agreed not to delve too deeply into the details of Iran’s past research. If the P5+1 gives in on this point, notions that “If Iran cheats, the world will know it,” would be irredeemably undermined. Without IAEA access to suspected or undeclared sites (most of which are or would be military ones), Iran’s covert pathway to a bomb cannot be effectively monitored, and therefore cannot be considered “blocked.” The irony is that the IRGC‘s loud brinkmanship over inspections has made the issue harder to gloss over. If Iran rejects inspections of military facilities outright, the agreement could easily become unworkable for the US administration and the Europeans. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has quite the challenge on his plate as talks begin again in Vienna.

Iran’s worries about 2017 are real. That is why they are so anxious to get a nuclear agreement this summer. The Supreme Leader expects the White House to be just as concerned about the timing, so Iran is becoming overly confident in declaring more redlines. But rather than getting a better deal, Iran may have just missstepped.

There is no reason for the US to let itself be bullied on inspections if we are serious about preventing all pathways to a bomb. This redline, like all of Iran’s redlines, is ultimately smudge-able. Do not worry about helping the Supreme Leader save face. Push back or press pause.