The recent letter of support sent to President Obama for his Iran deal secured last month – signed by 29 scientists, including Nobel laureates – was obviously well-timed to lend firmer scientific backing to what many regard as a severely flawed nuclear deal. This is an impressive group of individuals, with achievements that speak for themselves, and their opinions obviously matter. Yet, the very fact of their scientific achievements does not mean that their assessments of the deal are correct. Indeed, their collective judgment of the Iran deal must be assessed on its merits. And in this regard, unfortunately, more than anything else, the contents of the letter echo the well-known talking points of the Obama administration, and suffer from some of the same deficiencies.
If this highly respected group of scientists is not aware, for example, that the 24-day cap on Iran’s ability to delay an investigation into a facility suspected of supporting clandestine activities could actually be much longer than that, why would we attribute any more authority to this letter than to other sources making similar arguments to support the deal? If the group had scrutinized paragraphs 75-76 in the Access section – that are not about science, but rather politics – they would have seen that Iran’s ability to play for time regarding inspections of suspicious military facilities begins when the IAEA first submits its concerns, and waits for Iran’s clarification. The 24-day count begins only after that, if and when the IAEA makes a request for access; but the preliminary phase has no time limit.
And there are additional dangerous ambiguities in the deal. There are holes and loopholes and flaws that Iran can abuse for its purposes. So when one assesses the deal, the scientific aspects are certainly important, but that is not where the assessment ends. Rather, there is a need to consider the history of dealing with Iran, and the experience gained thereby. Iran has shown its determination not only to hold on to its vast nuclear infrastructure and breakout capability, but continues its highly aggressive attitude toward the US and the Middle East. Moreover, Iran has over the years perfected tactics of playing for time, and has made it very clear that it will not tolerate inspections at its military sites where suspicions are that it has worked on a military nuclear capability. If pressed on inspections in the coming years, Iran will most likely continue to evade and play for time, and the deal dangerously provides ample room for Iran to do so.
Indeed, Iran might very well be able to escape such inspections altogether. The ambiguous language in this regard – “implement the necessary means” – leaves us wondering whether Iran will ultimately be forced to admit inspectors into its facilities, or whether the language provides it a way out. And Iran’s emphatic rejection of such inspections gives no cause for complacency. So can one really say – as the scientists do – that the deal provides “effective challenge inspection for the suspected activities of greatest concern”? Hardly.
And what about the PMD – the Possible Military Dimensions or weaponization aspects of Iran’s program? Again, the scientists lend unequivocal support to the administration’s position, which has actually been to kick this issue down the road, until the end of the year. Moreover, there is no clear indication either in the JCPOA or the IAEA-Iran work plan that sanctions relief will be conditional on the IAEA receiving answers to its longstanding queries that it is completely satisfied with. But the scientists assume that this will happen, and seem to find comfort in the fact that Iran will not be shamed. The fact that the ambiguous handling of the PMD issue is very likely to enable Iran to continue to hold onto its erroneous narrative of having ‘done no wrong’ in the nuclear realm seems not to bother them one bit.
Moreover, there are crucial issues that relate to the political will of the strong international powers to identify Iranian violations, and then confront them with necessary determination. Will this political will be present? For the US and the P5+1? The problems with snapback sanctions have been well documented, especially when matched with Iran’s explicit threat to exit the deal if sanctions are reimposed. And why would military force in the scenario of a serious violation down the road be any more of an option then than it is today? In fact, it will very likely be even less, if it becomes apparent that Iran is very close to a nuclear weapon.
Interestingly, at least one of the scientists that signed the letter is well-versed in how a determined proliferator can lie and cheat, and ultimately get away with it – to the point that it becomes a nuclear state. That is what happened in the case of North Korea, and the scientist in question is Siegfried Hecker. In 2010, Hecker was one of the American scientists invited to North Korea to see the new and modern uranium enrichment facility that North Korea had constructed at Yongbyon, with the international community powerless to stop it. Shouldn’t the experience of North Korea have impressed upon this scientist how dangerous proliferators can deceive the international community, even after making deals?
Finally, it is not clear what the scientists are referring to when they say that the deal has “more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated nonproliferation framework.” Do they mean compared to the NPT? Well, that’s not saying much. Or maybe they mean compared to the deal struck with Libya in 2003? No, that couldn’t be it either, because that deal actually signaled a Libyan decision to reverse course on all categories of WMD, and dealt with the nuclear realm at a very initial stage. That would qualify as a good nonproliferation agreement, a far cry from the current deal with Iran.
As a vote of support for the administration’s talking points – the letter is fine. But to be taken seriously as an authoritative judgment of the Iran deal – that will “advance the cause of peace and security in the Middle East” – then with all due respect to the signatories and their impressive scientific achievements, there is no getting around the conclusion that it simply doesn’t make the cut.