One of the instruments used in diplomacy is the “interim” agreement.   These short term accords are designed to keep things moving until a permanent agreement can be reached.  Funny thing though is that they often become permanent since the parties to the agreement can never find a long term solution.

The best example of the “interim” agreement are the ceasefires between warring nations that become de facto truces or even peace agreements, e.g. the ceasefire between the two Koreas and the ceasefire between Ethiopia and Eritrea.  Nothing is ever resolved except to keep the warring parties from shooting at each other.  Legally they are still at war, but without causing any death or destruction.

President Obama’s foreign policy team has worked out a six month “interim” agreement on nuclear energy development with Iran that essentially gives the Group of Six - USA, China, Russia, England, France and Germany -  more time to wring an agreement out of Iran to not continue on a path to building nuclear weapons.  The interim agreement puts some of the Iranian nuclear program on hold but does not end its enrichment activities that cause concern since these can be used to make weapons grade enriched uranium.  In return the “six” will ease economic sanctions on the Iranians.

Israel’s government has dismissed the agreement as a sham, a cover that allows Iran to continue on its program to acquire a nuclear bomb.  France rejected the first proposal but accepted a modified version that specifically called for Iran to suspend work on a plutonium reactor.

Many in the US Congress have suspicions about the agreement and are pressing to adopt more, not fewer, economic sanctions that will be in place until Iran gives up all uranium enrichment activities.

I know a thing or two about “interim” agreements, specifically for nuclear energy.  In 1977 then President Jimmy Carter instituted what was called the “full scopes safeguards” procedures to control the movement of potentially lethal spent nuclear fuel, which can be used to make plutonium, the preferred material for nuclear weapons when one is building them on the cheap.  To enforce control over the movement of spent nuclear fuel I was instructed to renegotiate our nuclear agreement with Spain.  The old agreement allowed Spain to ship spent fuel to England for storage until it was reprocessed in England to extract plutonium.   Our new demand was for the Spaniards to keep the spent fuel in Spain.  I pointed out that storing it in England was more secure than storing it in Spain but Carter stood firm, no transfers of spent fuel.  I opined that his fixation on nuclear fuels came from having spent too many years in nuclear submarines wearing lead underpants.

I told my boss that it would be impossible to get the Spaniards to agree to a new agreement.  The old one worked fine for them and a new one would mean millions of dollars in additional expenses.   American companies were building eight new nuclear power plants at a cost of some $1 billion each at the time and all this work was guaranteed by our Eximbank, the US Government’s funding machine for very large exports such as nuclear power plants.  Work on these projects had to continue under an agreement and to simply renounce the old agreement was not an option.  The Spaniards knew this and that they held all the trump cards.

Enter the “interim” agreement.   I fell back to proposing a six month agreement to delay shipments of spent fuel while we worked on a final agreement.  I then wrote, negotiated, and concluded such an agreement with the Spanish.   It was, if I say so myself, brilliant.  I wrote it and did not understand it so was sure no one else would ever be able to understand and thus change it.  Proof of its impenetrable nature was that the six month agreement was renewed repeatedly for the next nine years until Spain entered the European Union and its nuclear trade with the USA came under our agreement with Euratom, the EU’s unified nuclear energy controlling body.

My point is that “interim” agreements have a habit of becoming de facto permanent agreements.   I would suspect the one we are now working on with Iran will follow this familiar path and whatever its says it will be here for some time to come.