One of the top U.S. experts on arms control told me, in an exclusive interview, that the agreement by world powers with Iran to block it from acquiring nuclear weapons is “a big deal.”
John D. Holum, chief of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control under President Bill Clinton, notes there are two paths to nuclear weapons – using either enriched uranium or plutonium – and “the agreement effectively fences off both routes.”
Verification of Iran’s actions means, “there’s no element of trust involved,” he says. Contrary to the demands of Ayatollah Khamenei, International Atomic Energy Agency “inspectors will have access to all sites, existing and suspected, including military facilities.”
“The IAEA is technically very proficient,” he reports. It will now be equipped with better tools to carry out inspections. Iran will be subject to these tougher safeguards. And the U.S. and others will continue their own intelligence operations to look for violations.
In the event of a violation of its commitment by Iran, all parties, including China, Russia and Iran, have agreed sanctions will “snap back” on. The decision to restart sanctions cannot be blocked by any or all of the three. The U.S. and its European allies have a majority vote. Agreement on a binding majority vote by an international body on such a major issue is quite unusual.
Answering the claims of some critics, Holum maintains, “it’s a common misperception that after some specific limits expire all bets are off.” Iran is bound by treaty obligations never to have nuclear weapons and “cheating in the future would be uncovered much more quickly” than in the past.
It is possible that Iran will try to cheat, but after verifiably giving up the fuel and equipment required for a nuclear weapon, it would need a year to build one, while Holum says it would now need only two months. “If Iran tries to cheat, we’ll know about it in plenty of time to react.”
The new agreement gives Iran only “a very short time to get back into full compliance” with its treaty obligations. Failure to do so brings the almost certain return of sanctions, which can cause real injury to the country’s economy.
One of the major arguments in support of the new deal is that the alternative would be worse. While he agrees that is true, Holum sees the agreement as having value going well beyond merely maintaining sanctions while allowing Iran to proceed with nuclear weapons development.
“The deal should be implemented,” he says, “because it succeeds in the core purpose of the sanctions and the negotiations – to ensure, with confidence, that Iran will not be able to secretly develop nuclear weapons.”
He implies that trying to press Iran further in negotiations would not have produced a better result than what was already achieved in the agreement. And as long as the multi-year negotiations continued, the new, tougher controls could not be applied.
Some critics stress that Iran supports terrorism, wants to destroy Israel and is our enemy in the Middle East, a region it would like to dominate. Without sanctions, it would gain the resources to pursue these goals. To these critics, the agreement does not go far enough but talks should have been pursued until Iran was disarmed and blocked from using nuclear power even for peaceful purposes.
It is worth noting that these objectives were not part of U.S. policy in dealing with the far more menacing Soviet Union or with North Korea, a country allowed to gain nuclear weapons and the means to use them against countries friendly to the U.S.
The declared purpose of the sanctions, adopted by the U.N., was to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, Holum notes. “Any U.S. attempt to repurpose them to other issues would certainly fail.”
The announcement of an agreement brought immediate opposition as well as recognition of the accord as an historic accomplishment. Some observers believe that Republican majorities in the House and Senate will vote to disapprove the agreement President Obama puts before them.
Obama would then veto their disapproval, and it would take two-thirds of both houses to override the veto. That means all Republicans would have to oppose the deal and pick up a block of Democrats to have enough votes for an override
Would all Republicans want this key deal be treated as a purely partisan matter? Would enough Democrats, fearful of offending Jewish voters, desert their president?
Holum believes the rest of the world has become so accustomed to partisan efforts in the U.S. to undermine Obama that approval by veto would not reduce confidence in the deal itself.
Right now, what’s needed is a thoughtful and thorough public review of the deal, free of preconceived positions on either side.