In the early hours of Sunday morning, in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and foreign ministers from Russia, China, and Europe signed a deal to suspend aspects of Iranian nuclear work in exchange for some sanctions relief. "With this first step, we have created the time and the space in order to be able to pursue a comprehensive agreement…to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon," Kerry told assembled diplomats and journalists.
President Barack Obama was triumphant. "Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure – a future in which we can verify that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon."
He should not be so certain. Rather than prevent Iran's nuclear breakout, historians may mark the Geneva deal as the step that most legitimized Iran's path to nuclear weapons capability.
Willing to deal is not synonymous with sincere desire to reach a comprehensive settlement. Key to successful reconciliation is truth, and there are many reasons to doubt Iranian intentions, none of which did the Geneva negotiators address. Iranian authorities say they seek nuclear technology to ensure domestic energy security, but as the Bipartisan Policy Center showed, Tehran could achieve that aim for a fraction of the cost and for decades, if not centuries, longer if it chose to invest instead in its pipeline and refinery infrastructure.
Neither Obama nor Kerry have demanded Tehran clarify past deception. If Iran's nuclear program has always been peaceful as Tehran claims, then it would have had no need to hide enrichment plants and other facilities from inspectors. It is all well and good to compliment Iran on allowing inspections of key plants once discovered, but a sincere Tehran would not offer transparency only when intelligence services discover subterfuge.
Iran also walked away from previous offers – and even agreements – that would see it guaranteed reactor fuel should it agree that critical reprocessing might occur abroad. Unfortunately, the current deal rewards Iran for its past defiance and loosens what diplomats once considered the minimum safeguards.
Fear over Iranian intentions is genuine. While Iranian officials say that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa banning nuclear weapons, the collection of his fatwas on his official websites does not include it. Iranian officials and diplomats citing it have been inconsistent as to its date of issue and contents. Meanwhile, various Iranian officials have threatened to use nuclear weapons, curious statements from a regime that claims they do not seek to develop them.
Indeed, on December 14, 2001, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the father of Iran's post-revolutionary nuclear program, reportedly declared: "The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would totally destroy Israel, while the same against the Islamic world would only cause damage. Such a scenario is not inconceivable." Just over three years later, Iran Emrooz quoted Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Kharrazi, secretary general of Iranian Hezbollah, as saying, "We are able to produce atomic bombs and we will do that. We shouldn't be afraid of anyone. The U.S. is not more than a barking dog." On May 29, 2005, Hojjat ol-Islam Gholam Reza Hasani, the Supreme Leader's personal representative in the West Azerbaijan province, reportedly declared possession of nuclear weapons to be one of Iran's top goals. "An atom bomb…must be produced as well," he said. While some academics have suggested that Iranian leaders never said they hoped to "wipe Israel off the face of the earth," official translations and banners suggest otherwise.
Past National Intelligence Estimates have further concluded that Iran has researched and experimented with nuclear weapons components, a charge that Iranian officials have always denied. While subsequent estimates suggested that Tehran stopped such work, an Islamic Republic sincere in putting past suspicions behind it would come clean.
True, the deal signed is better than that scuttled by French officials earlier this month. Diplomats have now placed restrictions on Iranian engineers using the pause to install new centrifuges. And negotiators have addressed concern regarding the potential of Iran extracting plutonium from the Arak heavy water plant.
Does it hurt to try with the current deal? Unfortunately, still, the answer is yes.
While Iran has agreed to suspend some enrichment, every concession Tehran has granted is reversible. The legitimacy of six unanimous or near unanimous U.N. Security Council Resolutions demanding Iran cease enrichment as a result of its non-compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty's safeguards agreement can never be restored. The billions of dollars in sanctions relief Iran receives might very well pump new life into Tehran's nuclear program. After all, when the European Union nearly tripled trade with Iran between 2000 and 2005, the Iranian government responded by spending the preponderance of its hard currency windfall on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Perhaps, diplomats hope that, with some pressure relieved, Iranian officials will now negotiate sincerely during the next six months to resolve its nuclear file permanently. If so, they will be disappointed. By rewarding Iran for decades of defiance, negotiators have now set a precedent by which, whenever Tehran needs cash, it can restart enrichment and then demand billions in payment for temporary suspensions. In effect, Iran has replicated North Korea's strategy: blackmail for cash and technology.
Second term presidents always seek legacies. President Clinton pushed hard at Camp David II to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat walked away, and violence increased exponentially. Likewise, President George W. Bush sought a comprehensive settlement with North Korea. His administration removed North Korea from its list of terror sponsors and lifted some sanctions. In response, Pyongyang redoubled its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and accelerated terrorism against South Korea.
Unfortunately, the Iranian nuclear deal appears to fall into the same pattern. Not every country must be met halfway, and not every compromise is wise. The difference between appeasement and compromise is often determined only in historical hindsight. When historians consider the Geneva deal, they likely will categorize it as the former.