Judging a P5+1 Nuclear Agreement with Iran: The Key Criteria

All too often in the real world, peace is an extension of war by other means. This is certainly the case with the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. The negotiations only have taken place because Iran faced sanctions and the equivalent of economic warfare. There is no evidence as yet that any agreement is going to bring a broader détente, and every aspect of the negotiations has so far left unresolved questions about the nature of Iran’s nuclear programs, created new debates over trade-offs in Iran’s efforts in return for easing sanctions, and involved a continuing propaganda and political battles between Iran and the members of the P5+1.

At least in the near term, even the best outcome will have no impact on the massive conventional arms race in the Gulf, Iran’s buildup of its missile and asymmetric warfare forces, or Iran’s efforts to increase its military and strategic influence in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. If anything, the negotiations have created new fears and concerns among the Arab Gulf states and Iran’s neighbors while the competition between Iran and the Southern Gulf states for influence over Iraq and Yemen has steadily intensified.

Détente may come at some point in the future, but any nuclear agreement that does finally emerge will be the result of an adversarial relationship, and one that is unlikely to have any predictable ending after an agreement is signed.  Signing is also only the start of what normally is a long period of arguments over the exact terms of the agreement and over how it should be implemented, and a competition to find ways to obtain an advantage in exploiting it.

Arms control is a process, not an event. Actually implementing an agreement will involve a list of questions and issues, clarifications, and efforts to push the agreement to one side’s advantage that will go on for years. Like peace, arms control can be an extension of war by other means and often proves to be a serious of ongoing political and technical battles.

Things will not be eased by the internal tensions within each side. Members of Iran’s ruling “revolutionary” elite have aired public arguments between various factions over virtually every aspect of the negotiations, over dealing with the US, and the over the future of Iran’s nuclear power program. The Obama Administration and Republican majority in the Congress, and liberals and conservatives, have held equally public debates, and the President has publically feuded with the Prime Minister of Israel. Debates have surfaced between the US and key Arab allies like Saudi Arabia, as well as within the P5+1. As is often the case with arms control, the future of the agreement may depend at least as much on its politics as its merits.

The Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS is releasing a new report, “Judging a P5+1 Nuclear Agreement with Iran: The Key Criteria.” That report is available on the CSIS website at https://www.csis.org/analysis/judging-p51-nuclear-agreement-iran-key-criteria