Iran Checkmates the P5+1

In the deal between Iran and the six world powers, it appears that a rogue regime marching towards nuclearization has outmaneuvered the West. In disarming the sanctions regime so painstakingly put together over the last few years, the Iranians have given almost nothing meaningful in return. Instead, they are employing the same playbook that brought the mullahcracy to power and the very strategy that allowed North Korea to get the bomb. Above all, Iran now has an international mechanism that will allow it to effectively play for time.

Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, the West has tried using covert and public negotiations with Iran, arms deals, direct confrontation, cyber-warfare, containment and indirect action against Iran’s terrorist proxies. Most recently, the United States and its Western allies have strenuously employed sanctions to punish the banks, corporations and charities that have actively assisted Iran in its attempts to secure the bomb, and by all accounts, it was the sanctions that finally brought Iran to the negotiation table.

The goal of these sanctions was always to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program, not just to slow it down. Unfortunately, the new agreement fails to achieve that objective and takes the wind out of the sails of one of the few tools to have had measurable policy impact. The deal provides Iran with significant sanctions relief over the next six months. Iran is now expected to earn approximately $7-10 billion in oil sales, precious metal and automobile transactions that otherwise would have been frozen. The Obama administration is calling this a “small sum of money to be released.” But the Iranian regime reportedly has only $20 billion in unrestricted access to foreign currency reserves, and the agreement will add another 30-50 percent to its coffers, a hefty sum for a regime facing a hobbled economy and a currency crisis.

A close reading of the agreement demonstrates that in return for these Western concessions, Iran is not obligated to stop uranium enrichment. On the contrary, through a gaping hole in the agreement, Iran may keep the 10,000 centrifuges already spinning and is merely forbidden to build new ones. It is not obligated to shut down its plutonium reactor at Arak, nor is it required to transfer its uranium and plutonium stockpiles out of the country.

Only hours after the deal came to light, the two sides were already at odds on its key provision: whether Iran has the right to enrich uranium. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is openly rejoicing that the agreement recognizes this “right” and takes a credible threat of military action off the table. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry disputes both interpretations, but notes that “everyone has the right to be skeptical” of Iran’s intentions.

Many are dubbing the agreement a “fool’s bargain.” In fact, in return for Iran’s agreement to freeze the growth of its nuclear program, the West should have frozen any new sanctions while continuing to implement existing sanctions. For each step Iran verifiably rolled back, the West should have responded in kind. Ultimately, this type of approach could have ensured that Iran’s nuclear program was intended for peaceful purposes only.

The United States is claiming victory because it persuaded the Iranians to agree to oxidize their 20-percent stockpile of enriched uranium down to 5 percent. But by all measures, this type of stockpile can quickly be ramped back up to 20 percent, particularly with the regime’s existing centrifuges. According to Zarif, all the measures Iran will take are “reversible, and they can be reversed fast.”

The P5 +1’s message is clear: the sanctions regime is dying. Iran is free again to sell its oil, trade in precious metals, buy new parts for its ailing airline industry and grow its automotive sector. No doubt many in China, Japan, Germany, South Korea and India are already lining up to continue doing business with the Islamic Republic.

Iran is following North Korea’s example. The six-party talks that followed Pyongyang’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 were ostensibly aimed at finding a peaceful solution to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Though the discussions by all accounts were substantive and fruitful, in October 2006, Pyongyang announced that it was testing its first nuclear weapon. North Korea had simply played for time to master the full nuclearization cycle and test its bomb.

Iran is no stranger to bazaar negotiations and employing tactics that are less than transparent. For example, during Ayatollah Khomeini’s exile in Iraq and France, he worked with opposition groups ideologically opposed to his own – ultimately bringing him to power – making pacts with them using tactics such as khode (tricking an opponent into misjudging a position), tanfia (removing the enemy’s sting), and taqiyya (concealing one’s true opinions when dealing with the “enemies of Islam”.

Bumper stickers around the Muslim world state that innallaha ma sabirin, God is with those who are patient. As creators of the game of chess, Iranians are not only masters of strategy and thinking several steps ahead, but have more than enough patience to go around. As the West struggles with a simple game of checkers, it looks like the Iranians have gotten their checkmate.