Michael KreponHow Long an “Interim”?

Critics of the interim agreement suggest that we wait for sanctions to have more bite. But while we wait, Iran’s stockpile of fissile materials will grow, and the Arak reactor moves closer to completion. Another alternative would be to bomb the Arak reactor and Iran’s enrichment facilities. This option will remain available, but why choose it – and the negative consequences that might follow – if diplomacy can limit Iran’s stocks of fissile material and keep the Arak reactor off-line? The interim agreement curtails Iranian nuclear-related activities in ways that sanctions have been unable to accomplish, without having to resort to military action, and all of the unintended consequences that might follow.

A great deal is being made about extending the timeline in which Tehran could break out from the interim agreement’s constraints. Extending the breakout timeline has clear value, less for military action than for helping intelligence analysts to piece together systematic evidence of noncompliance. The interim agreement’s monitoring provisions could help greatly in this regard. Absent this accord, detecting breakout would be a far more serious problem.

In the coming months, we can expect differing interpretations over some aspects of the interim agreement, including the modalities of inspections. There will be a constant drumbeat of criticism over what hasn’t been accomplished. There will be unconfirmed reports that Iran is covertly cheating. Skeptics on Capitol Hill will seek steps that could have the practical effect of derailing the negotiations.

Interim deals are necessary when the whole enchilada is just too big to swallow. But interim deals can raise the stakes for a final deal, and the longer the wait, the harder it becomes. Take, for example, the 1972 Interim Agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union, which couldn’t get a handle on MIRVs. It took seven years for the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty to be negotiated, during which there were ceaseless charges of Soviet cheating on US interpretations of the Interim Agreement’s provisions, as well as worrisome Soviet behavior unrelated to the terms of the agreement. SALT II’s slim chances in the Senate disappeared when a small group of decision makers in the Kremlin decided to invade Afghanistan. The moral of this story: Negotiate the follow-on accord as quickly as possible, especially since (1) critics will argue that the interim agreement doesn’t accomplish enough, and (2) the agreement won’t curtail bad behavior unrelated to the agreement. A negotiating process with Iran that seeks further piecemeal deals will only whip up predictable opposition at each step and is unlikely to withstand these pressures.

All of which makes the pursuit and particulars of a final deal brutally difficult. The interim deal hints at no dismantling of existing nuclear infrastructure, curtailment of existing uranium enrichment capacity and the freezing of a parallel plutonium track to nuclear weapons. The Obama administration will have to do better than this.


  1. archjr (History)

    2 thoughts on a good and fair post:

    The tough part starts, first with negotiating IAEA access, and even more daunting a long-term deal.

    We have been told for many years that arms control in the Middle East will never happen until Palestine is settled. This may be a false construct. The INF treaty certainly came before a political solution to Europe’s divide. Why should the Middle East be different? Maybe Syria and Iran, if successful, can reinvigorate this declared moribund pursuit.

  2. Bradley Laing (History)


    t times the two sets of guests became enmeshed. When the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and his team would make their way in and out of the hotel he had the Swiss security guards clear all the journalists from the central lobby and even warned them not to shout questions on pain of eviction. When Lavrov strolled through, the guards shushed loudly, silencing journalists – but not the other paying guests. As the night drew on and they became tipsier, they were drawn to the polished stone lobby in their dinner jackets as if it were a red carpet at the Oscars. Long ball-gowns and stiletto heels, intermingling with the business suits of the foreign ministry teams, sometimes created a human logjam at the glass revolving door.


    —The nonproliferation experts at the link must have been involved: they did that in two of their movies, as I remember it.

  3. j_kies (History)

    Great point about working quickly and avoiding distractions. IRG and their surrogates such as Hamas behaviors are immaterial to the question of oversight and protocols to address risks of a Iranian nuclear weapons program.

  4. jeannick (History)

    A very tipsy Scotsman from the party was reported trying to crash the meeting room ,much to the anguish of the security

    At least it provided some relief for the journos
    they were left to stew for hours

    Six months , that probably will be extended

    the problem is not so much the final deal
    hard as it will be , that’s a piece of cake compared to running the congressional gauntlet

    This accord doesn’t really need congress approval
    the mid term election will be the crux

  5. Bradley Laing (History)

    MOSCOW, October 8 (RIA Novosti) – Russia is to increase annual spending on nuclear weapons by more than 50 percent in the next three years, a parliamentary defense committee said Tuesday.
    In 2016, 46.26 billion rubles ($1.4 billion) is to be spent on Russia’s nuclear weapons systems, up from 29.29 billion rubles this year, according to the State Duma Defense Committee’s report on the draft federal budget for 2014-2016

    —I had a new thought about this old article post. A few days ago, I saw a commentary saying that the money the Russian Federation was putting into conventional weapons had a miserably high chance of being diverted to a Putin supporters pockets, without actually improving the Russian military. Is there any way to guess if the money the Russian taxpayers put up for nuclear weapons will be diverted to a corrupt official, without being turned into a nuclear weapon or nuclear device delivery system?

    —Or is the nuclear weapons developing systems of the Russian federation more likely to produce results, instead of corruption?

    [deleted material was here]

    New nuclear weapons systems entering service include the navy’s Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Kh-102 long-range cruise missile for the air force and new land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles for the Strategic Missile Forces (RVSN).

  6. Anjaan (History)

    There may be negotiations with Iran after six months … and more in the future, but one thing is clear … Iran, or any other self respecting nation for that matter, would under no circumstances, give up and roll back its capabilities to produce fissile material, under western pressure and intimidation … Iran may agree to stay put for some years and buy time … but, a nuclear Iran is as certain as the Sun and the Moon … only a matter of time …

    The western powers led by the US must reconcile with the idea, and learn to live with a nuclear Iran. If they can live with a nuclear Pakistan and N Korea, there is absolutely no reason why not with Iran.

    • AnonNL (History)

      I wonder how many of the commenters merrily proclaiming that we should really just get with it and be happy with a nuclear-armed Iran would be equally sanguine about living with a nuclear-armed South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Emirates, and while we’re at it, why not Turkey, Brazil, Argentina? (I won’t mention Venezuela, because I fear some of those commenters really *would* be happy in that case.)

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      North Korea is still under trade sanctions because of nuclear weapons testing. Unless Iran desires similar trade sanctions, now and in the future, Iran should choose to move away from its current stance of nuclear ambiguity.

      Iran’s choice is not predetermined. Plenty of self-respecting nations have given up nuclear weapons and have shown a willingness to demonstrate that fact. Why not Iran?

    • fyi (History)

      Quite correct.

      Iran should have left NPT back in 1998 after the nuclear weapons tests of India and Pakistan.

      Nothing has happened since then that makes me change my mind.

    • Mohammad (History)


      I don’t think it is reasonable to call “nuclear ambiguity” the stance of the second-most inspected IAEA state, with a very clearly stated policy against nuclear weapons, which has been in compliance with its Safeguards Agreement since 2008 and not violated it since 2003.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      By “nuclear ambiguity” I refer to Iran’s unwillingness to permit reasonable inspections and provide satisfactory answers where nuclear weapons related activities have been alleged. An example would be the Parchin military site where request was made to inspect specific buildings. Instead of promptly permitting the inspections, Iran undertook various “clean-up” activities, razed the buildings, and paved over the area.

      Needless to say, this type of activity by Iran engenders mistrust by outsiders, who naturally conclude that the allegations of nuclear weapons research must be true. Situations of this type create “ambiguity”, because direct evidence is not available, but strong suspicion remains when Iran refuses to permit the investigation.

      The IAEA still has numerous questions and inspections for Iran, that Iran would do well to answer and permit. I will defer to other experts on whether Iran has fulfilled its legal obligations.

    • FlamesInTheDesert (History)

      You seem to be confusing the iaea with unscom,parchin was not a nuclear site,it was a military one yet even so iran allowed the iaea to inspect parts of it,the iaea does not have a mandate to look wherever it likes inside iran.Perhaps when the iaea starts showing iran the “evidence” it has of iranian wrong doing then the iranians might be more inclined to allow inspections of non nuclear sites

    • Mohammad (History)

      Ultimately, nuclear ambiguity is about perceptions, which are influenced by real-world events, but perhaps more so by issues of trust, (mis)information, the media, etc. From an Iranian point of view, being asked to provide foreign access to sensitive conventional military programs may be seen as unacceptable or even a pressure tactic, while the Western world might perceive Iran’s unwillingness to do that as evidence that it is hiding a nuclear weapons program, or that it has adopted a “nuclear ambiguity” stance, which Iran might not be actually intending itself.

      Of course, all of this depends on whether one trusts the PMD allegations or not. Frankly, I don’t know if they are genuine or not. But considering the doubts having been raised with regards to the authenticity of the PMD allegations, their source (the intelligence agencies of countries hostile to Iran), the Iraq precedent and the fact that virtually every prior allegation based on IAEA’s own evidence was later declared as not outstanding anymore, I think it’s not prudent to discount Iran’s point of view. Perhaps if Brazil was politically at odds with the U.S. and Israel, it would come under similar pressure given its nuclear record, leading people to conclude that its stance was “nuclear ambiguity”.

      On the Parchin “clean-up” and the PMD, also see my comments in the comments section here.

  7. Tobias Piechowiak (History)

    Hi everybody,

    I found a very nice article from the NYT 20 years ago
    dealing with the fear that Pakistan might get a nuclear capability (which was 10 years before their actual testing).
    The story bears some resemblance with the situation in Iran today…check it out


    • Anjaan (History)

      @ Tobial Piechowiak,
      The Reagan administration had full knowledge of Pakistan’s nuclear advances … but fighting and defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s help was the top most priority in American national interests, than preventing a nuclear Pakistan …