Confidence Enrichment

The Nuclear Deal With Iran Was About Trust, Not Verification

An Iranian boy holds the national flag with a plastic gun with in central Tehran, March 31, 2008.
An Iranian boy holds the national flag with a plastic gun with in central Tehran, March 31, 2008. (Morteza Nikoubazl / Courtesy Reuters)

It is difficult to judge the nuclear agreement forged last weekend in Geneva as anything other than a good deal. The Iranians will be no closer to having a nuclear breakout capability when the deal concludes than they are today. The amount of money that the Iranians will get is paltry -- about $7 billion total over six months -- especially compared to the roughly $30 billion that Tehran will lose during that period as a result of the sanctions on oil sales and financial transactions, all of which remain firmly in place. The objections that have been raised to the deal so far are either specious or tautological, or require the kind of tenuous conspiracy thinking that we typically disparage when it comes from the Iranians. 

But the deal is only a small step in the right direction. Iran will end up somewhat farther away from developing a nuclear breakout capability, but it is hard to go much beyond that. There are so many ways for Iran to acquire the fissile material for a nuclear weapon that it is impossible to assess whether it will set Iran back by a week, a month, or a year. (Any such claims tend to reflect what the claimant wants you to believe much more than objective reality.) Moreover, the interim agreement will last for only six months and says nothing about what will happen at the end of that period. The hope is that the two sides will use the time to craft a comprehensive follow-on agreement; but the interim deal contains only the broadest signposts for such an agreement. Three years from now, if there is no comprehensive agreement, this interim deal is going to look irrelevant -- not bad, just immaterial. 

In that sense, the interim deal is only important to the extent it helps to produce that ultimate, comprehensive agreement. Fortunately, the deal has real value as a confidence-building measure. 

Simply put, the United States and Iran don’t trust each other. That is understandable given how they have both behaved in the 34 years since the Islamic Revolution. Mistrust is so deeply rooted on both sides that it has often threatened to make any serious negotiations impossible. 

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