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Iran nuclear deal 101: five big questions answered

President Obama’s top cabinet officials are on Capitol Hill this week, defending the Iran nuclear deal. Here are five of the most pressing questions that lawmakers and others are asking.

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    Students chant and dance as they join several thousand other protestors to demonstrate during a rally apposing the nuclear deal with Iran in Times Square in Manhattan, July 22.
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President Obama’s top cabinet officials are on Capitol Hill this week, defending the Iran nuclear deal that was announced July 14. The deal, unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council on Monday, has produced a blast wave of criticism from Republicans. Key Senate Democrats are also skeptical.

Congress has until Sept. 17 to review, accept, reject, or do nothing about the deal, which lifts international sanctions against Iran in exchange for sharp restrictions on its nuclear program.

If lawmakers approve the deal or take no action – the latter is a possibility given the divisiveness of the issue – the president can begin to relieve congressionally approved sanctions on Iran. A two-thirds majority in both houses would ultimately be needed for lawmakers to block the lifting of those sanctions.

Here are five of the most pressing questions that lawmakers and others are asking as Congress takes up its review.

Q. Not all inspections will be “anytime, anywhere.” How serious is that?

A. Inspectors will have 24-hour access to Iran’s declared nuclear sites, such as existing nuclear facilities and uranium mines. But they will have only “managed access” to suspected undeclared sites, such as military facilities. It could take up to 24 days before inspections can occur.

That is long enough for Iran to clean up clandestine work on a nuclear bomb, critics maintain. Supporters of the deal counter that satellites would be monitoring any movement in a suspected site during that time and that technology could trace even minute particles of nuclear material from an attempted coverup.

“There’s probably an element of truth in both of those sides,” says Laura Rockwood, executive director of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, who was involved in negotiations from 2003 to November 2013.

Some experts see too much focus on the issue of 24-hour access. "In some ways, skeptics and proponents have overplayed the importance of ‘anytime, anywhere’ inspections," says William Tobey, a nuclear nonproliferation expert and critic of the deal at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in Cambridge, Mass.

More important, he says, is for Iran to supply a complete declaration of overt and covert nuclear activities, past and present, that can be corroborated by inspectors – not just a promise to do so.

Supporters of the deal say the multilayered nature of the inspections regime is what makes it strong, meaning that the process is not dependent on any one aspect of it. Additionally, they note, the United States can unilaterally “snap back” UN sanctions if Iran denies access or violates the agreement in other ways.

Q. What about the lifting of an arms embargo against Iran?

A. Many lawmakers were surprised to learn that the deal lifts a UN embargo against conventional weapons exports to Iran in five years and against ballistic missile technology transfers in eight years.

The restrictions were originally imposed as an incentive to get a nuclear deal, according to the administration. So in its view, the US did well to extend them now that there is a deal.

Critics disagree. “This late-minute concession ... that we would now allow Russia to sell to Iran ballistic missiles that could hit in the neighborhood but also with the strength to hit to the United States, I think was an absolute mistake,” Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Other UN resolutions that forbid Iranian arms transfers to groups such as Hezbollah would remain in effect, as would America’s own embargo against ballistic missile technology transfers.

To zero in on Russia in a discussion about ballistic missiles is beside the point, says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, who supports the deal.

“Russia is not supplying Iran with the ballistic missile technology that we worry about. China isn’t, that we know of. The country we’re most worried about is North Korea, and they don’t care,” he says.

Mr. Kimball questions the effectiveness of the UN resolutions to begin with. The bottom line, he says, is that “hard work” needs to be done – effective export controls and interdiction.

Q. Will the lifting of sanctions give Iran billions to spend on neighborhood mischief? 

A. At his press conference last week, Mr. Obama said that Iran will spend some of the approximately $100 billion that will be freed up from sanctions on its “tanked” economy. That’s because Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has to fulfill his economic campaign promise, US intelligence concludes.

Obama acknowledged, though, that it’s likely Iran will increase spending on its military and regional activities that pose a threat to the US and its allies. But he argued such spending won’t be a “game changer.”

Iran would have far to go to catch up to some of America’s allies in the region, according to a new study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

Arab Gulf states have a “massive lead” over Iran in conventional arms, though not in military manpower, writes Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the center. The US has sent, and is continuing to send, some of the most modern weapons in the world to these nations, he notes.

Q. Does this deal only postpone a nuclear-armed Iran?

A. Critics are furious that the deal allows Iran to retain its nuclear infrastructure, even if greatly curtailed, and that it only temporarily limits its nuclear program.

“If it is unacceptable for Iran to be two months away from a nuclear weapon [today], why is it acceptable in 10, 15 years?” asks Mr. Tobey, who says the duration issue is his “biggest concern” about the deal.

The agreement extends the time it will take Iran to make one nuclear bomb – from about two months today, to 12 months or more for a period of at least 13 years, explains Kimball.

The “breakout” time for making a bomb could fall back to less than a year after that, he says, but other barriers would discourage it. Those barriers include a 15-year restriction on Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, surveillance of centrifuge production for 20 years, and surveillance of uranium mines and mills for 25 years.

It’s not possible to completely remove Iran’s nuclear capability since the country already has the know-how, Kimball says.  

In the end, the world is better off with an Iran that’s prevented from getting a bomb for a period, than with an Iran that has an unrestricted program, says Ms. Rockwood, who was once the top safeguards lawyer for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Q. Can negotiators go back and get a tougher deal?

A. Republicans are urging Congress to reject the deal and for the president to go back and negotiate a tougher one. Obama would be in a stronger negotiating position, they say, especially if Congress increased sanctions even further.

“Among nations, with issues that are as important as these are, a degree of patience is necessary, and returning to the table would be the right thing,” Tobey says.

But other experts say it’s this or a far worse situation.

If Congress rejects the deal, the international unity on sanctions would unravel, they say. Countries that have been going along, but that desperately need Iranian oil, would peel off, as would countries that want to do other business with Iran.

The interim agreement that’s restricted Iran’s nuclear activity while the negotiations have been going on would be void, and Iran would be free to ramp up its program – which could lead to a military response or even war.

“We would be in a world of trouble,” Kimball comments.

Rockwood agrees.

“I don’t think you’d ever get the Iranians back to the negotiating table,” she says. “This was a negotiation. A successful negotiation is one that both parties can support in the long run. It is not where one party is the victor. That’s not going to last.”

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