Buying time, at great risk

Buying time, at great risk

One thing is for sure about the interim nuclear deal negotiated over the weekend between Western powers and Iran: Israel hates it.

At least, the Israeli government hates it. There are some quarters in Israel where the deal is viewed as not so bad. But that’s beside the point.

There’s little wonder why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the deal, which was quickly hammered out by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany — the so-called P5+1  — and Iran, a “historic mistake.” Iran has given Israel no reason to trust it. Even it’s new “moderate” president, Hassan Rohani, has continued the anti-Israel rhetoric of his hardline predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, though perhaps not as vociferously.

But let’s be real: This deal is not about trust; it’s about time — buying time to be precise.

By agreeing to this six-month deal, the P5+1 hopes to extend Iran’s “breakout time” — the time it would need to actually build a nuclear weapon from the moment its leaders decide to do so while negotiating a permanent agreement.

With that in mind, this deal, while not great, may work if the Iranians truly are willing to give up their ambition to develop nuclear weapons:

• It freezes the use of many of Iran’s centrifuges, including its new generation units that can quickly enrich uranium from 5 to 90 percent — the weapons grade standard.

• It neutralizes its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent.

• It freezes its activity at the heavy water reactor at Arak, which would be used to make plutonium.

• Most important, it puts inspectors on the ground, enabling the West to learn more about Iran’s nuclear program than we ever knew before.

To be sure, this deal has problems, lots of them. As Israeli experts have already pointed out, Iran is still permitted to enrich uranium up to 5 percent, which is considered the hard part of the process. Also the inspectors may not have enough flexibility to perform surprise inspections at Iran’s facilities. As one expert said, Iran could “put on a show” for them.

What’s more, what if Iran has a secret facility somewhere where enrichment to weapons grade fuel continues unabated? That’s always a possibility.

But all those points are simultaneously reasons to buy time with an interim deal while the challenging talks toward a comprehensive settlement continue.

Keep in mind, Iran has moved ever forward with its nuclear program despite the crippling sanctions that are in place. As The New York Times reported Sunday, “Iran [in 2009] had roughly 2,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, barely enough for a bomb. It now has about 9,000 kilograms, by the estimates of the International Atomic Energy Agency. A few thousand centrifuges were spinning in 2009; today there are 18,000, including new models that are far more efficient and can produce bomb-grade uranium faster.”

And, as we have reported, Israeli hawks, including former IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Uzi Dayan, have told us that airstrikes can only slow down Iran’s nuclear program, not destroy it.

Even an invasion of the country, which would be devastating for all sides, wouldn’t take away what Iran’s scientists and engineers have learned about the nuclear process. As has been said, E=MC2 isn’t so hard to figure out, not anymore. None of the options available is ideal.

Most agree that a combination of sanctions and negotiations are the best way to keep the program in check. That one-two punch has finally produced fruit, however small and bland.

It’s unclear whether there will be any further fruits, though.  There are great risks. The Iranians will benefit immediately from some funds being released, and could benefit even more if this leads to sanctions unraveling, making them less likely to offer the deeper concessions required for a real deal. And Israel might decide that it has no faith in the process and that it can’t wait any longer.  

It’s not a perfect deal. It does buy some time but at the risk of actually setting back the prospects of a peaceful resolution. However, it’s done, so we have to make the best of it.