Iran's ability to skirt nuclear deal highly overblown

The central lesson of our nuclear age, Brian Stewart writes, is come to a formal compromise with your enemies and let the spies go to work. In the case of Iran, there will be no end of countries angling to keep its nuclear ambitions under control.

The central lesson of our nuclear age: compromise with your enemies and let the spies go to work

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry holds a copy of the Iran nuclear deal aloft on Tuesday, capping more than a decade of on-off negotiations with an agreement that could potentially transform the Middle East. (Leonhard Foeger / Reuters)

In our suspicious age, nothing concerning nuclear capabilities is, quite rightly, taken on trust.

And after the years of grinding sanctions and tortured negotiations that led to the nuclear deal with Iran this week, it is daunting to contemplate the massive verification and secret intelligence effort that will be needed to make it all work.

This agreement sets out to "Shrink Wrap" Iran's nuclear weapons capability for at least a decade.

It would do that by cutting the country's nuclear centrifuges by two-thirds, its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 per cent, and its heavy-water capability to produce weapons-grade plutonium down to zero, while wrapping everything in an extensive international inspections regime.

Beyond the 15-year lifetime of the main elements of the deal, it is hoped that opening up Iran to the world will persuade it to forgo nuclear weapons permanently as its own fears of Israeli and/or U.S. attacks recede.

This won't come easily. Israeli critics as well as conservative opponents of the agreement in the U.S. insist Iran will cheat its way to a surprise weapon.

But these arguments understate the massive surveillance — possibly unprecedented — that every square metre of Iranian nuclear plants will be under.

Global posse

First, Iran must allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to demand entry into any site in the country they deem suspicious, including military bases, and any delay beyond 24 days could lead to a "snap back" of sanctions.

Any such delay, of course, would also quickly alert the world that a closer look is required.

What's more, the IAEA inspections will be just the public face of oversight into Iran's nuclear capabilities.

Tehran knows that at least a score of the world's top spy agencies will be keeping ever closer tabs on its nuclear efforts by using still more agents, cyber-espionage, and satellite probes to scour Iran's high-tech world 24/7.

In the past, Iranian nuclear sites have been penetrated and even sabotaged by outside agents and, it is alleged, Israeli-U.S. cyber-attacks. Tehran knows its secrets are never totally safe.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads to a press conference where calls the proposed removal of sanctions on Iran an "historic mistake." (Ammar Awad / Reuters)

Trying to hide crucial information from this global posse of experienced spy powers will be beyond risky, possibly hopeless.

At the height of the Cold War, for example, Western, Soviet and Chinese intelligence all managed to steal each other's deepest secrets — and that was before modern cyber-intelligence added a whole new dimension to espionage.

Just consider the full surveillance Iran will now face as it begins to publicly unwind its nuclear regime.

Not just U.S. and European intelligence agencies, but Israeli, Turkish and all the big Arab ones as well, will be trying to pry secrets out of Iran, and paying well for them, too, in a likely more accessible, sanctions-free society.

You can add Indian, Pakistani, as well as highly capable Russian and Chinese spooks to the mix.

Yes, Moscow and Beijing are allies of Iran, but only up to a point. They joined in the UN's anti-nuclear sanctions against Tehran, and it's fair to say neither they nor any serious country would welcome an Iranian nuclear surprise.

Those that possess nukes don't tend to welcome new members to the club.

Cold War lessons

I understand the powerful distrust of Iran that motivates those who believe the danger from that unpredictable and secretive regime is so life and death, so existential, that no compromise is possible.

Iran has a dark record at home and abroad, it sponsors guerilla and terror groups in other countries in the region and helps bankroll the brutal Assad regime in Syria.

However, that sense of existential danger is one that my generation grew up with through the darkest years of the Cold War, when worry over a nuclear war between the West and the Soviet Union seemed part and parcel of our youth.

We make light of it now, but it was commonly said back then that we might soon witness a post-nuclear nightmare in which "the living envy the dead."

In this case, the great fear that motivated UN sanctions in the first place was the prospect that an Iranian bomb would spur a nuclear arms race right across the Middle East, and might well lead directly to an Israeli-U.S. assault on Iranian facilities, all plunging the world into a new round of unpredictable chaos.

Today, when I think of the standoff between Israel and Iran, I remember how much Cold War powers despised and distrusted each other, too; and how, when Washington and other Western nations dealt with regimes in Moscow and Mao's China, they were negotiating with some of the worst tyrannies in history.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, shown here listening to Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari in May, had said military sites were off limits. But the new agreement sets out a protocol for requesting and determining access by UN investigators. (The Associated Press)

Right through the U.S./Soviet arms deals, indeed right up to the moment the Soviet Union collapsed, one still heard bleats from hard-right opponents insisting that this empire was just too powerful and too resistant to change ever to be trusted — rhetoric quite similar to those warnings about Iran today.

But the central lesson of our nuclear age is that to build global security one must make deals that inevitably involve compromises, even with your most existential enemies.

Public handshakes aside, we can probably also take solace in the fact that deep in the shadows an equal inspections role will be played by verifications' devious twin: espionage. 


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.