So Iran has apparently stopped enriching uranium for the moment, pressing pause on its nuclear program. Great news, right?Actually, it could hardly be worse, argues Michael Levi, the Brookings Institution's resident atomic authority. Iran's time-out is the product of a deal between Tehran and three European countries. The mullahs made similar commitments last year -- and didn't keep them. And even if Tehran decides to stick to its agreements this time around, this new bargain has "dealt Iran a stronger hand," Levi contends.
Supporters insist that the new language is more specific and provides fewer loopholes than the last deal. But in exchange for a mere tightening of loopholes, the EU-3 has offered Iran a pretty indulgent deal. Most importantly, the Europeans have again promised to keep Tehran away from the Security Council, a commitment with irreversible consequences -- after all, while the Europeans can change their minds and head to the Security Council whenever they please, they cannot turn back the clock. Every day Iran operates under lessened pressure is a day it might move closer to producing a bomb. (Only an overly optimistic or nave observer can confidently believe Iran continues no nuclear efforts in secret.) Moreover, the past two years have shown that the further into history Iran's most egregious actions recede, the less willing other countries become to punish Tehran for them. So by delaying a Security Council confrontation, the EU-3 has, for now, dealt Iran a stronger hand.The Europeans didn't stop there, however. They promised to bring Iran into WTO-entry negotiations; they also promised the possibility of nuclear, technological, and economic cooperation. Finally, they delivered an important intangible to Iran--the deal, which never mentions the country's violations, will provide Tehran with useful ammunition for its propaganda machine domestically, in the Middle East, and around the world. As a guest on Iranian and Arabic television programs, I've experienced first-hand the importance of this factor: Iranian officials seize on any sentiment or phrase from an outside power that can be read as exonerating its nuclear program and use it to drown out reasoned opposition. Now, faced with claims that the outside world, including Europe, believes Iran violated last October's agreement--a plain truth--Iran will repeatedly produce the EU-3 deal as evidence to the contrary. That, in turn, will bolster domestic support for the regime and its actions while creating regional sympathy for Iran's claims of mistreatment at the hands of the West.It isn't just the EU-3 that is to blame here. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which for the most part has done a solid job in investigating Iran, put itself in an inappropriate political position as part of the EU-3 negotiations. Scheduled to deliver a critical report on Iran's activities last week, the agency delayed its release pending the outcome of the EU-3 negotiations. In doing so, it clearly suggested that Iran could influence the report--which is presumably a factual accounting of Iran's activities--by agreeing to the right deal. Imagine a criminal psychiatrist delaying her assessment of a defendant pending the outcome of plea bargain negotiations, and you've got an idea of how irresponsible this is.