Opinion

Trudy Rubin: No Iran nuke deal better than a bad one

The June 30 deadline is fast approaching for a final agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program, and it’s hard to see how the negotiators can meet it.

That may not be a bad thing.

The gaps are still wide between Tehran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) on a deal by which Iran would restrict its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.

Most disturbing: Iran has yet to answer questions put by international inspectors about a suspected nuclear weapons program prior to 2003. Nor has Tehran agreed to inspection measures designed to ensure that its nuclear energy program remains peaceful.

On the contrary, on Tuesday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanded that most sanctions on Iran be lifted as soon as a deal is inked, before Iran dismantles any nuclear infrastructure, and before international inspectors can verify Tehran’s behavior. Khamenei also ruled out inspections of military sites, where suspect work may have, and may yet, happen.

Perhaps Iran’s supreme leader is simply angling for last-minute concessions. But if Iran won’t come clean about the past, how can it be trusted — especially if Khamenei impedes future inspections? Better to extend the June 30 deadline, if need be, until Tehran meets these critical concerns.

This last-minute game of chicken is a reminder of the difficulties in assessing the value of a nuclear deal with Iran, and whether it is worth the inevitable trade-offs. Back in March, I suggested four rules by which to judge such a deal, and I believe they still apply.

Rule One: The risk of a deal must be weighed against the steep costs of no deal. If negotiations collapse, Iran will resume its uranium enrichment program, which has essentially been frozen under an interim accord. Sanctions forced Iran to the table, but they didn’t prevent Tehran from building thousands of centrifuges in the past, nor will they do so if talks collapse.

Absent a deal, Iran will soon enrich enough uranium for a bomb. That will leave Israel and the West with the choice of containment or embarking on an unpredictable and dangerous new Middle East conflict. This is the most risky consequence of failed negotiations.

Rule Two: There is no perfect deal. The debatable question is how to define an acceptable deal.

Israel wants Iran to dismantle its whole nuclear program (something that might have been possible to achieve in 2003, had the Bush administration tried negotiations). But Iran’s program has progressed too far, and that goal is now a nonstarter.

The P5+1 now aim to curb Iran’s program sufficiently so that if Tehran tries to “break out” or “sneak out,” it would take at least a year to produce enough fissile material for a weapon. Presumably, during that time, its violations would become known and could be halted.

However, that kind of deal is acceptable only if it includes verification measures so intrusive that Iran can’t circumvent them. These measures would have to continue after many provisions of the nuclear deal are set to expire in a decade. There would also have to be severe international penalties built into an accord that would require an automatic “snapback” of sanctions if Iran is caught cheating.

Moreover, many experts believe that a satisfactory inspections regime can be devised for the future only if Iran answers queries about suspected nuclear weapons efforts in the past. That means letting inspectors visit military sites and talk to scientists.

Khamenei rejects any such investigation of past nuclear work and is stonewalling on future inspections. He wants sanctions lifted immediately and rejects the concept of automatic snapback if Iran cheats.

Maybe the ayatollah thinks President Barack Obama wants a deal so badly he will cave on these demands at the last minute. Such a cave-in would render any deal totally unacceptable. I believe Obama understands that.

Which brings us to Rules Three and Four in assessing how the P5+1 should proceed.

Rule Three: No one should expect a deal to make Iran behave better in the region. But Iran’s regional behavior — in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon — has been so awful that it requires an even tougher posture toward any deal with Tehran. That’s because any nuclear agreement will lift sanctions on Iran at some point, freeing up funds for further regional bad behavior. This will make it even more difficult to measure the relative pluses and minuses of an accord.

One thing is certain, however.

If the pact doesn’t include tough verification measures, it isn’t worth signing.

“It’s a deal with a country you don’t trust,” says the Brookings Institution’s Robert Einhorn, who worked on nuclear issues for Presidents Clinton and Obama (and thinks no deal would be worse).

“Most important is to have confidence that Iran isn’t pursuing covert activities now or in the future,” Einhorn stresses.

Rule Four: If Iran won’t sign before the deadline, keep talking. I believe the ayatollahs want this accord as much or more than does Obama, and will make concessions only if Obama plays hardball. So if Khamenei keeps setting outrageous red lines, it’s time for Obama to call his bluff and just say no.

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