Back to the Future: Iran redux

Source: US State Department

For all those following CBRNPro.net, you've probably noticed a decided lack of new content over the last few weeks. We've been catching up on other tasks (like prepping for our new podcast series - to be released in September) and doing some world travel. We'll be in and out the rest of the summer, but fear not, CBRNPro.net is still working to deliver the best content we can to you.  

In that vein, the topic of the month has to be Iran. The deal struck this week in Vienna is the talk of the town, at least if you travel in our circles, and CBRNPro.net is here to offer our assessment. Though, beforehand, we want to cover some essential background.

To begin with, we view any "deal" with Iran with real skepticism. This is not the first time the world has hailed a landmark deal with Iran over its nuclear program. In 2004 we had another "landmark" deal with Iran, the so-called Paris Agreement. The fact that we are back at it again, and Iran is monumentally closer to a nuclear weapon (if they don't have one already...more on that in a minute), tells you how successful that effort was. In fact, that deal fell apart within a year. 

The truth is, Iran has never been truthful about its nuclear ambitions. The Iranians continually obfuscate elements of their program, and when caught red-handed they dissemble and lie.  The record is pretty clear. If it were not for the continuous revelations of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), usually identified as some nameless "dissident group" in most press reports, much of the Iranian program would still be unknown to the world's public. 

Now, the NCRI has its own reasons for what it does, and its information is not always accurate, but they do have a track record of revealing information the Iranians would prefer to keep secret, information subsequently verified publically by western intelligence or the IAEA. We are not talking "Curveball" here.

That said, the NCRI was linked to the former Iraqi regime. The NCRI is an umbrella group that covers a lot of dissident activity, but it's most visible element is the People's Mujahedin of Iran, known by its Farsi acronym MEK. That group, which in its early years leaned so far to the left, Karl Marx would have loved them, is most famous for fighting with Iraq against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and for its virulent anti-Americanism during the 1970s and 1980s.  

After exile in the early 1980s, they went on to serve the Saddam regime, and were long listed as a terrorist group by the US State department, with good reason, having targeted Americans in Iran in the 1970s. That designation was removed a few years ago, but the group continues to target the Iranian regime, which longs to wipe them out.  in any case, the MEK's actions against both Iranians and Iraqis during and after the Iran-Iraq war earned them the enmity of just about everyone in the region. 

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the MEK found itself confined to Camp Ashraf in Diyala Province Iraq, guarded by coalition forces (mostly to protect them from the Iraqis). This precarious position worsened when the US left Iraq and culminated in Iraqi government forces storming the camp, and after much violence, the remnants of the MEK still there were moved to the former Camp Liberty near Baghdad, where they remain in a precarious position, given the Iraqi government's close relations with Tehran. 

The MEK remains the core of the NCRI, with some analysts describing the two groups as something akin to Sein Fein and the IRA. The NCRI being the dissidents political wing, and the MEK militants being its armed wing. There are also many reports (some of the more outrageous based on Iranian propaganda) that the MEK has a working relationship with both Israeli and Western intelligence, and the attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists in Iran were MEK operations. 

So, while the NCRI is a complex source of information, and must be taken with a grain of salt, they were responsible for revealing much of what is now public knowledge of the Iranian program.  Further, given all of the information the Iranians are more than willing to put out there, the deal struck in Vienna, even if it holds, may be too late.

A good analysis of the current deal is over at Defense One where Graham Allison of the Atlantic lays out the specifics quite well. The problems Allison, and most analysts, fail to address, are of trust and of the accuracy of current assessments. 

The trust issue first. It is a given that the Iranians are not, were not, and will not be entirely forthcoming about all they have been up to. They never have acted with honesty about their nuclear program, they have no incentive to (would you if you were them?) and there is no reason to suspect they will now.  A cursory examination of the terms of the current deal shows a lot of trucksized loopholes that the Iranians will certainly exploit, particularly when it comes to IAEA verification and Iranian declarations of past activity.

There is also the question of any deal with a totalitarian state. As Natan Sharansky used to argue, treaties with totalitarian or authoritarian states are not durable.  Republics and democracies pay a political price both internally and externally for breaking an agreement. That makes them more reluctant to do so. They may still do it, but it is rare, and usually involves core national interests. Totalitarian/authoritarian regimes do not face political sanction internally, and externally they are frequently pariahs already.

That means that negotiations for a treaty/international agreement are viewed in western democracies as a means to achieve a "solution." Totalitarian/authoritarian regimes view them as a means to an end, one that can be just as easily cheated on or broken, often with little downside cost. The history of the DPRK's nuclear program is littered with examples, but there is an equivalent history in the US and Soviet/Russian relationship. 

Iran is no different. Every declaration of past activity made by the Iranian regime to the IAEA was later found to be false. That will not suddenly change. Further, the Pentagon's insistence on inspections at military sites, while a valid consideration, is wide open to future problems. In fact, it is likely that the Iranians will continue to play games with IAEA inspectors. In the past, the trend is for the Iranians to delay access to a site, destroy and raze everything on that site and move whatever was there, frustrating any inspection. A great example being their recent activities at Pachin, but there are many other very public examples of such behavior.

This leads to the second key problem of the current deal. If one assumes the Iranians are short of a bomb, then the deal, even if the Iranians play games on the back end, almost certainly reduces their nuclear weapons production capacity, and at a minimum, kicks the can down the road a bit.  But that assumes a lot.  Even by conservative estimates, Iran has enough enriched uranium on hand now to make 5-7 gun-type atomic weapons, and they likely possess the capability to make an implosion device as well.  So, deal or no deal, there is significant ambiguity around what Iran already possesses, based on what we know publically. 

That means that Iran already has "nuclear ambiguity" and could break out whenever it wanted to. The deal may lengthen that breakout time somewhat, but not by much (less than a year).  Which still assumes that their aren't already nuclear cores tucked away safely somewhere in Iran. 

So, this deal does not really keep the Iranians from making an atomic weapon. In fact, they may already possess one, or have the capability to make one quickly.  The deal really only limits their capacity for new, additional weapons, and reduces their capability to produce plutonium based devices, the key step to moving to a thermonuclear weapon.  

That is why the U.S. Defense Department insisted that the arms embargo on missile technology and several other elements stay in place longer than other sanctions. If they can't stop the bomb, then limiting the Iranians' ability to deliver it is the next logical step. The Vienna deal isn't about preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear capability. They did that already, right in the open. It is about containing that capability, even if it is for a short term (perhaps until after Presidential elections in 2016). 

In other words, the P5, and the Iranians had converging goals.  For the current US administration, the deal was about "legacy" and containment, but also delay.  For the Europeans, Iran was always a side issue anyway, and they regularly cheat on arms embargoes and sanctions anyway.  Further, the US needs Iranian assistance against ISIS, so a thaw in relations has added benefits, linked to ending other parts of the arms embargo.  For the Iranians, delaying the deal was essential to achieving their present nuclear ambiguity. Since they have reached that goal, they can now cut the deal that lifts many of the sanctions.  

In any final assessment, it is a safe bet that this deal (like those previous) will not last, and that there will be games played, even if it ever goes into effect, which is not a guarantee either. Both the Senate in the US and the Mullahs in Iran have internal political reasons to upend the deal. Further, Israel remains a wild card. This deal meets none of their concerns. They will pull out all the stops to tank it.

Finally, there is the MEK.  They are the biggest losers in any deal.  In 2003, the Iranians were willing to give up big parts of their nuclear program and their support for Hamas and Hezbollah to get their hands on the MEK, as revealed by the BBC some years ago. Given their stroke in Baghdad, what is left of the MEK in Iraq and Iran (most of its senior members decamped to Europe long ago), is literally looking at extermination. That gives them more incentive than even Israel to upend this deal. Keep in mind, in 2003-2004 the MEK quickly ingratiated itself to the US and the West with its nuclear revelations about Iran, which led to the Paris Agreement, and contributed to its downfall. There is no reason to believe a similar scenario will not repeat. In fact, the NCRI is probably pounding the ground hard looking for anything to discount any Iranian declarations on the back end of this deal. 

So it really is, back to the future. We are where we were, the only difference this time is that Iran's nuclear capability probably crossed the rubicon at least a year ago, whereas it was a far off prospect in 2004.

So, given all that, there really aren't any good options on the table. The US and Europe are not about to attack Iran, and even if they (or Israel) did, it would not, at this stage, likely impact Iranian capabilities in the long term. The fact is, this deal is about delay and containment, which neither the present US administration, or the Iranian regime, will ever admit. However, declared strategy or not, the deal, if ever implemented, does offer a pathway to containment, while the Iranians get to maintain their nuclear ambiguity. Thats a win-win, even if its not the optimal solution for either side. Given that, the deal itself isn't necessarily a bad one for the West, it's just that neither side is selling it as that. 

So, given all that, there is only one safe conclusion.  Iran and Israel will not remain the two nuclear powers in the Middle East for long, containing Iran only limits their program, and their nuclear ambiguity poses a real problem for the Sunni led states in the middle east. The real issue when all the dust settles around the table in Vienna, is how long until we are talking about an Egyptian, Turkish, or Saudi nuclear weapon?