Thursday, July 14, is the one-year anniversary of the official announcement of the nuclear deal with Iran. It’s also roughly the six-month mark since Implementation Day, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified that Iran had complied with the deal’s preliminary conditions and could start to get sanctions relief in exchange for continued good behavior.
So now is a great time to stop and ask an important question: Now that we’ve gotten some time to see how the deal works in practice, is it working out well?
To find out, I got in touch with Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. That’s an impressive-sounding title, and it should be: Lewis is a longtime, dyed-in-the-wool expert on the nitty-gritty of nuclear agreements. He’s been following the Iran deal closely, with an eye toward whether the implementation is moving Iran away from or closer to getting a bomb.
His verdict is pretty upbeat: “I'm going to be roundly attacked for saying it, but I think it's gone very well,” he says.
Lewis explains that the nuclear deal is, to the disappointment of critics, mostly working out as written. Iran is basically complying with the core parts of the agreement — such as limiting the number of centrifuges it has and eliminating its stockpile of highly enriched uranium that could quickly be converted to weapons-grade material — that make it harder for the country to make a nuclear weapon.
But the deal has also failed to satisfy some of its strongest proponents.
These folks — including some in the Obama administration — hoped that a nuclear agreement might reorient Iran’s foreign policy in a more pro-American direction. This hasn’t happened: Iran still hates Israel, props up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and supports Shia sectarianism in places like Iraq and Yemen.
But Lewis argues that anyone who was expecting that to happen was deluding themselves. The deal on the nuclear program was always just that: a deal on the nuclear program — not a deal on Syria or Israel. The problem with the Washington debate over the Iran deal, he says, is that it’s serving as a proxy for debates over US foreign policy — which distract from the core question of whether Iran is further away from a bomb than it was a year ago.
“No one actually gives a shit about nonproliferation,” Lewis says, in typically colorful fashion. The deal is “an opportunity for them to have this stupid debate that they've been having for years, and that they'll [continue to] have for years.”
What follows is a transcript of my conversation with Lewis, edited for length and clarity.
Zack Beauchamp: We've got an exciting one-year anniversary coming up. How would you assess the implementation of the deal a year on, given the information we have?
Jeffrey Lewis: Well, I'm going to be roundly attacked for saying it, but I think it's gone very well. The IAEA hasn't reported any problems with the [core provisions], and the fuel [arrangement] seems to be working about how we thought it would work.
I will note that there were these other discourses that are going on. There are people who hated the deal, who are constantly erecting obstacles and finding — I shouldn't say “finding” — inventing faults in the deal. There's this one narrative about all these problems, but as far as I can tell, those are largely in people's imaginations.
Then there's the other discourse. Some advocates in the United States, and certainly many Iranians, I think saw the narrow nonproliferation agreement as the harbinger of some new bilateral relationship. That's been for some people — but not for me — a little bit of letdown. I'm not one to think that a single deal transforms a relationship. I think the extent that some people are disappointed, it's more about them not having proper expectations than it is any fault of the deal itself.
ZB: There are broadly three themes there — about how the deal is actually working out in practice, what its critics get wrong, and why some of its advocates are disappointed. Let's start with the first one.
You said you think that on the narrow nonproliferation terms, the deal has gone very well. What information that's come out in the past year leads you to believe that?
JL: The IAEA has been regularly reporting on Iran's compliance, and Iran is complying with the deal.
From my perspective, the goal was always to put into place a verifiable gap between Iran's bomb option and their actually having a bomb. The deal has all these provisions that create that gap, and the IAEA has verified them.
ZB: Which provisions, specifically, have set up this gap?
JL: The number of centrifuges, the amount of material they can have, the type of access that the IAEA has. I mean, it's a very long plan. I forget how many pages it is. All of Iran's nuclear commitments — the annex to the agreement sets out all of these things that Iran may not do, like:
- They can only have so many centrifuges.
- The centrifuges must be located at Natanz.
- They have to convert Fordow to stabilized isotope separation.
- They can't stockpile enriched uranium [that could quickly be converted to a bomb].
- They have to convert the reactor at Arak so it uses less plutonium.
- They can't stockpile heavy water [beyond agreed-upon limits for legitimate needs].
All those things, they’ve done.
So six months in, there just haven't been any show-stopping disputes. There've been the normal challenges with implementing any big, complicated agreement — we could talk about some of those. But if you look at the IAEA reports, they're pretty straightforward.
The biggest attack on the IAEA reports, from people who didn't want the deal in the first place, is that there's not enough information. If your argument against the deal is to go fishing, then things are in pretty good shape.
ZB: But you mentioned some of the legitimate challenges that have come up. What are those?
JL: Well, one big challenge is the procurement channel. Under the agreement, Iran is supposed to procure all of its dual-use tools used for its nuclear program through this [United Nations] procurement channel where the procurements are approved. That way they could be monitored and tracked.
There's a problem with that, and there was no good solution to it. Some of the things Iran is going to want to buy are going to upset us, because we're going to have our views of what they deserve to have, and they're going to have their views. A lot of the goods that one would use in its nuclear program are dual use in a particular way, which is that you can also use them for the missile program.
Obviously, Iranians aren't going to be able to use that [UN] channel for illicit procurement for their missile program. If they did, that would be a PR nightmare. What that means is that the Iranians are going to continue illicit procurement for their missile program.
They've just now gotten around to setting up a procurement channel. There were a fair number of discussions and disputes about how that exactly worked; it sounds like it's all squared away now. You would expect bumps and bruises as you're trying to set up a procedure like that, and I think going forward, there will consistently be reports that Iran is procuring things outside of the channel, which seems to be a natural course because they still have a missile program.
There's no spoken solution to that, unless you can get them to get rid of the missile program. It's not really a problem with the deal, per se, it's just a problem with life being hard.
ZB: That's one of the things that I've heard — to get to your second theme about deal critics — from people who are critical of the deal. I’ve seen a lot of people citing a German intelligence report, for example, that said Iran has been seeking banned nuclear and missile technology.
JL: That is deeply dishonest of them. Do you know what the dates for the period covered by the German intelligence report are?
Calendar year 2015. That would be before the deal was implemented.
Would it surprise me if Iran went on a shopping spree before they had to go through the procurement channel? No. Of course not.
One thing that I have to really strongly object to is people seem to act like the Iranians have to be Boy Scouts for this to be a good deal. They're not Boy Scouts. The reason we had to sign a nonproliferation deal with them is that there are people in Iran who want to build a nuclear weapon.
It is not at all surprising to me that the Iranians might do things like go on a shopping spree before the deal kicks in. That's not great news, but it's also what you'd expect. If they were nice people who wanted to build a world free of nuclear weapons, we wouldn't have to have this deal.
I think what a lot of people are doing is they're trying to turn this into a beauty contest. "Oh, see, the Iranians are bad and scary, and so you shouldn't have a deal with them." I would turn that around: Yeah, the Iranians are bad and scary, which is why you should have a deal that gives the IAEA more monitoring so they don't get a nuclear weapon. I get a little frustrated by that.
ZB: This seems to get to the broader point: It's really easy to point to instances of Iranian malfeasance, but those don't violate the fundamental terms of the deal about centrifuges, for instance — the things that actually put up roadblocks in the way of them building a nuclear weapon.
JL: I know. There's another great example. There was this kerfuffle about heavy water, where people will say Iran briefly violated the terms of the deal because they have more than 130 tons. If you go read the deal, it does not say they may not have more than 130 tons. We had said that they wouldn't stockpile excess heavy water beyond reasonable requirements, and then it defines their reasonable requirements as “estimated to be 130 tons." It has the word "estimated." It's not a hard limit.
What happened in real life was the Iranians made a commitment to say, "Well, we think we're going to need about this much, and if it gets above that, then we'll get rid of it." They did go above 130 tons, and then they shipped it out.
A normal, nonbiased person would say, "Oh, look, the deal works perfectly." It set the soft cap. When [Iran] exceeded the soft cap, they agreed to ship the material out, and everything is ducky. People who hate the deal and are looking for reasons to oppose the deal walk around talking about how Iran violated it. But it’s not true.
I think in any agreement that is complicated and that's between multiple countries, there are absolutely going to be differences in interpretation, there are going to be foul-ups, there are going to be mistakes. What every arms control or nonproliferation agreement has is a method to resolve those things.
You don’t measure an agreement on whether every day is perfect. You measure it on when you had concerns or challenges, did the agreement allow you to address them. I think so far, the answer is yeah.
ZB: This also relates to the third point you raised initially — the expectation of some in the administration and Washington that this would shift Iranian foreign policy in an American-friendly direction. These hopes have been dashed: Iran is continuing to pursue its foreign policy objectives as it sees them, which includes nasty things like supporting Bashar al-Assad and Shia sectarian militias in Iraq.
But at the same time, it has become much harder for Iran to get a bomb. The deal is working as an arms control agreement, but not as a means of transforming Iran’s role in the Middle East.
JL: Yeah. It's odd to me — proponents and opponents both exaggerate, but I actually think that it's a slightly different problem, which is no one actually gives a shit about nonproliferation.
Whenever we have a nonproliferation deal with Iran, what actually happens is these two massive communities of people, people who want better relations with Iran and people who hate Iran, get drawn into the debate.
They hijack what is a really narrow and technical discussion, like, "What should be the conditions for IAEA access to a centrifuge facility?” They use that to have their own debate about whether we should hate the Iranians a lot.
People who want to like the Iranians say: “Oh, this is going to change everything, and it's going to make things so much better!” And then the people who hate the Iranians say: “This going to be a permission slip for them to do all these horrible things.” Not a single one of these people truly cares about ... the narrow problem of putting into play better IAEA monitoring on Iran's nuclear programs, nor do they care about how nonproliferation agreements work in general.
It's an opportunity for them to have this stupid debate that they've been having for years and that they'll [continue to] have for years.
It's not surprising to me that people's expectations got out of control. I work in a field people just generally don't care about. They want it to stand for something else. They want it to be about these big ideas about regional order in the Middle East and who our allies are.
No, this [deal] is a moderately better form of monitoring to the IAEA that will increase the time it would take for Iran to build a bomb, and will reduce the likelihood that they'll want to try to build a bomb. That's just too boring for most people.
The IAEA can do amazing things. When you really know what they do, you — at least I — appreciate what they do. They provide a lot of monitoring and verification.
People's folk beliefs about how that monitoring and verification happens are very unrealistic. When they confront the terms of the agreement, they don't see it as being much stronger than any other agreement. They see it as being weaker in their absurd folk belief. You can’t compete with people’s crazy expectations.