The world has been holding its breath awaiting the formal response to the historical signing of a nuclear agreement between the United States and six other nations with Iran this past July. The agreement, if enacted, would lift economic sanctions against Iran while, hopefully, preventing Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon for at least ten years and beyond. The US Congress has sixty days to either agree to or reject the agreement. News on an almost daily basis gives a tally of who may or may not vote in favor or against the agreement in both Republican-controlled houses of the Congress. President Obama on his part has threatened to veto any action to reject the agreement. Being a pre-year Presidential election year (yes, we are still more than a year away from any Presidential elections!) all seventeen of the Republican candidates have weighed in (aghast and against), as well as the three Democrat hopefuls (cautiously in favor, maybe), making this a multi-media event of major proportions. Before reviewing the most salient particulars of the Iranian deal it might be useful to consider how a similar nuclear agreement was successfully negotiated in the past and the lessons we might learn in our current circumstance.
Twenty-five years ago I served as the Science Counselor for our US Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. One of my key mandates was to assist our ambassador and the US government in its efforts to convince Argentina to sign on to the Treaty of Tlatelolco, a regional treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean and eventually the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT). Now forgotten by many, Argentina and its neighboring states of Brazil and Chile were thought by many in the West to be aggressively pursuing nuclear technology that could lead these South American countries to become nuclear weapons states. All three countries denied any interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, while at the same time they were secretly developing the capability of producing weapons-grade uranium and plutonium through either direct processing or the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel elements used in the production of electricity from nuclear research or power reactors. Some thought they were only a year or two from acquiring the necessary weapons grade uranium or plutonium much like Iran today.
Argentina in particular had a long history of trying to develop nuclear technology going back to the time of Juan Peron’s dictatorship in the early 1950s through the military junta regimes going through the early 1980s. At one point Argentina in 1951 announced it had harnessed fusion for energy conversion, a claim that was later refuted by the Western world and revealed as a hoax perpetrated by Austrian scientist, Ronald Richter. However, the research facilities created in Argentina’s western state of Bariloche continued their efforts to acquire nuclear technology, including for weapons, for many years thereafter.
With the rise of democracy in Argentina in 1983, following decades of authoritarian rule, the country found itself looking more and more to partnering with the West as it sought answers to the growing economic and social problems besetting the country. The fall of the Berlin wall and the demise of the Soviet Union changed the political landscape throughout the world and no less so than in Argentina. President Carlos Menem, elected in 1989, saw an opportunity to engage with the US and other western powers and to reopen his country to trade that heretofore was closed to any outside investment. Key to that was to convince the US and his South American neighbors that Argentina no longer held any external militaristic ambitions, including acquiring weapons of mass destruction, nuclear or otherwise. Standing in the way of that was his own military and some nuclear scientists who still held ideas of grandeur , in a country that was more accustomed to authoritarian rule than it was to democracy. After several failed military coup attempts, the latest in December of 1990 just before a state visit by US President George Bush, President Menem was able to solidify his authority sufficiently to overcome any resistance to the new policies he was promoting.
That said, it took several years of negotiations between our diplomats and teams of experts, sitting down with various officials in various venues, hammering out language that was acceptable to not only our colleagues in Argentina but that would involve acceptance by Brazil and Chile as they were pursuing similar policy changes after seeing similar changes in their governments. Key to this was verification that Argentina was doing exactly as they claimed and were open for transparency and inspection of their most sensitive facilities. “Trust but verify” was an axiom we held to constantly as we negotiated every sentence and paragraph of those agreements.
The first breakthrough came in 1991 when Brazil and Argentina signed a new bilateral agreement (Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC)) to verify through third-party inspections both countries’ pledges to use nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes. In August of 1992 Argentina, Brazil and Chile signed a new hemispheric resolution adhering to the Treaty of Tlatelco, once again pledging to only peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Finally, Argentina and Chile, in 1995 and, later Brazil in 1998, signed the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT). Years of hard work paid off. Diplomacy had won out in three countries considered only a few years earlier as “rogue” states. Obviously, that success continues to this day with no talk of any of these nations looking to reopen or revisit their previous ambitions to be nuclear weapons states.
It is hard to imagine trying to negotiate such a sensitive agreement or agreements in the harsh light of media and public attention that the Iranian Nuclear Agreement has attracted. Diplomatic success comes from allowing diplomats to do what they do best—negotiate, usually behind closed doors, sometimes in secret, but in such a way that allows each side to go back, consider its responses and then return to the negotiations and continue the discussions until an agreement is reached or not. Afterwards and once the final agreement is drafted, then the public and other government officials can look at the result and make their determination as to whether the agreement meets the hard test(s) of reality and analysis. I am certain we would not have succeeded in our negotiations with Argentina had we been subjected to the same media and public attention then we are seeing today with Iran. Luckily we were not and the result of a nuclear weapons free South America two-and-a-half decades later stands as a testimony to our success.
Today we are on the brink of making a decision that literally will mean life or death, potentially to thousands if not tens of thousands of individuals in the Middle East and beyond. The diplomatic process has been long and hard, with many detours and many road blocks. Netanyahu—speaking to the US Congress even before a final agreement was reached—was opposed to any agreement that did not meet his litmus test of full capitulation by Iran. Members of the Senate wrote directly to the Ayatollah of Iran threatening to torpedo any agreement that did not meet their “requirements,” not having seen the specifics of the ultimate agreement. And with the publication of the agreement, commentators, politicians, pundits and many others pointed to the “flaws” and “failures” to adequately prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Congressional leaders claim the agreement provides a “pathway” to nuclear weapons by allowing them to pursue nuclear technology after ten years. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, normally less strident, seeking to grab headlines suggested “Obama is marching Israelis to the ‘door of the oven’,” (!) literally inflaming the rhetoric surrounding the issue. Even hardliners in Iran oppose the agreement, saying their diplomats gave away too much and they needed to maintain their ability to remain “independent” in pursuing their “peaceful” uses of nuclear technology. With all of the denunciations of the nuclear agreement and its shortfalls, no one has come up with an alternate plan other than leave things as they are with Iran free to continue its pursuit of nuclear technology or the Israeli solution of military intervention at some point in the not too distant future. Neither is a good option and both could end with catastrophic results.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and more than a hundred-plus former US ambassadors have come out in support of the Iranian nuclear deal. In a letter to the President these high-ranking diplomats—with direct experience serving in Israel, India, Russia, the UN, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and many more relevant posts—strongly endorse the agreement. They note the Iranian deal “is not a perfect or risk-free settlement…However, we believe without it, the risks to the security of the United States and our friends and allies would be far greater.” They go on to say: “We are satisfied that the (Agreement) will put in place a set of constraints and inspections that can assure that Iran’s nuclear program during the terms of the agreement will remain only for peaceful purposes and that no part of Iran is exempt from inspection.” In other words, the agreement provides for verification that Iran is carrying out its part of the deal. As with the Argentinean negotiations no one was willing to trust alone that the parties would adhere to the terms of the agreement. An entire regime of inspections and verifications were created through the ABACC agreement for that purpose. The UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have that same task in the Iranian Nuclear Agreement and, with the expert support of the US and others, they are more than up to the task, naysayers to the side.
Many question the verification process itself, saying that Iran will have weeks to “hide” any evidence of wrong doing or initiation of creating weapons grade plutonium or uranium. Most of those questioning the process are not scientists nor have the requisite expertise regarding nuclear weapons technology and the difficulty for clandestine production of the necessary highly radioactive materials to produce a bomb. As noted in a document published by the Federation of American Scientists any clandestine uranium or plutonium-based weapon program will produce signatures of radioactive isotopes that can be detected even in small facilities from ranges of 10 kilometers or more. In addition, even with a full blown reactor dedicated to the production of weapons grade plutonium would require between two to four months to obtain sufficient material for a weapon. Reprocessing facilities would take even more months to obtain the desired materials again with readily detectable effluents and byproducts of the process(es). Ultimately, with the proposed inspection regime even including possible delays of up to 24 days before the IAEA experts could physically access a site, there would be plenty of time to detect any clandestine activity. Simply “scrubbing down” facilities as suggested by non-experts will not prevent the detection of such activities.
In the end no one trusts Iran. However, the old adage is still our best course of action—”trust but verify.” We need to let the diplomats and the international experts do their jobs. Should Iran go back on the agreement we always have recourse to the military intervention being pushed by the hardliners.–Paul Maxwell
This document was edited by Carol Feickert, CeeJay Publications, Denver, Colorado. Contact [email protected]