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Millennial Letters

Dealing with Iran: Get It in Writing

On March 25th, the New York Times reported that Iranian negotiators are resisting putting onto paper the yet-to-be-finalized political framework for a comprehensive agreement on its nuclear program. Anyone who’s ever waited four months for a landlord to fix a leaky faucet he “promised” to fix “tomorrow,” knows the importance of the age-old adage, “Get It in Writing,” or as the seasoned diplomat and scholar Dennis Ross explains more eloquently, “As important as it is to forge conceptual understandings, they must still be translated into concrete agreements that get expressed in writing.”

Technical experts have outlined detailed variables by which the durability of a comprehensive agreement may be judged. Beyond the complex algorithm of the number and type of centrifuges, the stocks of enriched uranium, the configuration of facilities, and the monitoring, verification, and inspection regime, adhering to a few basic principles of negotiations can enhance the likelihood of a good deal.

1. Write it down. The record of the past four months, since the most recent extension of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) interim agreement, demonstrates that oral understandings have limitations. A year after the initial agreement, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the negotiating parties extended the talks “with the very specific goal of finishing the political agreement within four months” followed by a technical agreement by the June deadline. Six weeks later, however, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei countered that any deal must “cover both generalities and details in a single session.” Iran also contradicted US claims at the time of the extension that Tehran had agreed to snap inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran also denied reports that it had tentatively agreed to ship its surplus enriched uranium to Russia. These are all classic “he said, she said” scenarios that could have been avoided with written understandings from the outset. Thus, US negotiators should heed the advice of their European counterpart: “You don’t make oral deals with Iran.”

2. Be specific. In November 2014, the IAEA reported that Iran had fed uranium into an IR-5 advanced centrifuge, which nuclear experts say may have been a violation of the JPOA. According to the State Department, the US government “raised that issue with Iran as soon as the IAEA reported it, and it was resolved immediately.” Iran then stopped. This response would seem to indicate that the United States viewed the action as inconsistent with the agreement even if Iran believed it was not. Although the Obama administration now argues that the incident was the mistake of a uninformed, low-level employee, experts, including a former director of the CIA and former deputy director general of the IAEA, contend that the incident falls into a pattern of incremental cheating. Regardless of the benign or malicious intent, the lesson is clear: Ambiguities create potential problems for implementation and compliance.

Another example: Iran has not responded to IAEA concerns about the possible military dimensions of its program, despite the JPOA preamble that says Iran and the P5+1 will establish a commission to “work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.” The JPOA does not obligate Iran to resolve the issues, and the word “facilitate” has a nebulous definition. If the US wants a workable deal, it needs the details to be specific.

3. Make it public. The IR-5 case raises another concern. Nonproliferation expert and nuclear physicist David Albright has said that the incident was “inconsistent” with Iran’s obligations and that the State Department’s response “suggests that it was viewed as either not in the spirit of the agreement or in violation.” Experts, however, cannot independently determine if the incident was a violation because the January 2014 implementation agreement has not been made public. To paraphrase Representative Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, the American people don’t have access. If a deal is solid and defendable on its merits, let it undergo public scrutiny.

Kerry has assured the American public that the US will not “trust but verify” with Iran but rather “verify and verify and verify.” A deal with Iran may be the most important arms control agreement in the post–Cold War era, and thus the American people have an important stake in the results of the negotiations. If we want to be able to verify that our government is verifying an agreement with Iran, we need a written, specific, and public agreement.

Annie Fixler is a policy analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance (CSIF) and a member of the Foreign Policy Initiative Leadership Network. The views expressed are her own. Affiliations are provided for identification purposes, and do not suggest institutional endorsement.

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