Before and After Year Fifteen: An Interview With Blaise Misztal
Blaise Misztal is the director of the national security program at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank in Washington committed to finding bipartisan solutions that both parties can agree to on pressing national challenges. Our host, Madeleine Brand, sat down with him to discuss the evolving relationship between the U.S. and Iran.
Madeleine Brand: You’ve spent a lot of time looking at this deal. How effective would you say it is in preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, both in the short- and long-term?
Blaise Misztal: I think that question of timeline is important. The major restrictions that the deal puts in place on Iran's nuclear program begin to end after ten years, and most of them are phased out after fifteen years. In that initial fifteen-year period, I think this deal does do a pretty good job of ensuring that Iran is not going to try to attain a nuclear weapon's capability.
I think it's a bigger question of what [Iran] will do after those fifteen years end, and what’s allowed under the terms of this deal to develop a much larger nuclear program with many centrifuges enriching multiple enrichment sites and multiple nuclear reactors. At that point it could, if it decided to, try to get a nuclear weapon much more quickly than it can today.
MB: How quickly?
BM: According to the calculations that we've done, by year sixteen of this deal, Iran will be able to get a nuclear weapon in about three weeks. Right now, under the interim deal that's in place, it would take about two to three months. Once the final deal is in place, it would be about one year. It would be a significant reduction from one year between years one and fifteen of the deal, to three weeks by year sixteen of the deal.
MB: President Obama has said there will still be active and very thorough monitoring after year fifteen. Are you satisfied that there will be an adequate international monitoring system in place to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb?
BM: Well, monitoring doesn't prevent attempts to develop nuclear weapons; monitoring catches attempts to develop nuclear weapons. The question is: Will monitoring be able to detect something quickly enough? Will there be enough time to mount a response to be able to stop any attempt to get a nuclear weapon? I believe the fear is that once that breakout time is less than four weeks, then it becomes really hard for the monitoring — no matter how good it is, combined with the political process that has to follow once cheating is caught -- to actually lead to an effective response. I do think there is going to remain effective monitoring in place after year fifteen, but once that timeline gets down past four weeks, you have to take quick, decisive military action if you hope to do anything. As we've seen, sanctions take multiple years to even be put in place, let alone take effect. It's not a question of the monitoring, it's a question of the action you take once the monitoring detects cheating.
MB: The President has said that military action is a possibility if it's needed. Does that assuage any of your fears?
BM: I think it's definitely been one of the President's strong suits that throughout the negotiations the military option has always been on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran, with the understanding that it is by far the least-preferred option. But I think the question is: compared to where we stand today, will we be in as a strong of position to prevent a nuclear Iran fifteen years from now when the major nuclear restrictions of this deal lapse? There are some reasons to think that we will.
Fifteen years is definitely a long time, and it is possible that you could have one of two things happen: One is having some form of regime change in Iran. The important thing to remember is that we're not just concerned with Iran having nuclear weapons because we want to stop proliferation, we're concerned with Iran having nuclear weapons because we want to stop proliferation and we're really worried about all the other activities that the Iran regime conducts in the region. Like the fact that it funds terrorism, that it supports the murderous regime in Syria, that it has started a civil war in Yemen, and what it would be able to do if it had nuclear weapons. If we were confident there was a different regime with a different set of priorities in Iran, then I think we would be much less concerned with what happens fifteen years from now. Or, possibly, if we had greater leverage on Iran, whether that's military, economic or diplomatic.
But looking forward fifteen years at both the dynamics that are currently in place in the region, as well as the other effects and consequences of this deal, I think there's reason to think it might not be the case that we will have the same level of leverage, and the same level of military capability against Iran that we do today.
There are several reasons for that. On the Iranian side, there are two chief factors: The first is that there's going to be a large influx cash into the Iranian economy if sanctions are lifted. The estimation is there are $100-$150 billion in frozen assets that the Iranian regime will receive in the short-term. Then, as economic sanctions are lifted and they begin to do business internationally and sell their oil and gas and energy resources, they're going to get significant resources from that as well that will be spent on building up their economy and improving the lives of their people. But it will also be spent on funding terrorists groups in the Middle East and building up their own military infrastructure.
Secondly, the deal lifts the international arms embargo that's currently in place on Iran; so Iran will not only get an influx of cash, but it's going to get the doors to the international arms market thrown open to it. It's going to be able to buy technology and arms that it hasn't had up until now; which means fifteen years from now, it's going to have greater military capabilities. A lot of U.S. military planners are concerned about that the fact that Russia has already announced that it's going to sell Iran an advanced air defense system, which would make any potential American air strike much more difficult and dangerous.
The flip side of it is that American military capabilities are declining at the same time. We have in place right now two levels of military cuts: the first is called BCA, the Budget Control Act; the second is sequestration. Combined, they are cutting about a half a trillion dollars from the U.S. military budget over the next eight years. We've already seen massive reductions in the size of our army. We've seen difficulty in maintaining the same aircraft carrier fleet that we've had thus far. As those cuts keep piling up, U.S. military capabilities are also going to be reduced.
At the end of fifteen years, it's still going to be the case that the U.S. has a much stronger military than Iran, but it's also going to be the case that the relative distance between the two is going to be closed. I think the assertion that we're going to have just the same capabilities fifteen years from now that we have today is not likely to be true.
MB: Supporters of the deal say the case for international sanctions is eroding. The Europeans, as well as Russia and China, are not as eager as we are to maintain the sanctions. They say this deal is the best that the world can get right now, because the alternative is no deal plus the sanctions slipping away.
BM: A couple of points. The first point is: there's a long precedent of the United States renegotiating deals, especially once Congress has weighed in and suggested that the original deal was not strong enough. That happened with the nuclear agreement that the United States has with the UAE, where the executive branch negotiated an agreement to provide the UAE with some nuclear technology to build out its civilian nuclear program. The deal went to Congress for approval, then Congress disapproved it and said, "We don't think there are enough safeguards in this deal." The White House went back and renegotiated the deal, and in fact got a stronger one without anybody walking away from the table.
Re-negotiation is possible, but I largely agree with the assertion that, in this case, given the complexity of the negotiations and the complexity of the international sanctions regime, at least some of the countries that we have, supposedly, on our side in these negotiations, like China and Russia, are not going to be eager to negotiate a better deal. I think the issue is not really about whether this is a good deal or not; it's about being clear-eyed about the consequences of this deal.
I think the danger is that we've been talking about preventing a nuclear Iran for so long. It's been a top-three or a top-five national security issue for the last decade, if not longer. There’s going to be a temptation once this deal is in place to say, "All right, we've taken care of that. This isn't a concern anymore." That's not the case, partly because all of the other concerns that we need to still have about Iran; partly because this deal has consequences that strengthen Iran in other ways and weaken U.S. leverage over Iran.
I think the question here is not whether we accept this deal or not; it's a question of how we stay vigilant during the course of this deal. How do we ensure that we are still in a position to constrain Iran both in its nuclear program and its other nefarious activities during their original fifteen-year term of this deal and beyond.
MB: There has been a lot of back and forth about the effectiveness of the inspections laid out in this deal, particularly how much access inspectors will have to inspect nuclear sites and who will be conducting these inspections. What does your research show?
BM: Certainly these are going to be the most rigorous inspections than have been in place in Iran. They are going to give inspectors a much larger scope of access and much better understanding of Iran's nuclear activities than we've had thus far. They are not the most intrusive sanctions regime that the international community has ever put in place. They aren't the “anytime, anywhere” inspections that multiple members of the administration, as well as many members of Congress, had said were necessary to reach a good deal. By some of the metrics that were set within the United States, I think this inspections regime probably falls short of them. Whether those goals were realistic and actually feasible in terms of what could be reached in negotiations is a political question that I'm not sure that anyone who wasn't at the table is equipped to answer.
I think there are a couple of areas where we can point and say we'd really like to have seen improvement. Two stand out: one is this question about inspections at non-declared facilities. Iran is going to provide the IAEA of a list of facilities where it admits that it has conducted nuclear activities and that encompasses the whole range of its nuclear program, from the uranium mines where it gets raw uranium to the centrifuge facilities. The IAEA will have constant, real-time daily access to those facilities, which is really one of the highest benchmarks that we currently have in terms of safeguards. It’s really fantastic in terms of our monitoring ability.
The bigger question is: What about the facilities that Iran doesn't admit to having? We have a history of Iranians cheating here. All of the facilities we now know about were at one point secret, where Iran attempted to build them without letting the international community know what they were doing. Given that history of cheating, I think the IAEA wants the ability to look at facilities that look suspicious and see what's going on there. There's some concern about whether it's going to be able to do that under the terms of this deal, or going to be able to do so effectively.
There's this provision that's often talked about that creates a maximum wait time of 24 days to get into a facility. It might be shorter than that if Iran agrees to let inspectors in earlier, but it could take as long as 24 days for inspectors to get in some facilities. The President has made the point, which I think is correct, that if Iran has a covert enrichment facility where it's trying to enrich uranium outside of the bounds of the deal, even if we have to wait 24 days, we'd still be able to go in and see what's going on there; whether because it's difficult to move the equipment, or because traces of enriched uranium are going to remain.
But there are also activities that Iran could be doing covertly that they could hide in 24 days, and that window could give them time to get away with it. This is what is often referred to as PMD — the possible military dimension of Iran's nuclear program. This sort of experiment is not about creating fissile material for a nuclear weapon but the designing of the weapon itself, and whether that's experimenting with explosives or miniaturizing those explosives to try to fit them into a warhead. Those are things that are often done on computers or in small facilities are much easier to hide. I think there is legitimate concern about whether there are some activities that Iran might try to do during the term of this deal that this inspections regime is not adequate to catch.
The second concern is that we believe that those sorts of PMD weaponization activities have been ongoing for most of the last decade, if not longer. We've been constantly trying to get Iran to fess up to them and to give a full accounting to the IAEA of the activities it's carried out. It has repeatedly stonewalled. It is not clear in this deal whether Iran is actually required to now give a full accounting of its PMD activities, because instead of being part of the deal, the PMD process is moved to a parallel track with the IAEA. Iran has signed an agreement with the IAEA to try to address some of these issues. That agreement is confidential between Iran and IAEA, and so members of Congress and the American public haven't been able to see it to judge whether it's adequate. We've seen some leaks in recent days about what might be in those documents. That would suggest that, in fact, whatever inspections are going to be carried out over that process aren't going to be done by the IAEA or by the international inspectors, but will be carried out by the Iranians themselves, which raises questions about their credibility if those accounts are correct.
There are areas of concern. I think they are not in the most important areas. The enrichment facilities that are the quickest way to a nuclear weapon for Iran are going to be properly safeguarded. They are going to be monitored continuously, and I think that gives a lot of confidence for the next fifteen years that we’ll know what Iran is doing, until some of those safeguards begin to lapse. But there are areas on the sides where it looks like it might be possible for Iran to cheat, and our ability to dissect it will be compromised by some of the concessions made with this deal.
MB: Compromised more with this deal than without this deal? Are some inspections better than no inspections?
BM: We're certainly better off with this deal. I think raising concerns about the limitations of the inspections regime is not necessarily a way to criticize the deal, but a way, as I said before, to remain clear-eyed about the limitations of the deal overall; and not to rest on our laurels that we have completely addressed the Iranian nuclear threat.
MB: Let's talk about the sanctions again. As you said earlier, the Iranians will get a huge boost to their economy. Where do you expect that money to go?
BM: I think first and foremost it's going to go largely to rebuilding the Iranian economy, which has been damaged and dampened by nearly a decade of increasing international and multilateral sanctions. The Iranian people have definitely been hurting. We've seen the Rial be continually devalued, and their economy has contracted for the past three years. In fact, President Hassan Rouhani was elected first and foremost on the expectation that, through international engagement, he could improve the economic conditions of the Iranian people. I think the government definitely needs to deliver on those promises.
But what we've seen is that even in times of economic hardship, the regime in Tehran has spent tens of million or billions of dollars on its nuclear program; on arming and supporting terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon; and propping up the Assad regime in Damascus. I think the question is: If it was able to find the resources to do that when its people were suffering, what will it find the resources to do when they're flush with injections of cash from abroad?
I think the expectation is that it's going to now have the ability to both improve the plight of the Iranian people, improve its economy, invest in infrastructure, and develop new oil and gas fields. But [it will] also the ability to increase its assistance to terrorists groups and the various regimes it props up in the region, as well as build up its own military capabilities.
MB: Well, it’s for their own good that they abide by this agreement, correct? As you said, they really need this money. Is it possible that they actually will not cheat and will live by this agreement, at least for the next fifteen years?
BM: I would certainly expect so. I think more effective than the safeguard and monitoring conditions in this deal is the promise of what they get fifteen years from now: All sanctions lifted and the ability to have a full-fledged nuclear program as long as they would like. There seems to be little reason for them to cheat. I expect they're likely to test the boundaries of the deal, [there are] likely to be questions of interpretation, but there's not going to be large-scale cheating over the next fifteen years. Again, as I said, it's a question of: fifteen years from now, will we be able to prevent a nuclear Iran? And what condition will the Iranians be in to try to develop a nuclear weapons capability if that is what they want at that time?
MB: What kinds of policies do you think the United States needs to consider moving forward aside from this deal, in order to prevent some of the things you've been talking about in terms of arming terrorist groups and getting their hands on weapons that could destabilize the region and provide a threat to Israel, for example?
BM: I think, ironically, what is seen as one of the positive developments of this deal is reopening greater diplomatic engagement between Tehran and Washington, and breaking what was effectively three decades of mistrust. But at the same time, the most practical and pragmatic policy response to this deal is to spend the next fifteen years investing in regime change in Iran. What will best serve the interests of not just the United States, but I think the Middle East and the Iranian people, is the possibility that fifteen years from now, we have a democratic and responsible government in Tehran that respects the rights of its citizens, and international law, and the sovereignty of its neighbors.
What that would look like in terms of U.S. policy? It would require much greater support for Iranian civil society, democratic activists, and Iranian free media than we've seen over the past couple of years, when in fact we cut back on some of the investments we were making in that area so as not to alienate Tehran at the same time as we were trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with them. In fact, you can look back to the 2009 Green Movement, the large protest that happened in Tehran around Iran in response to what they thought was a stolen presidential election and the brutal crackdown that followed. Compare the large silence of the United States in the face of those crackdowns to the U.S. reaction to what happened in Tunisia and in Egypt in late 2010, early 2011.
A reinvestment in looking for democratic change makes the most sense, in addition to trying to constrain nefarious Iranian activities in the region; which means checking the flow of weapons from Iran to other groups, as we've done somewhat in Yemen and Syria, and trying to confront its proxies more aggressively wherever we can, including Hezbollah, which is operating freely now in Syria, and the Assad regime in Damascus.
MB: Is there anything else we should be trying to better understand about this deal, and the relationship between the United States and Iran moving forward?
BM: The next question is about the indirect effects that this deal is going to have on U.S. relationships, both in the region and between current U.S. partners and other countries. I think what we've already heard, not just from Israel, but U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf countries, is that they're worried about this deal and what it means for their security; but they're also worried about what U.S. acceptance of this deal means for U.S. commitments to actually protect them. I think at a time when we're not just dealing with conflict in the Middle East, but also Russia and China, there's a concern here that some of our heretofore allies in the Middle East might look elsewhere for their security guarantees.
I think it's incumbent upon the United States to make sure that does not happen. I don't think we'd like to see a Saudi Arabia that leaves the U.S. and gets closer with China or Russia or any of the other Sunni Arab countries for that matter either. It’s also important to make sure that we keep our allies and make sure that our guarantees to them and our commitments to protect them remain credible in their eyes; so it's not just about direct action in terms of constraining Iranian action, it's also about keeping our friends in the Middle East.
*This interview was lightly edited for clarity.