Two remarkable statements must be juxtaposed to understand how much trouble lies ahead in trying to get a nuclear deal with Iran. Thus far, the trouble has been over the temporary arrangements, meant to last six months and likely to be extended for another six. That deal was reached last year and an implementation agreement then took two more months to reach. The next task is to negotiate an arrangement that is comprehensive and permanent. How likely is that, and have we really thus far reached any agreement at all?
The first statement is that of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, reported by The Wall Street Journal. ISIS is led by former UN weapons inspector David Albright. This is from the Journal’s account of the ISIS report:
The report by Mr. Albright’s institute focuses on denying Iran the ability to make weapons-grade fuel through the two separate tracks Tehran is developing: the enrichment of uranium and the production of plutonium. On uranium enrichment, ISIS said Iran’s activities must only take place in Natanz. A second, underground plant near Qom needs to be closed to guarantee better IAEA monitoring, it said. The study concluded Iran also needs to reduce to 4,000 the total number of centrifuges it is operating from a current capacity of nearly 20,000. This will deny it the ability to quickly produce the highly enriched uranium needed for a bomb.
So denying Iran a weapons capability means it must destroy 15,000 centrifuges. And as the Journal notes, "The institute’s prescriptions aren’t viewed as particularly harsh or hard-line. The report accepts that Iran will maintain some ability to continue producing nuclear fuel as part of a final agreement through the enrichment of uranium at low levels for civilian use."
How likely is it that Iran will agree to destroy 15,000 centrifuges?
The second statement, that of Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, offers an answer. Zarif was in Davos this week, and did an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that will be broadcast on Sunday, February 2nd. "We did not agree to dismantle anything," Zarif said. And there’s more:
Zarif told CNN Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto that terminology used by the White House to describe the agreement differed from the text agreed to by Iran and the other countries in the talks -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany. "The White House version both underplays the concessions and overplays Iranian commitments."
In old-fashioned contract law, a contract (say, for instance, a nuclear deal) is only reached when the parties have a meeting of the minds. As one law dictionary puts it, "when two parties to an agreement (contract) both have the same understanding of the terms of the agreement. Such mutual comprehension is essential to a valid contract." Black’s Law Dictionary, the most famous one, says that a contract requires "mutual assent," defined as a "meeting of the minds" in which each of the parties "agrees to all the terms and conditions, in the same sense and with the same meaning as the others."
Nuclear negotiations are not private contracts, of course, but the old contract law precepts ought to give us pause. If the parties disagree strongly over what has been agreed, has anything really been agreed?