WASHINGTON — An emerging deal that would curtail Iran’s nuclear program and expand inspections in exchange for relief from some economic sanctions will upset U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia but is likely to lessen the chance of a conflict or a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, foreign policy analysts said Friday.
Nonproliferation experts who monitor Iran’s nuclear program said they see the deal generating mostly positive results for U.S. interests in the region. Under the deal, they said, Western powers would get unprecedented access to Tehran’s program, regional foes of Iran’s would be less likely to pursue their own nuclear programs, and the threat of an Israeli – or U.S. – military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities that could trigger a war would dissipate.
While Iran’s archenemies Israel and Saudi Arabia might grumble about the symbolism of the move – namely, that a broader detente between the United States and Shiite Muslim Iran could shift the balance of regional power away from Sunni Muslim powers – such a deal at least would reduce the chance that the nuclear standoff would explode into military action, these analysts said.
Laicie Heeley, director of Middle East and defense policy at the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said that the battle over regional supremacy isn’t as important to Saudi Arabia as the greater fear of an Iranian nuclear bomb.
“You could say that Saudi Arabia is concerned about stronger ties (between Iran and the West) but, ultimately, their real concern is an Iranian nuclear weapon, and this deal stops that,” Heeley said.
Some opponents criticized the Obama administration for moving toward an initial accord that would recognize Iran’s right to continue to enrich uranium.
“Instead of toughening sanctions to get meaningful and lasting concessions, the Obama administration looks to be settling for interim and reversible steps,” said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “A partial freeze of enrichment, as we’re hearing, is not a freeze. As called for in U.N. Security Council resolutions, all of Iran’s enrichment – the key bomb-making technology – should be ceased.”
Heeley disagreed, however, saying concerns that Iran can’t be trusted are precisely the reasons for entering a deal.
“We want the verification. We want to be able to get in there and watch Iran’s nuclear program more closely,” Heeley said.
The deal would be especially valuable if it allows international monitors to make snap inspections, collect environmental samples and visit known nuclear facilities. That would let them construct the fullest picture yet Iran’s program.
“We’re able to get in there and watch them,” Heeley said.
Signaling that such a deal was nearing completion, Secretary of State John Kerry arrived Friday in Geneva, where world powers known as the P5+1 – the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – were hammering out the details in the latest round of negotiations with Iran.
The broad outlines of a potential deal have been known within and without the region for years. But the possibility of actually reaching an agreement only emerged with the unexpected June election of President Hassan Rouhani and his pragmatic pursuit – backed for now by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – of ending Iran’s economic and political isolation, said Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association, a policy institute.
“The framework of what could be the only deal that seems to be in the achievable universe has been out there for some time. What is new is that the new Rouhani government and the encouragement it provided to the realists inside the U.S. government,” said Thielmann, a former top State Department intelligence analyst.
At the heart of the emerging accord is an international demand that Iran halt the expansion of its uranium enrichment program, presumably through a freeze on the installation of new centrifuges, the high-speed machines that produce both low-enriched uranium for power plants and highly enriched uranium for nuclear warheads.
The United States and its negotiating allies also wants Iran to halt the production of near 20 percent enriched uranium, which is 90 percent of the way to the highly enriched uranium used in nuclear warheads.
In return, the U.S. and Europe would lift for six months some financial sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. During that time, negotiations would continue on a permanent agreement that might include a requirement that Iran disclose the full history of a nuclear program it kept secret for 18 years. They are especially interested in knowing about research that the U.N. nuclear agency says Iran conducted into the development of a missile-borne nuclear warhead.
“For now, those who continue to oppose pursuing a negotiated solution argue that the talks will allow Iran to buy time and continue developing its nuclear capability,” Kimberly Ann Elliott, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Global Development, wrote this week in an essay published in Foreign Affairs magazine.
“But their alternative, more sanctions, would also take time to work,” Elliott wrote. “And with talks moving forward, trying to use them to bring the country to its knees will simply increase the odds that the world will end up having to contain a nuclear Iran.”
Elliott cited a Congressional Research report that estimates sanctions have “halved Iranian oil exports, which once accounted for as much as 80 percent of the country’s exports, 50 percent of the government’s revenues, and 20 percent of the economy.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government hasn’t ruled out unilateral strikes targeting Iran’s nuclear sites, fumed about the impending agreement all week on Twitter. He derided it as Iran’s “deal of the century” in remarks on Friday.
Saudi Arabia hasn’t made such public proclamations against the deal, but it is certainly dubious. Saudi Arabia has campaigned for military strikes to neutralize the Iranian nuclear threat, and news items have surfaced in recent days that hint the Saudis are strengthening ties with close partner Pakistan, a nuclear arms power, as a counterweight to Iran.
The Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based defense research institute, released a report in February that cast doubts on Saudi Arabia’s ability to develop a nuclear weapons program. The kingdom faces political obstacles, such as not wanting to “risk a strategic rupture with the United States,” as well as logistical issues, according to the center’s report, “Atomic Kingdom: If Iran builds the bomb, will Saudi Arabia be next?”
“The kingdom has no nuclear research reactors or nuclear power facilities, no known reprocessing capability and no known uranium conversion, enrichment or fuel fabrication facilities,” the Center for a New American Security assessment stated.