TIME Iran Forum

Iran Will Cheat. Then What?

The gap is small between where the deal will leave them in 10 years and weapons status

The nuclear deal with Iran will certainly be debated intensely as Congress reviews the agreement over the next 60 days. It is a complex deal with many parts. For the administration, it has blocked the Iranian pathway to a bomb for at least the next fifteen years—and that claim has a great deal of merit given the limitations on the numbers of centrifuges, the far-reaching reduction of Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium, the removal and redesign of the core of the heavy water reactor at Arak, and Iran’s forswearing of reprocessing capabilities for this period of time.

In addition, President Obama is surely right when he declares that the deal is not about trust because there will be sweeping means to verify what is going on with the Iranian nuclear program. Indeed, the monitoring of the whole supply chain from the mining of uranium to the enriching of UF6 gas in centrifuges will make it difficult for Iran to divert materials into a covert program without us knowing about it. So there are some very important achievements in the agreement.

But there are also some important weaknesses that need to be addressed. Knowing Iran has cheated is one thing; ensuring that there is a price for every transgression—no matter how small–is another. The agreement provides for “snap back” sanctions, which essentially lifts the suspension of sanctions in the event of an Iranian violation. Clearly, the snap-back function is designed to deal with a major breach of an agreement, particularly because Iran explicitly states in the agreement that it will stop implementing its nuclear obligations if sanctions are re-imposed. So what happens if Iran cheats along the margins? For example, if they enrich uranium to 7% not the permitted 3.67%. The snap-back function makes little sense in this circumstance but the Joint Commission that brings together all the negotiating parties could obviously address such an issue of non-compliance. In this case, however, Iran will likely to declare it made a mistake and say it will stop doing it.

Sound fine? Not really. Given Iran’s track record, it will likely cheat along the margins to test the means of verification and see how it might be able to change the baseline—and there needs to be a penalty for each such act of non-compliance and preferably not only by the US.

I say this because deterrence is going to be even more important as a result of this deal. Indeed, for me the greatest single problem with the agreement is that Iran is going to be left as a threshold nuclear state at the end of fifteen years. The agreement requires Iran to dismantle none of its enrichment infrastructure and starting in year 15, it can have as large a nuclear program as it wants. The gap between threshold and weapons status is small and will not take long to bridge.

As such, deterrence is what will matter. Iran must have no doubts that if we see it moving toward a weapon that would trigger the use of force. Declaring that is a must even now. Proving that every transgression will produce a price will demonstrate that we mean what we say.

If verification is necessary because the agreement is not built on trust, so, too, is building the credibility of our deterrence because Iran will be a threshold nuclear state—one that has deferred but not given up the option of being a nuclear weapon state.

TIME world affairs

Dennis Ross: Iran Negotiation Isn’t Over Until It’s Over

Ambassador Dennis Ross is the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow and counselor at The Washington Institute.

If we want to keep the Iranians from cheating, the issue of responses and consequences needs to be clear

It may have gone into overtime, but President Obama and Secretary Kerry have now announced the parameters for a comprehensive agreement with the Iranians on their nuclear program. Several points are noteworthy.

First, the numbers of centrifuges the Iranians will be enriching is slightly over 5000 — not a low number, but lower than the one that many observers had expected. Moreover, for 10 years only the IR-1, the least advanced of the Iranian centrifuges, will be allowed to enrich.

Second, the stockpile of low-enriched uranium will be reduced from 10,000 kgs to 300 kgs. Taken together, these first two parameters — meaning the combination of the number and type of centrifuges and this stockpile — bolsters the argument of the administration that for 10 years Iran would be one year away from being able to produce a bomb’s worth of weapons grade fissile material.

Third, the fact that the excess centrifuges and enrichment infrastructure will be placed in storage that is monitored by the IAEA also means it would not be easy for the Iranians, for 10 years, to expand their production and move toward a break-out capability, particularly without us knowing about it.

Fourth, there are also other important transparency measures that will permit us to know what Iran is doing and where they are doing it — and for longer than the 15 years in which the size of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure is to be limited. The monitoring of uranium mines, the milling of uranium into yellow cake, the conversion of yellow cake to the UF6 that is put into centrifuges, and of centrifuge production and storage facilities, should also give us confidence that we could detect any effort to secretly divert critical materials.

There are other limitations, including the removal of the original core of the Arak heavy water reactor, which suggest that the plutonium path to a bomb is also clearly being inhibited. All these fall in the good news category.

So what falls in the not-good category? After 10 years the Iranians can begin to enrich dramatically more uranium as they can operate their more advanced centrifuges, the IR-2s, IR-4s, IR-5s, IR-6s, and IR-8s — and the fact that for the coming decade they can do R&D on these machines means they will be able to vastly expand their enrichment at the end of this period. Moreover, after 15 years, there are no limits on the size of their nuclear infrastructure. And, verifying a very large nuclear program is far more difficult than monitoring a small one.

But even leaving aside the size of what the Iranians will be permitted to do after year 15, there is ambiguity about the real access inspectors will have throughout the life of the agreement. While the parameters suggest that inspectors will have access to suspect sites anywhere in the country, will that really apply to military bases and the facilities of the Revolutionary Guard? Will inspectors have it on a timely basis? And what happens if such access is blocked?

President Obama spoke of our being able to detect violations and deal with them. But what are the response mechanisms for violations. The history of compliance with arms control agreements is not good. Will the Russians agree that our intelligence is reliable? Will they insist on prolonged discussion over any alleged violation? Will we get bogged down in negotiations over what is a violation or how to respond to it?

At this point, there is no answer. But if we want to deter the Iranians from cheating and prevent the Iranians from incrementally eroding the baseline in order to reduce the break-out time, the issue of responses and consequences needs to be clear.

In any case, if there is any lesson to be learned from what it took to reach an understanding on the parameters, it is that it will be an ordeal to fill in the details and have the Iranians sign an agreement. Undoubtedly the negotiations will go down to the wire and one should expect that the Iranians may well argue that they have a different interpretation of the some of the key parameters. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, don’t count on this negotiation being over until it is over.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME foreign affairs

Pollard Release Seems Justified

It surely makes little sense to say that someone who has spent nearly 30 years in jail has not paid a severe price.

It is no surprise that Jonathan Pollard has become part of the discussions in the current Israeli-Palestinian peace discussions. In every administration I was a part of — and every negotiation in which I participated — he was raised by Israeli prime ministers. From Rabin through Netanyahu, one thing could be counted on: Pollard would be raised. We may view him as a spy; Israelis view him differently. He has taken on the aura of being a soldier who was left in the field, and the ethos in Israel is that soldiers are never left behind.

As someone who is Jewish and who also worked in the Pentagon in the 1980’s, I had no sympathy for Pollard. He stole top-secret documents; he betrayed his country and the trust put in him; he was caught and it was appropriate that he pay a price for what he had done. I felt strongly about that.

To be sure, I had more personal reasons for feeling an additional sense of betrayal. At the time, I was contending with a prejudice that lingered in the national security bureaucracy that in not so subtle ways suggested that anyone who was Jewish could not work on Middle Eastern issues because they would serve Israeli as opposed to American interests — a view typically held by those who also defined U.S. and Israeli interests as being at odds.

So I had good reasons for believing that Pollard should be punished. And, I still believe that. But what constitutes sufficient punishment?

As Israeli prime ministers would raise his case and explain how if they were going to take difficult steps toward peace, his release could make those steps more politically sustainable — and Presidents starting with Clinton would consider these requests — I heard the intelligence community make arguments for holding him that made little sense: If we released him to Israel, he would still be able to compromise our security. If he was released, it would signal we were soft on spies. If we released him, there would be no deterrent for spying. If we released him, it would damage the morale of the intelligence services.

Perhaps, five or even 10 years after his imprisonment he might still know things about our intelligence that could have some value, but nearly 30 years afterwards, what could still be of relevance? During one discussion I had in the Clinton administration when this came up, I said even then — at a point when Pollard had been in prison for 13 years — that if he could still compromise our intelligence, those responsible on our side should be fired. They had a responsibility to change the way we did business. Clearly, we altered our techniques and means when our security was compromised and we had suffered other security breaches and had to imprison other spies.

Whether one accepts the argument that Pollard’s sentence seems more severe than that handed out to other spies, it surely makes little sense to say that someone who has spent nearly 30 years in jail has not paid a severe price. Thirty years in jail does not signal being soft on spies; it constitutes a potent deterrent against spying. And, at this point, when looking at the demographic make-up of those in the intelligence community, a significant percentage either were not born or were very young when Pollard was incarcerated. It seems unlikely that morale is going to be affected by his release.

If traditional arguments in the intelligence community bear little weight at this point, there is still the question of whether we should link the peace issue to Pollard. Some may say that if he is so politically important, we should get something of value for his release. Perhaps, but at a time when the Middle East is characterized by upheaval and U.S. foreign policy needs to demonstrate effectiveness, we can ill afford a collapse of the current efforts to negotiate between Israelis and Palestinians.

If the release is part of a package of steps that not only manages this process but can give it a necessary boost — and also affect the climate between Israelis and Palestinians — then President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry certainly seem justified in acting on it.

Dennis Ross is the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow and counselor at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as the Director of Policy Planning in the State Department under President George H. W. Bush, the special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton, and was a special assistant to President Obama from 2009-2011.

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