Vox Has Second Thoughts on Obama’s Iran Deal

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

When negotiators in Lausanne, Switzerland announced the framework of a nuclear agreement with Iran earlier this month, Vox’s Max Fisher proclaimed it an “astonishingly good” deal. Less than three weeks later, Fisher is now highlighting the case against the deal.

When the U.S. fact sheet was published, Fisher seemed elated to find his own skepticism had been overcome:

Like many observers, I doubted in recent months that Iran and world powers would ever reach this stage; the setbacks and delays had simply been too many. Now, here we are, and the terms are far better than expected. There are a number of details still to be worked out, including one very big unresolved issue that could potentially sink everything. This is not over. But if this framework does indeed become a full nuclear deal in July, it would be a huge success and a great deal.

Since then, some of the air has come out of the balloon. There’s actually less reason to believe Iran’s cheating would be caught than there was three weeks ago. Iran’s leaders have repeatedly said there will be no inspections allowed at military sites, i.e. exactly the places where Iran would likely run its covert nuclear research. Fisher doesn’t mention any of this. On the surface, he’s just as enthusiastic about the inspections as he once was. However, in the interview today, he now admits there is another problem:

Under any reading of what Iran ultimately wants, their incentive to stick to a nuclear deal would be the fear that if they cheat, they’ll be caught and then they’ll be punished for it.

Arms control analysts I’ve spoken to say the inspections regime described in the framework would be very effective at catching Iran if it cheats. But they acknowledge that the agreement is not going to talk about enforcement — it’s not going to spell out what happens if Iran cheats — because that’s just not how these agreements work.

So then you have this big question mark of what happens if Iran gets caught cheating. It’s not just us wondering; the Iranian leaders are surely gaming this out, as well. And I honestly don’t feel like I know what the answer is.

In other words, even if we assume the IAEA can catch Iran in the act, we have no idea what would happen next. That’s actually not true though. We do have some idea what will happen next, because we’ve seen this movie before when it played out in Iraq. On the same day Fisher posted his piece on the “astonishingly good” deal, Politico Magazine published a piece titled “The Iran Deal’s Fatal Flaw” by Charles Duelfer.

The IAEA inspectors will be reporting whatever evidence they are permitted to collect to a Council that will have competing aims. They will be pressed to make judgments that suit various members. Iran would have to do something incredibly blatant for some Council members to not be able to debate the meaning of the evidence. Council members coached Saddam; they will coach Tehran as well.

There is already evidence that Iran is aware movement toward a deal, even if it eventually fails, will help prevent a return to sanctions. Last Thursday, President Rouhani told a group of reporters that the U.S. needed the nuclear deal more than Iran did. Why did he think so? Rouhani explained, “if we do not reach an agreement, the sanctions regime will not continue like before.” Since the framework was announced, China agreed to build a natural gas pipeline in Pakistan, and Russia agreed to move forward with the transfer of anti-aircraft missiles to Iran.
Iran knows the process itself is working in its favor. It’s not just the relief from sanctions, which Iran wants; it’s also being seen as a responsible actor on the world stage despite its current regional behavior, its history of killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and its own past work on nuclear weapons.
The real problem with the deal, which Vox seems to have belatedly recognized, is that it promises scrutiny but can’t promise consequences. Even what consequences there are likely won’t be as harsh as the sanctions Iran will get relief from the moment the deal is implemented.