Iran deal: Is it a 'pleasant surprise' or a centrifuge too far?

While many experts see both strengths and weaknesses in the Iran nuclear deal, most agree that the real test will be in the years of implementation.

Andrew Harnik/Reuters/Pool
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement about the nuclear deal reached between Iran and six major world powers during an early morning address to the nation from the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 14, 2015.

President Obama says the historic nuclear deal reached with Iran verifiably cuts off every pathway for the country to acquire a nuclear weapon – and that as a result, the world is safer and more secure.

But for former Sen. Jim DeMint, who is now president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, the deal reached in Vienna Tuesday “completely fails to cut off Iran’s path to nuclear weaponry” – and thus leaves the world “a much more dangerous place.”

Iran’s path to the bomb is cut off, or left wide open; the world is safer, or much less secure – which is it?

The answer appears to be somewhere in between, according to some former administration officials and nuclear experts who have begun poring over the 100-plus pages that make up the most technical and detailed accord ever reached for limiting a country’s nuclear development.

The deal will very likely prohibit Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon for the next decade or more – but for critics who wanted to see Iran stripped of all nuclear capability, that is hardly a win for the world. The deal does not grant Iran the sanctions relief it craves until it begins complying with the agreement’s obligations – but for critics, that will still leave Iran with a windfall to do its regional mischief.

While many experts see both strengths and weaknesses in the accord, most agree that the real test will be in the years of implementation – and that, as difficult as the nearly two years of negotiating may have been, the hard part is still to come.

“I’m pleasantly surprised by the amount of detail in the deal” that “confirms the positive elements in the Lausanne framework” agreement that was reached in April, says Robert Einhorn, a former State Department adviser on nuclear issues. The deal “strengthens in a number of ways” the measures agreed to in the framework, he says.

The deal meets the five key “requirements” that a group of former Obama administration officials and other experts laid out last month for supporting a comprehensive agreement, says Mr. Einhorn, who is a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative in Washington.

Einhorn was part of the bipartisan group that in late June sent a letter to Mr. Obama expressing concern that the United States, in the interest of getting a deal, was weakening its demands on issues ranging from inspections of Iran’s military sites to the timing of sanctions relief.

However, measures that Iran has committed to will extend its “breakout” time for acquiring a nuclear weapon from two to three months currently to at least a year for a decade or more, Einhorn says.

Experts are less pleased that the breakout time would start to shrink after a decade of the accord. After about Year 13, the breakout time would return to about where it is today – about three to four months.

Not everyone agrees that the US managed to maintain and even reinforce the broad principles reached in negotiations earlier this year.

“The deal has only gotten worse from the standpoint of those who seek to end Iran’s march toward a nuclear weapon,” says Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The “broad strokes” of the deal have been known since March, she says, adding that she feels little confidence that the details nailed down since then – on reimposing sanctions if Iran violates the terms of the deal, for example – will work in practice.

Ms. Pletka says the “most troubling” aspect of the deal is that it “codifies Iran’s march toward a sophisticated nuclear weapons capability.”

That’s because the deal reduces but does not eliminate Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and limits but does not forbid all nuclear research and development. Under the deal, Iran is to dispose of 98 percent of its nuclear fuel stockpile and is to reduce its centrifuges – the machines that produce enriched uranium – by two-thirds.

So while Obama emphasizes that the deal effectively prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon – at least for a decade – critics like Pletka underscore that the deal leaves Iran a nuclear “threshold” state, with the capability to build a nuclear weapon at some point down the road if it chooses.

Others are willing to see the Iran deal as a reflection of how most internationally negotiated agreements end up – with both positive and less appealing points.

The deal’s ban on Iran’s use of plutonium processing (the second path, after uranium enrichment, to developing the fuel for a nuclear weapon) is an important limitation, says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, which is based in Arlington, Va. The additional restrictions the deal places on Iran’s enrichment activities are also a plus, he says.

But Mr. Sokolski says he doesn’t have to dig too deep to find “bad things” about the deal. He lists three: that the most fundamental limits on Iran’s nuclear activities lapse in 10 to 15 years, after which the country will be treated like “Japan, Brazil, Germany, and the Netherlands,” which also have nuclear programs; that the deal appears to be “silent” on Bushehr, Iran’s plutonium-producing power reactor; and that the deal is more than 100 pages long.

“It is an illusion to think that a highly detailed agreement is a stronger one,” he says.

The pages of detail may or may not make the deal stronger, but they may reflect the level of specificity and attention to loophole elimination that Obama needed to get the deal through a skeptical Congress. Lawmakers have 60 days to review the deal and act on it.

Indeed, the Iran deal reflects the priorities of each of the two principal sides in the negotiations.

For the US, the specifics on extending the breakout time, the detailed inspections and verification procedures, and, most recently, the rejection of a proposal to immediately drop all United Nations arms embargoes on Iran were pursued not just as administration demands, but with an eye toward getting a deal past Congress.

Iran’s top priorities for a deal appeared to be quite different. In the end, the deal in Iran’s eyes was about getting out from under punishing international sanctions while preserving what its leaders claim is a right to a nuclear program.

For Iran, it was about national dignity – which is one reason Iran insisted on keeping all its nuclear facilities, even as it accepted that those facilities would have very limited functions and be monitored.

In that sense, both sides in the negotiations may have gotten what they most wanted. But that may be the aspect of the deal that its critics like least.

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