What Arms Control Experts Think of the Iran Deal

What Arms Control Experts Think of the Iran Deal July 16, 2015

We know what politicians predictably think about the agreement just reached with Iran, but what do actual arms control and nuclear proliferation experts think about it? Max Fisher asked Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, who was initially quite skeptical about what kind of deal would result from these negotiations. He gives it an A.

Max Fisher: Why is this a good deal?

Jeffrey Lewis: It’s a good deal because it slows down their nuclear program — which they say is for civilian purposes but could be used to make a bomb, and which we think was originally intended to make a bomb. And it puts monitoring and verification measures in place that mean if they try to build a bomb, we’re very likely to find out, and to do so with enough time that we have options to do something about it.

There’s a verifiable gap between their bomb option and an actual bomb. That’s why it’s a good deal.

Max Fisher: So that rests on Iran looking at all of this and saying, “It’s not worth even trying to cheat on the deal.”

Jeffrey Lewis: It’s a slightly more resigned attitude. I can’t get inside the supreme leader’s head. He might be a guy who likes to take risks. He might be stupid, he might get bad advice. So I don’t ever look at a situation where you’re trying to deter someone and say, “This will work.” Because you can never know that.

What I try to do is ask, “Have we done all of the things that we reasonably can so that more will not help, and we can’t imagine more intrusive mechanisms that are likely to be accepted?”

What you want is to feel like the administration has maxed out what they could have reasonably hoped to achieve. You can’t know that [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] will be deterred. But I don’t know that there’s any way to make him more deterred than this.

He also expressed perfectly why two groups of people can have totally opposing reactions to the deal:

Max Fisher: We did a post just rounding up tweets from arms control analysts on what they’re saying about the Iran deal, and it was really hard to find arms control analysts who seem to be critical of the deal on the nonproliferation merits. Maybe there are some we just missed, but it seems like the consensus was overwhelmingly positive, which was so interesting to me because it’s very different from the conversation among Middle East policy analysts, which is much more divided. Why do you think that is?

Jeffrey Lewis: If you are interested in the nonproliferation piece — how to say this. As a deal, this is what deals look like. Actually, they usually don’t look this good. So if you don’t know that…

When I read people saying, you know, “I can’t believe we’re making a deal with these morally dubious people,” I understand why a regional security specialist might feel that way.

But when you work in the arms control field, they’re all morally dubious people! These are people who are building nuclear weapons — there are no not-morally-dubious people involved. So when you take that out of the equation, you end up just looking at, “Do these limits slow them down, are they verifiable, are we likely to catch them if they cheat, are we likely to have enough time to do anything?”

The problem [for regional analysts] is not going to be the terms. It’s not going to be how it’s written. It’s going to be the fact that one side or another decides they don’t like the idea of it. But the deal itself can still be perfectly workable.

Max Fisher: So if regional analysts look at a deal with a terrible regime and see it as morally dubious, and arms control analysts look at it and aren’t bothered, is that because arms control people are just amoral monsters?

Jeffrey Lewis: Maybe! But I think it’s more that they’re looking at it differently.

Whenever I hear regional security specialists talk about the deal, it is just a bizarre conversation. Because they all talk about how either it will fundamentally alter our relationship with the Islamic Republic [of Iran], which I think is just silly, or about how it’s a mistake to try to fundamentally alter our relationship with the Islamic Republic.

I just don’t think that the deal does any of those things. I see it as a really straightforward measure to slow down an enrichment program that was going gangbusters.

So you ask, “Does it slow it down?” Yes. “Does it slow it down in a way that is verifiable?” Yes. “Does it slow it down more than bombing it would?” Yes. “Okay, good deal.”

The old saying is that politics is the art of the possible, and what is possible is often constrained by any number of factors. The negotiations involved seven nations plus Iran, each of which had domestic political constraints on them (especially the U.S. and Iran). Under the circumstances, as Lewis says, it’s pretty much impossible to imagine a deal any stronger than this. It isn’t perfect, but no such agreement ever could be. But it’s a very good deal for both sides, which is why they signed it.

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