By all appearances, the United States and the so-called P5+1 came within an inch of making a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. The deal fell apart in the end because, by all accounts, France rejected it vehemently, calling it a “sucker’s deal.”
France was right. The French owe much to the Americans for actions of the past, but this time around it is the Americans that should say “Thank you” to France. Let’s be perfectly clear about the fundamental point: Making a deal, a good deal, is a highly desirable goal. If Iran can be prevented from making nuclear weapons, or from getting very close to making nuclear weapons, without military action, that is indeed the most desirable outcome.
The Iranian people deserve a chance to return to prosperity, and a lowering of international tensions would be good for everyone.
Making a deal, however, is not the ultimate objective. The real goal is stopping and dismantling Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon.
This agreement would not have done that.
Negotiations will resume on Nov. 20, with lower-level officials meeting again to pick up where their bosses left off.
The official terms of the deal that fell apart last weekend during feverish negotiations in Geneva have not been revealed. But France, breaking ranks with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council + Germany), revealed its objections before the official press conference was scheduled to start. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius broke protocol to tell reporters that no agreement had been completed. The plan under discussion, the French official declared, is one “we do not accept.”
The most glaring flaw in the proposed plan centered on the status of a plutonium reactor that Iran is building, in parallel with its massive uranium enrichment activities. It seems Iran was prepared to agree to a freeze in uranium enrichment in exchange for some relief in Western economic sanctions.
But what about the plutonium plant?
Iran claims it needs plutonium for medical and agricultural research. That’s a hard line to swallow, especially coming from a country that has repeatedly been caught lying about its nuclear program.
The negotiators in Geneva did discuss the Arak plutonium plant. But there was no great sense of urgency on the matter, perhaps because the plant is scheduled to be completed in 2014. According to reporters on the ground, there was a plan for Arak, but the terms are so weak that one is left wondering about the wisdom of the Western negotiators.
According to The New York Times, a compromise favored by some in the American delegation would have allowed Iran to continue building the Arak plutonium plant as long as Tehran agreed to refrain from operating it during the six months covered by the interim accord.
In other words, Iran would have continued pushing forward in a key part of its nuclear program. The famous nuclear clock would have kept on ticking.
That is just one of many areas of disagreement. There is the matter of what will happen with the hundreds of pounds of uranium that Iran has already enriched to 20 percent — a level that puts it within a quick dash to weapons’ grade.
Of course, this was meant to be a temporary deal, one that would freeze the ground in order to buy time for more detailed negotiations. But from the information we have, it does not seem like it would have stopped the clock.
On Monday, after talks broke down, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear inspectors, traveled to Iran, as part of a separate negotiating track. The IAEA reached a new deal on inspections with the Islamic Republic. Under the new accord, which aims to convey Iran’s new openness, Iran will provide more information about its program, and by February 2014 it will grant U.N. inspectors “managed access” to a uranium mine and to the Arak heavy water plant, whose output goes to the nearby plutonium reactor under construction.
This agreement said nothing about one of the inspectors’ areas of concern, the Parchin plant where the IAEA suspects Iran is developing and testing the technology for using its nuclear material as a viable military weapon.
After decades of hiding its nuclear program, after enduring punishing international sanctions and becoming a global pariah, it is difficult to imagine Iran simply changed its mind. Perhaps the pain finally convinced it to do so. But experience says the West should behave with skepticism and move with enormous care. It would be good to make a deal with Iran. But only if it is a good deal.
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald. Readers may send her email at fjghitisgmail.com.