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Agreement With Iran From 30,000 Feet

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Talks between the US and Iran to put something like the JCPOA back in place have been going on for a couple of years now. I’m not keeping close track of the talks the way I did back in 2014 and 2015, because back then the issues were the kind of thing I know about – what to do with the planned reactor, how to limit enrichment, technical stuff.

The negotiating was brilliant. The final deal was better than the experts expected. Hundreds of experts from the national laboratories helped to develop it.

And then, of course, came Donald Trump and his idea that his personality and unyielding pressure would yield “a better deal.” I emphasize those words because they have been used – and continue to be used – by those who want to tank any deal.

So the US withdrew from the agreement, and Iran responded by upping its uranium enrichment. They increased the percentage enrichment in steps, publicly. They were sending a message to the US to get back into the agreement. But the US huffed and stomped.

Then Joe Biden wanted to put the agreement back in place because it was a good agreement and because the “strategy” of increased pressure had put Iran closer to a nuclear weapon than it ever had been before. I put that word in quotes because there there’s no reason to believe there was any thought behind Trump’s actions.

Reports on the recent negotiating have swung wildly from an agreement being imminent to all parties leaving the talks. The negotiators themselves are less forthcoming than the negotiators were for the JCPOA. They were appropriately quiet, but they provided occasional progress reports. My sense of the recent negotiations the reports have reflected real ups and downs. The technical material that was the center of the 2015 agreement is much less the subject now, when the issues are sanctions and timing of actions, with the status of political prisoners recently mentioned.

Reports from the negotiations have also been unreliable, with deliberate disinformation mixed in. For all those reasons, I haven’t followed as closely as I did the earlier negotiations. But closely enough to venture a broad view.

In the last week or two, there seems to be some optimism. Both the US and Iran have more to gain by limiting Iran’s nuclear program than otherwise. But the US has to lift sanctions, which internal US politics make difficult. Europe is involved too, but the central issues are between the US and Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s aggressive approach to getting a nuclear program – wanting to buy reactors and an enrichment facility – and generally assertive posture motivates both the US and Iran to get their nuclear issue settled. Iran is normalizing its relations with Saudi Arabia, and they are winding down their proxy war in Yemen. But Saudi Arabia is also edging closer to Israel, and Israel seems eager for a war between Iran and the United States.

Israel and its allies – particularly the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), the Institute for Science and International Security, and other rightwing US think tanks – are spreading rumor and disinformation about the negotiations, often with the demand for “a better agreement” It’s not been clear since 2014 or so what that “better agreement” is, or why Israel is so eager for another war in the Middle East.

The scare talk about “breakout time” is often part of the disinformation campaign. The term refers to a particular quantity of enriched uranium, not a bomb, but that group of think tanks pushed the concept, because that conflation is so easy to make.

If Iran wanted a bomb, they would have one. They gave up a bomb program in 2003, and their recent increases in enrichment quality have been measured and explicitly intended to motivate the US back into the agreement. It’s a dangerous strategy, though, because it empowers their hardliners, who might eventually push things toward a bomb. Iran needs relief from the sanctions, and the Biden administration will need to make the exchange – sanctions for a curtailed nuclear program – clear to the American public. Israel and its allies will do everything they can to muddle those waters.

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I didn’t provide links because too many are clouded by wishful thinking, along with the disinformation, and things are changing fast. If you want one journalist to follow on this topic, I recommend Laura Rozen. I hope the negotiators can work through to an agreement.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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