Can we try look at the deal with Iran objectively, without allowing, for example, views about President Barack Obama or Benjamin Netanyahu to sway our judgment?
The matter is too important to let politics interfere. Does the preliminary agreement announced in Switzerland look as if it will make the world safe from an Iranian nuclear weapon and/or from an ominous nuclear arms race in the Middle East, the world’s most dangerous region?
When trying to look into what exactly the sides agreed to, the first major problem jumps out immediately: Iran and the United States are telling significantly different stories about the agreement.
In very rough terms, U.S. officials describe a compromise that looks possibly acceptable. Iranian officials, on the other hand, describe an agreement that, if it becomes the final version of a nuclear accord, could fairly be described as catastrophic.
President Obama declared shortly after taking office that he would not preside over the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran. That goal is easily met by the Lausanne parameters. Iran will not have a bomb before Obama leaves office if the deal is ultimately sealed.
Beyond that, there is much open to interpretation.
In the Lausanne joint press conference, we heard very vague outlines. Then the United States and Iran offered separate descriptions to their respective audiences. If the descriptions had been kept unchanged but the audiences switched, there would have been a loud outcry on both sides.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who led his delegation in Lausanne, announced on Iranian television that he had officially complained to U.S. officials, saying the American statement describing the agreement was not just somewhat off, it was “in contradiction,” to what the two parties had decided.
Making matters even more troubling, a summary of the draft prepared by the French government offers yet another interpretation, one that provides even more reasons for concern.
By now we know that the original goal of having Iran dismantle its nuclear program was quickly discarded by the U.S. negotiators. Iran will keep all of its nuclear installations, but they will operate at different levels, with fewer centrifuges, and will be subject to inspections. That is not in dispute.
What is in dispute is what exactly Iran will be allowed to do in those installations, how much the nuclear program will be allowed to advance during the coming years, how much access inspectors will have to make sure Iran is not violating its commitments, and how quickly sanctions will be lifted.
All these issues are crucial, not only for the issue of whether Iran ultimately builds nuclear weapons, but whether its neighbors — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey and others — decide that they, too, must build their own atomic arms to counteract Iran, a country that is already making territorial and political gains in the restive region.
The U.S. summary says Iran will not use advanced centrifuges. Iran says it will. The U.S. says Iran will dismantle the heavy-water reactor in Arak. Iran says no. The U.S. says sanctions will be lifted gradually. Iran says all at once.
Iranian and French summaries both say Iran will be allowed to use and produce much more advanced centrifuges that permit much faster nuclear enrichment.
U.S. spokesmen claim the inspection rules will be unprecedented. Ayatollah Ali Khamanei says “no unconventional inspections” would be acceptable. And Iran says its military sites will be off-limits to inspectors.
Crafting international sanctions, which forced Iran to come to the table, required a demanding and protracted diplomatic, technical and political effort. If the sanctions go away and Iran starts to cheat, they will not be easily or quickly rebuilt.
The deal aims to stretch out the so-called “breakout” time, the amount of time it would take Iran to make a bomb, to one year from the current estimate of three months.
In an interview with NPR a few days ago, Obama accidentally let on that the “more relevant fear” is what will happen toward the end of the agreement period, “in year 13, 14, 15, they (Iran) have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly,” which the president said would shrink the breakout time “almost down to zero.” The White House tried to explain away the inadvertent admission. That matters.
It may seem premature to worry about what might happen more than a dozen years from now, but that kind of prospect, today, would be enough to launch a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East.
The deal U.S. officials describe might be worth approving. The one Iran (and France) say was in the draft is totally unacceptable.
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for the Miami Herald.