I’m in Berlin, not Lausanne, and I haven’t spoken to anyone associated with the Iran nuclear negotiations in more than a week. Though there is a lot of good journalism being produced out of the talks, it is still difficult to discern what is actually happening at this moment. Those predisposed to believe that these negotiations will bring about a non-violent solution to the Iranian challenge, and also quite possibly encourage the Iranians to be more moderate in their approach to their neighbors, seem somewhat optimistic that the West will make the necessary compromises to win Iranian approval. Those who believe that the West is about to capitulate to Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, and set him on a path to the nuclear threshold seem to be praying that Iranian shortsightedness, or dumb luck on the part of the West, subvert these talks.
The more extreme positions on both sides are distasteful. The Pollyannas who not only seem to believe that Iran should be allowed to maintain an advanced nuclear infrastructure if it promises to behave nicely, but who also believe that this nuclear accord will somehow serve to convince the Iranians to moderate their approach to their neighbors and, for instance, stop sponsoring terrorism and murdering large numbers of people in Syria (among other places), are dangerous and naïve. On the other side, those who argue that no negotiated settlement will ever be good enough to keep Iran from the nuclear threshold—that only military action would guarantee an end to the Iranian nuclear program—believe that it is wise to start an actual war now in order to prevent a theoretical one later. If you believe that we are living in 1938, and that Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are playing the role of Czechoslovakia, then I suppose this position makes sense. I don’t think we are there, however.
I’ve been making lists of questions I have about the parameters of a framework deal, and a list of experts whose judgment I would trust to evaluate the technical aspects of a deal.
Here are a few questions that have, helped by various news stories about the talks, repeatedly crossed my mind in recent days. I would prefer to see a nuclear deal struck, of course, but unsatisfactory answers to these issues would be cause for real worry:
1) What will Saudi Arabia do in response to a deal? If the Saudis—who are already battling the Iranians on several fronts—actually head down the path toward nuclearization, then these negotiations will not have served the underlying purpose President Obama ascribed to them. The president has warned, in interviews with me and others, that a nuclear Iran would trigger a nuclear arms race across the Middle East, the world’s most volatile region. One goal of these talks is to assure the rest of the Middle East that Iran cannot achieve nuclear status. If Saudi Arabia (and Egypt and Turkey and the U.A.E.) does not believe that a deal will achieve this, then it will move on its own to counter the Persian nuclear threat.
2) If the underground enrichment facility at Fordow—which had been hidden from Western view for several years, and which the U.S. and Europe have repeatedly said needs to be closed—is allowed to run centrifuges, even to spin germanium and other elements that cannot be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, then doubt could legitimately be sown about the strength of this deal. Already-spinning centrifuges in a maintained, guarded, and fortified bunker can be retrofitted to handle uranium, should the Iranians choose to break their agreement. It would be better to see Fordow filled with cement, or otherwise crippled.
3) The Iranians have never answered most of the questions put to them by the International Atomic Energy Agency about the possible military dimensions—the so-called PMDs—of their nuclear program. These questions must be answered before sanctions are even partially lifted. Otherwise, the West will never get answers.
4) The proposed speed of sanctions relief is, of course, something to watch carefully. The Iranians want immediate sanctions relief, but the West should only agree to a stately pace of sanctions-removal, predicated on 100-percent Iranian compliance on intrusive inspections, among other issues.
5) The largest question in my mind concerns the matter of break-out time—how long it would take for Iran, once it made a decision to violate the terms of a deal and go for full nuclearization, to actually make a deliverable weapon. The goal of the Obama administration is to make sure that it would take Iran at least a year to cross the threshold. The assumption is that a year would give the West time to devise a response—including, if necessary, a military response. This will be among the issues of greatest controversy because this is an easily misunderstood and distorted matter, one that is both devilishly complicated and, in many ways, theoretical. On this issue, as on others, I will be listening to experts I respect. There are several, but three of the people I will be listening to carefully on this issue in particular are Gary Samore, formerly President Obama’s point man on the Iran nuclear file; David Albright, of the Institute for Science and International Security, and Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the IAEA. If these three, and a handful of others, seem nervous about the details of a framework deal, should one be reached, then I'm going to be nervous as well.