Sunday, November 24, 2013

Not Munich, Not Paradise: Why the Iran Nuclear Deal is Significant – and why it isn’t

Opponents of diplomatic solutions to potential international conflicts are fond of bringing up Neville Chamberlain’s meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938, and Chamberlain’s subsequent declaration that he had achieved both “peace with honour” and “peace in our time.” As Winston Churchill immediately pointed out, and as history has borne out, he was wrong on both counts. The lesson was clear: negotiating with evil is naïve, and any agreement that results will be worthless.

The problem with learning this lesson, of course, is that it does not apply to every negotiating situation. Not every opponent is Hitler, despite what the rhetoricians might have you believe at the time; this is merely the intellectual equivalent of Godwin’s Law transferred from the Internet to the corporeal realm. And so it is with Iran, current pariah state and former member of the “Axis of Evil,” who signed an agreement in the small hours of the morning with the US, the UK, Russia, China, France, and Germany agreeing to limit development of their nuclear weapons capability and increase access for outside inspectors in exchange for $7 billion of sanction relief.

The key point to understand about this agreement – in addition to its very existence being impossible only a year ago under the Ahmadinejad regime – is that it is a modest start. That $7 billion figure represents just over 1% of Iran’s Gross Domestic Product for 2011 and, while it will doubtless provide a tangible benefit to some Iranian citizens, is clearly a token level of assistance. In exchange, Iran agreed to:

·        Stop enriching uranium beyond the critical 5% level at which it stops being necessary for civilian purposes, and will neutralize its current stockpile of 20% enriched uranium (the enrichment level much closer to weapons grade) by diluting it back down into 5% or turning it into fuel rods, making them impossible to use for weapons;
·        Grant increased access to UN inspectors, including daily access to the Fordo and Natanz sites; and
·        Halt development of the Arak heavy water reactor plant, rumored to be the main point of contention leading to the French scuppering of the previous attempt at an agreement two weeks ago.

The agreement is set to last for six months, during which time the signatories agreed that there will be no new sanctions levied against Iran if they abide cooperate to the above extent. The idea is to reward Iran for becoming a member of the international community, and that in exchange for abiding by the behavioral strictures and limitations that implies, they will be entitled to economic prosperity and the same protection of international law and society afforded to other members of this community.

This civil transformation of Iran is especially important given their position of centrality in the Middle East. An Iran that is, as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu warns, devoted to the destruction of Israel would be by definition a de-stabilizing force in a region of the world that is already extremely unstable, and if the deal does in fact legitimize the Iranian nuclear program instead of working towards dismantling it, as Netanyahu claims, then Netanyahu – when he calls the agreement “a historic mistake” – will truly be Churchill to Obama and Kerry’s Chamberlain.

The agreement’s very modesty, however, militates against this comparison. Hitler had already annexed the Sudetenland when he met with Chamberlain and – with the hindsight of history – clearly had no intention of stopping with Czechoslovakia. The signals coming from Iran, including support for the deal as well as the idea of Iran rejoining the international community, by the new, more moderate Iranian President Rouhani suggest that, while he is committed to developing a nuclear energy program, he is also committed to Iran’s being a more engaged, responsible member of the international community. In contrast, Secretary Kerry, in saying the deal “is not based on trust,” could hardly sounds less like the naif the deal’s critics suggest him to be. It is entirely possible that this agreement is exactly what President suggests it is: “an important first step.” And if it is a mistake, it is an easily reversible one.

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