The Art of the Nuclear Deal

Jeremy Bernstein

‘And by the way,’ Donald Trump said to Hillary Clinton in last night’s debate, ‘another one powerful is the worst deal I think I’ve ever seen negotiated that you started is the Iran deal.’ His view on the Iranian nuclear deal, and the nuclear weapons situation in general, hasn’t changed much since he spoke with two New York Times reporters in March. Not surprisingly he revealed an abominable ignorance of the subject.

He views the deal as a financial arrangement in which the US ‘gave’ the Iranians billions of dollars and got nothing in return. He would have walked out until he got a better deal. He ignored the fact that the US returned to the Iranians their money which we had confiscated. He complained that the Iranians took their aeroplane buying business to non-US companies until it was pointed out to him that companies like Boeing were forbidden by law to sell their planes to Iran. This embargo was lifted just days ago. He also said that we do not even know that America’s deterrent weapons would work. We also do not know if the sun will rise tomorrow but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Enough time has passed that we can now see how well the agreement is working. On 8 September the IAEA issued a report and I think it is fair to say that it is working quite well with some concerns around the margins. One thing on which there has been no progress is for the Iranians to reveal what the IAEA calls the ‘past military dimensions’ of their programme. The Iranians are adamant that any military work stopped years ago, but they will not allow any interviews with their scientists. I am persuaded that they have the designs for nuclear weapons. They have very competent physicists, and it is worth remembering that Pakistan’s successful nuclear devices were designed by half a dozen physicists, using computers less powerful than a modern laptop. But so long as the Iranians do not have fissile material, any designs they may have are more or less academic, and the IAEA appears to have been successful so far at keeping fissile material out of Iran’s hands.

The deal allows them to have at any one time only 300 kilogrammes of lightly enriched uranium. The IAEA says that the Iranians have met this obligation, though David Albright and Andrea Stricker of the Institute for Science and International Security note that the Iranians might have found ways of concealing some of their material from the IAEA. But one thing appears certain and that is that there is no highly enriched uranium in Iran. That is what matters. The Iranians are also limited in the amount of heavy water they can maintain:130 metric tonnes. Albright and Stricker say there may be some heavy water under Iranian control in Oman. The IAEA report does not mention this. Heavy water is used as a ‘moderator’ in plutonium producing reactors. There was one at Arak and the Iranians, the IAEA informs us, have not pursued its construction.

The bottom line seems quite simple to me. Before the agreement, the Iranians were only a few months from having enough fissile material to make a bomb. Now they are some years. Despite Trump’s misinformed rhetoric this was never a business deal. It was a security deal and the US is now much more secure. Trump argued for countries like Japan and South Korea to construct their own nuclear weapons. He seems to have no understanding of the power of these weapons and has not stated clearly when he would order their use if he was ever elected president.


  • 27 September 2016 at 7:54pm
    stettiner says:
    Oh, you mean the unsigned deal with Molotov-Ribbentrop-like side agreements?

    From Reuters:

    "The United States and its negotiating partners agreed "in secret" to allow Iran to evade some restrictions in last year's landmark nuclear agreement in order to meet the deadline for it to start getting relief from economic sanctions, according to a report reviewed by Reuters.

    The report is to be published on Thursday by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said the think tank’s president David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and co-author of the report.

    . . . .

    Among the exemptions were two that allowed Iran to exceed the deal's limits on how much low-enriched uranium (LEU) it can keep in its nuclear facilities, the report said."

    • 27 September 2016 at 9:09pm
      Jeremy Bernstein says: @ stettiner
      The Iranians allowed the Russians to take over 11,000 kilograms of low enriched to Russia. Trump made the absurd complaint that the Russians got it all and we got none as if this was a desirable gift. This was uranium hexaflouride which is both toxic and radioactive. What is left is tiny in comparison. There may be some that the iAEA has not found but it is miniscule to what they had.

  • 28 September 2016 at 11:20pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    A note on watching your language.

    Trump, with his rudimentary education and unwillingness to think a sentence through, coupled to out-loud free association, came up with a real doozer, as fairly quoted: ‘another one powerful is the worst deal I think I’ve ever seen negotiated that you started is the Iran deal.’ The ‘powerful’ phrase just hangs there, not really connected to anything preceding or following it. Does he mean the Iran deal is the worst negotiation started by Clinton, or the worst deal he’s ever seen? Who knows? He doesn’t know that ‘worst’, like ‘greatest’, is a superlative that should be used sparingly. But we get his point, though it is unsupported by any related matter other than that he imagines it was a “cash for co-operation” kind of deal and that we paid too much for too little. This is the apparent extent of his arithmetical abilities, as was made abundantly clear by the consortium of bankers who came to his rescue during his casino bankruptcy fiascos – they found him shy of knowledge of basic accounting and economic principles and practices.

    The Donald has shown himself to be thoroughly ignorant of other basics, including nuclear weaponry (The triad? Duh, what’s that? Maybe he imagined nuclear weapons delivery systems were handled by Amazon or FedEx. His brainlessness is shocking, but it makes him even more attractive to his ‘base’.) His inability to see that “A implies B” can be seen in his ranting about Iraq last week(give him credit, if due, for opposing the invasion): we pay for everything by seizing their oil, voila! Wouldn’t that require the continued presence of a considerable contingent of US troops on the ground to defend Iraq’s dispersed oil fields that would be under constant attack? I guess he thought we could just send in the boys from Exxon or Mobil and they’d handle the situation. As things started to fall apart after the opening month’s military victory in Iraq, that nation’s oil revenues were thought to be about 15 billion per year, a cost that our military was running up every 60 days (for many years). More simple arithmetic he doesn’t understand, though it would have been “a good deal” in his mind. What a colossal dope.

    But, to Jeremy Bernstein, does ‘confiscated’ really fit the bill? My memory of this is that after the Iranian seizure of the US embassy and the hostage-holding events, the US froze Iranian accounts in the US (and, I believe, put the funds in escrow accounts). It certainly seemed warranted in dealing with a (virtually new) sovereign state that had declared the US an enemy. Yeah, I know, they had many legitimate grievances with the US government, but after you take a dramatic illegal action such as an embassy seizure, you should obviously expect some fairly dramatic retaliation. I don’t consider either funds seizures or economic sanctions all that punitive in the case of a country like Iran, which still found plenty of outlets for its oil. Sanctions did not prevent its nuclear – power or armaments – programs from taking place in a fairly timely manner. Perhaps, just like the US, they should have been spending their earnings on infrastructure, education, and social welfare, but that wasn’t going to happen if it compromised achieving ideological and power-political goals. The eschatology of many fundamentalist Shi-ites (clerics and others) needs nuclear weapons in order to bring about the hoped-for final apocalyptic resolution of our unsatisfactory and sinful worldly affairs. I suppose most Iranians find this a deplorable idea, but “most” of anyone often loses out to determined factions or minorities.

    • 29 September 2016 at 12:09pm
      Jeremy Bernstein says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I have always thought that Trump suffered from what Reinhold Niehbuhr referred to as "neurotic preoccupation with self." He really believes that he won that debate and has surrounded himself with people who agree with him. I would imagine a session with them would be something out of Monte Python with Clease as Trump. He is not capable of learning and I predict that the next debate with be worse. I take the point about "confiscate."

    • 29 September 2016 at 3:20pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Jeremy Bernstein
      He thinks he won it morally and intellectually (not, I'm sure, that he would use those words), but he knows he lost it as a reality television spectacle: that's why he has complained about everything from the moderator to his microphone, and suggested that if he wasn't such a gentleman he'd have hit Clinton where it hurts and floored her. He's telling his supporters he won, but he has to.

      What's really interesting is how someone with a 'neurotic preoccupation with self' is going to react to this, his first defeat since his run began. One must hope that he will be angry in a way that will allow Clinton to expose parts of his character that will repel any undecideds.

  • 29 September 2016 at 5:30pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Unfortunately Trump's neurotic preoccupation with himself feeds right into its collective counterpart,'American exceptionalism', which becomes virulent at times (not that other large, powerful countries lack similar ideas about exceptionalism). Almost no (ambitious) politician will pooh-pooh this obvious mythical stature - e.g., Hillary wouldn't dare and may even be a believer in her version of this useless trope. The American voter problem looms just as large as the Trump problem, and it won't go away anytime soon.

    • 4 October 2016 at 5:31pm
      John Cowan says: @ Timothy Rogers
      The trouble with the phrase "American exceptionalism" is that the U.S. is exceptional in a dozen ways: to pick one out of the air, it has the oldest written constitution. Of course, other countries do too, as you point out. So to claim American exceptionalism claims nothing, and to attack the U.S. for its claims of exceptionalism misses the point.

    • 5 October 2016 at 2:53pm
      tigran says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Yes. Collective delusion. So sad, really, in how necessary it seems to some to believe it. There is a story about great French theater actors of the early 20th century: "You just gave the greatest performance I have ever seen! No really, I was terrible tonight, I will be better tomorrow." We might try that.

  • 30 September 2016 at 9:00am
    bobind says:
    For all the posturing and ranting on the part of the media about the grotesque absurdity of the Trump candidacy, the crux of the problem is, as Tim Rogers points out, in his final sentence, the American voter.

    • 4 October 2016 at 6:50pm
      micheyns says: @ bobind
      But 'the American voter' is just another term for 'Americans', and we would surely not want to generalize that broadly about such a disparate nation. To my mind, the American tragedy is that some of the world's most intellectually advanced,creative, tolerant people are weighed down by some of the world's most ignorant, bigoted, reactionary people. The split seems to be about 50-50, hence the grotesque manouevring of the current campaign. Yes, it should not be necessary to expose Trump for the flatulent fraud he is; sadly it does not seem to cut any ice with, yes, 'the American voter' , or that dismayingly large proportion of it. After Brexit, America remains the most poignant test of democracy after National Socialism.

  • 5 October 2016 at 6:58am
    Daniel Jones says:
    Mr. Rogers and Mr. Cowan are much too kind: they miss the egregious inner kernel of "American Exceptionalism": gross racial hypocrisy. Since the dawn of the republic it has extolled the superior morality of our (increasingly democratic) republican liberties, all the while denying them to people of color at home and abroad. I shouldn't need to retell our unvarying history of Native American genocide and African American oppression. Add this to a foreign policy of conquest and slaughter from Mexico through Hawaii and the Philippines, into two million "Chinks" dead in Vietnam, and 100,000 "carpet heads" directly killed in Iraq (over 1 million indirectly), and an entire region destabilized; and I didn't mention mere thousands massacred among the brown skins of Central America.

    Oh, but we're so good! We've done wondrous things for the white people of Europe: once, twice, the Marshall Plan!, and continuously with NATO since 1947. That's what feeds the myth! Those poor, brainwashed G.I.s just couldn't understand why the conquered Iraqis could be so angry at them! We were bringing them democracy, human rights, better schools (for girls), rebuilding their bombed out country!

    And you wonder why some from the U.S. are fairly enlightened citizens of the world; and why others would rather disparage the darker-skinned--at home or abroad--than debate intelligently a best path forward in a postindustrial world.

    • 5 October 2016 at 4:36pm
      tigran says: @ Daniel Jones
      Yes. And a mission statement (constitution) is as good as it's execution. We are exceptional in gun ownership, prison population, income inequality, pledges, anthems and truly astonishing in absence of critical thought all the above cause.

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