Negotiating international agreements


The Nuclear Agreement reached on 14 July between Iran and the P5+1 nations has been received with a mixture of praise and condemnation, much of the reaction stemming from where individuals stand on the political spectrum. The original stated objective of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany who were conducting negotiations with Iran was to ensure that Iran could not progress to the production of nuclear weapon. By the conclusion of the talks that objective had clearly changed to an attempt to delay such progress for up to a decade. Clearly those negotiating such complex international agreements are subject to a variety of pressures and how each team reacts to these affects the outcome.

Any negotiation involves the probing by each participant of the strengths and weaknesses of those participating. In the case under consideration Iran had the advantage of working with six other nations who each had their own national objectives We knew that the Iranians agreed to start the negotiations only because they became desperate for some relief from international sanctions. Sanctions incidentally that were not wholeheartedly supported by two of the participants, China and Russia, and even Germany and Britain looked forward eagerly to increasing trade with Iran once these sanctions were eased. Thus it was not surprising, but in my opinion wrong that some easing of the sanctions was agreed early because it signaled to Iran that the P5+1 team would make concessions to try to achieve progress. From that point on the concessions continued to come from the P5+1 team as they walked back from the initial position of anywhere anytime inspections, and access to suspect military sites, to a far less intrusive regime. The agreement reached does curb and monitor Iran’s infrastructure and capabilities, but does not transform the program into one that restricts Iran only to peaceful uses.

A colleague and I noted twelve years ago in an article for Defense News that despite international agreements designed to prevent proliferation, the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and their means of delivery by ballistic and cruise missiles remains a growth industry. Sadly successive administrations have not heeded these warnings. Rather than devoting efforts to remain secure in a proliferated world, diplomatic efforts have concentrated on eliminating nuclear weapons. A noble concept but one doomed to failure while nations that are hostile to our democratic way of life envisage the possession of nuclear warheads as a safeguard against undue pressure from the Western alliance. North Korea has demonstrated the ability to defy international conventions by the possession of a nuclear capability, and the reported agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations will provide further evidence of the truth of this belief, as Iran  overtly or covertly  continues the quest for nuclear warheads.

The recently announced agreement with Iran reminded me of another famous confrontation, at that time between American and Soviet leaders in Reykjavik in 1986. At the that meeting Gorbachev proposed eliminating all nuclear weapons within a decade, provided America agreed to confine the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) research to laboratories throughout that decade. Reagan who had introduced the concept of a nonnuclear missile defense program in the hope it could lead to the end of the Mutual Assured Destruction policy that had governed Soviet/American relations throughout the Cold War rejected the offer. He noted that he had given an undertaking to Americans to investigate whether missile defense was viable, and he intended to meet that pledge. He was also aware that the Soviets were extremely concerned that they could not afford to compete with the SDI research, so against the advice of most of his officials Reagan rejected the proposal. Later when the Soviet Union collapsed Gorbachev acknowledged that the American SDI program had contributed to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

It is difficult not to contrast Reagan’s behavior to that of President Obama who gave a firm undertaking to America that negotiations with Iran would eliminate any possibility of Iran producing a nuclear weapon. We do not know how much the other participants applied pressure on America to step back from this firm position, but it is clear that the pledge of no more Iranian enrichment of uranium and many other restrictions have been conceded. American participants did have the opportunity to refuse to concede these issues, but clearly the leadership decided that a leaky agreement was preferable to no agreement.   We can conclude that the agreement now being assessed by Congress does not meet the original noble objectives. It instead defers the likelihood of an Iranian break out for up to a decade, but eventually removes all international impediments to Iran progressing towards a bomb. Although Congress may vote to block the deal, the President has stated he would veto such a resolution, and is also planning to bypass our Constitutional requirements by presenting the deal to the UN for approval despite any Congressional action.

Turning back to the efforts President Reagan made to preserve the missile defense program, it is ironic that successive administrations have not ensured that the program he introduced has led to a fully effective defense against ICBMs. Yes we have rudimentary system deployed in Alaska and in Vandenberg AFB capable of intercepting small raids of unsophisticated missiles, but it falls far short of the potential capability that SDI promised. Israel that took the missile threat far more seriously has demonstrated how effective such systems can be in combating shorter range missiles. It is not surprising however that Israeli leaders are furious about the Iranian agreement, because Iran continues to refer to their intention to obliterate Israel, while also calling America the Great Satan. The agreement does nothing to deter Iran continuing with the development of missiles capable of transporting the nuclear warheads they seem to be intent on developing.

Although it is clear that negotiating international agreements is complex, time consuming and extremely difficult, what seems to have been overlooked is that sometimes withdrawal is preferable to surrender of principles. The so called agreement with Iran is likely to result in yet further proliferation of nuclear warhead technology as others seek to follow the Iranian path.


Stanley Orman was an undersecretary in the British Ministry of Defense responsible for the development of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and also led British involvement in the American missile defense program. 


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