Despite its obvious weaknesses, and undaunted by the usual hyperbole of the Obama administration and its bearers, beaters, and apologists, led by John (“unbelievably small”) Kerry, I think the Geneva agreement over the Iranian nuclear program is progress. Habitual readers will recall that I had effectively given up on this administration doing anything except, to conflate phrases of FDR and Mao Tse-tung, “stand idly by with folded arms” while the ayatollahs seeded the topography of Iran with launchers loaded with nuclear-tipped missiles. Of course, this would have led to similar arms in the hands of the Saudis, Egyptians, and Turks, which, with Iran, Pakistan, and Israel, would have made the Middle East a dense forest of nuclear missiles aimed heavenwards on their launchers, but angled at each other. At that point, a nuclear exchange would be practically inevitable, even if it were initiated by one of the Muslim countries in the region tacitly allowing a terrorist group to deliver a suitcase bomb in a container ship and then unctuously claiming not to have known anything about it (much as Mullah Omar, then the ruler of Afghanistan, did after the 9/11 attacks). The failed state is the refuge of the enemies of civilized, or even just powerful, countries, as it affords the world’s most odious people the excuse of claiming no direct responsibility for the outrages launched from such places, e.g., terrorism in Sudan or piracy in Somalia.
While the Geneva agreement relaxes sanctions, especially on petroleum and petrochemical products and precious metals, and will bring a gush of hard currency that the Iranian theocracy may be assumed likely to use mischievously (i.e., for criminal purposes), that freshet of economic stimulus will be addictive to many Iranians who are not enjoying their present threadbare economic condition, which is not entirely palliated by the knowledge that those who claim charge of their immortal Islamic souls are close to being able to trigger mutual nuclear incineration with designated impious regimes.
Public opinion doesn’t count for much in Iran, as the brazenly fraudulent re-election of the unlamented lunatic Ahmadinejad showed. But it may have some weight in this case, especially since those who will profit most from the relaxation of sanctions are always with such states the biggest crooks, as well as being those who are, by virtue of their prosperity, the closest to, or highest in, government. It is conceivable that it will prove the best of both worlds for the well-swaddled Frankenstein Monster in Tehran: It enables Iran to re-enter the world in commercial terms, while retaining the ability to keep the world at the edge of its chair with an early capacity to finish nuclear weapons. And Tehran can claim to have prevailed upon the Great Powers (such as they now are) to climb down and relax their sanctions.
The fact that China, Russia, and the three leading countries of the EU are all involved strikes down the ability of the more venal of the important countries to claim that this deal was exclusively American in origin, and somehow justifies the use of “smart sanctions” instead of the actually enacted sanctions. (“Smart sanctions” was the French euphemism, prior to the Iraq War, for France’s making rich deals with Saddam while claiming to be keeping its sanctions end up). If the ayatollahs slap all of them in the face and begin enriching uranium again, or pursuing a plutonium bomb, all six of the countries will be affronted; it won’t merely be a case of the Iranians’ thumbing their nose at Washington and rejoicing in the popular intercontinental sport of slapping Obama, Kerry, and Susan Rice around.
While the agreement is for six months, the momentum to continue it will be considerable. A new imposition of sanctions would be more solid and collegial than before, given that the Chinese and Russians had not really joined in the sanctions that are now being relaxed. And the fact that France rejected the earlier draft agreement as just Obamaist flimflam and thinly disguised surrender to Tehran augurs well that it will be quite robust if Iran backslides. France led the world into Libya and prevented unimaginable horrors in Mali. The French have their failings, but if they determine either that something is in their interest or that it really would be inexcusable for moral reasons not to do it and it can actually be done without excessive risk — as in bombing Qaddafi or subduing the Malian terrorists with a small contingent of Legionnaires, Poles and Germans as most of them are — they will not be distracted with Anglo-Saxon humbug about the legal niceties.
Lest anyone has overlooked it, this agreement has not caused any retreat by Iran, only a slowdown in the march to a nuclear military capacity, and that only briefly. Superficially, it is a little like the worthless land-for-peace deals Israel made with the Palestinians: a permanent and irretrievable cession of territory Israel had conquered in wars the Arabs started and lost, in exchange for very temporary ceasefires that were not really observed at all. Iran retains its 7,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium and its 19,000 installed first-level centrifuges, as well as the smaller number of second-level centrifuges. Low-enriched uranium is 70 percent of the way toward military levels of quality. It is estimated that Iran could make a nuclear warhead from what it now has in as little as six weeks.
Secretary Kerry has misled the world with his claims that Iran has pledged to “destroy” its stock of 90 percent military-enriched uranium. The agreement requires Iran to convert half of this stock to oxide and dilute the other half to only a quarter of its present level of enrichment. These are concessions, if their performance can be verified, but both processes are reversible and this is far from the destruction that has been crowed about by Mr. Kerry.
The Geneva agreement does not deal at all with the heavy-water facility at Arak, which the Iranians can complete as soon as the six-month agreement ends. Nor is there anything like the level of inspection that the International Atomic Energy Agency says is necessary to ensure complete knowledge of the extent of the Iranian nuclear program and of that country’s possession of relevant materials. The IAEA has said that it “will not be in a position to provide credible assurance” about the extent of the Iranian program at present and forecasted levels of Iranian compliance and cooperation. It may be just as true that Iran believes there will be no will to do anything if it resumes development after six months, as that the six other signatories of the deal will enforce continuance of restraint.
This is, as has been emphasized by critics of the agreement, a pretty thin compliance with five United Nations Security Council (supposedly binding and ostensibly legitimate) resolutions requiring a verifiable end to the Iranian program of uranium enrichment. The Geneva settlement envisions a final agreement that will approve a “mutually defined enrichment program.” It is still a long way from the toothless and inconsequential sanctions of the League of Nations against Japan after its invasion of China in the Thirties, and the failure to lift a finger against the completely unprovoked and barbarous invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini in 1935.
Critics are right to be concerned that this agreement is far from a discouragement of other countries tempted to develop nuclear weapons. But that is a complicated matter, because the international community has been almost mute as the nuclear club has expanded from the United States to embrace seven other countries (excluding the former white-supremacist regime in South Africa, whose nuclear capacity was dismantled when the apartheid regime gave way to the present multiracial system). This included indulgence of China, despite Mao Tse-tung’s bellicosities about surviving a nuclear war in which hundreds of Chinese would be killed, and the vagaries of Pakistan, where, conceivably, Islamist radicals could seize the nuclear arsenal. The problem is the propensity for the Iranians to advocate the liquidation of Israel, and to take the gloves off with Sunni Muslims.
It is, in sum, an asymmetrical agreement, but it gets us six months closer to the election of a more purposeful administration in Washington; creates a united front with the former roosters in the manger of collective security, China and Russia; and could conceivably be an unembarrassing avenue toward less dangerous and irresponsible behavior by the odious government in Tehran. On balance and in all of the circumstances, I would happily give the president and his secretary of state a barely passing grade this time, an electrifying improvement over the horrifying shambles of their responses to events in Syria and Egypt.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].