Nuclear deal with Iran: Stanford scholars examine what’s at stake

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Weeks away from a final international accord on Iran’s nuclear program, Stanford scholars are focusing on the technical, political and practical aspects of the pending deal intended to loosen sanctions while restricting Tehran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon.

“In two to three weeks we will have what some pundits are already calling the most revolutionary positive change in Iranian-American relations and others are saying a disastrous policy of appeasement to the Iranian regime,” said Scott Sagan, a senior fellow at the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Sagan moderated a discussion at the FSI's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) on Tuesday that included FSI’s Siegfried Hecker and Thomas Fingar, as well as Abbas Milani, director of Stanford’s Iranian Studies.

Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said Iran has developed its civilian nuclear capabilities to concurrently have a nuclear weapon option. However, at this point, they do not yet have nuclear weapons, nor have they produced the fissile materials, plutonium or highly enriched uranium, that would fuel such weapons.

“They’ve demonstrated they can enrich uranium to the levels allowed for civilian applications, but that gives them the capability to produce highly enriched uranium for bombs should they choose to do so,” Hecker said. “If they complete the Arak reactor, they will have the potential for plutonium production, although they have not developed a facility to extract the plutonium. If you look in terms of timelines for making fissile materials, they were somewhere between weeks to a month or two away for making enough fissile material for one bomb at the start of the negotiations in November 2013. The nuclear deal would move that timeline, called the ‘breakout’ time to one year, giving the international community more time to respond.”

Hecker said the technical issues are “secondary to whether Iran actually wants to go ahead and decide to build the bomb.”

He met with Iranian negotiators – including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – in 2013, and said the officials were anxious to reach a deal.

“Zarif told me that the cost of acquiring strategic capabilities will make Iran less safe rather than more safe,” Hecker said.

Fingar, who chaired the National Intelligence Council while also serving as the U.S. deputy director of national intelligence for analysis between 2005 and 2008, stressed the need for strong verification mechanisms if any deal with Iran is going to work.

“Verification can establish some facts but what it means is fundamentally a contextual and political judgment. What is most important? Catching somebody in a technical violation or preserving the overall purpose for which you are conducting verification. Verification requirements are an integral part of the negotiating process,” Fingar said.

That is especially true for Iran, which has proven that it is not trustworthy, he said.

“It did have a military program, it was seeking the bomb. It continues to lie about it. It lied to the European negotiators, to the UN, to the IAEA,” Fingar said. "This history mandates having a rigorous verification capability."

Monitoring is done in three bins, he said. The first, and most important, is the IAEA on-site inspections. The second is that done by other countries’ intelligence services, including those of the other P5 plus 1 countries and Israel. The third bin is the U.S. intelligence community.

“We will learn far more about what Iran is doing from the IAEA inspections than from any other mechanism,” Fingar said.

Milani focused on the politics of the deal inside Iran. Discussion of this political dimension, he said, cannot be understood unless we take into account two critical issues: Recent concerns with the health of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the heated battle on who might succeed him; and secondly the rise of ISIS and the fact that they are near Iran’s borders and have repeatedly threatened the country’s Shiites.

The debate in Iran is heated, he said, with many in favor of the agreement and a few opposed to it.

“Part of what is being fought over is what happens after the deal,” he said. “Who can claim victory for the deal? Who can take blame for it? These are profoundly political issues and they are being fought over.”

Milani said that he has never seen any policy issue, in the entire 35-year history of the Islamic Republic, being discussed with as much detail, and with as much ferocity as the nuclear deal.

There are occasional, detailed debates happening in Tehran University and other places Milani said. One side –typically pro-regime hard-liner – argues that this is the worst deal in Iran’s history. Reformists and scholars supporting President Rouhani’s government defend the agreement.

But he said these conservative opponents of the agreement are in the minority. He estimates that they have no more than 7 to 10 million supporters in a country with a population of 75 million. The vast majority of the population wants a deal, he said. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which wields more power than any other group, is not all in favor of the deal and has made threats against the government in recent weeks.

Still, the ultimate political obstacle is that the deal must contain language that all actors can sell to their respective constituencies as a victory. And finding a language that passes this political hurdle is every bit as hard as the problems discussed by Hecker and Fingar.

Joshua Alvarez is a freelance writer.