Iran nuclear deal 101: eight questions about what's in it

Here is an explanation of the main elements of the deal struck to temporarily freeze the Iran nuclear program. Negotiations aimed at a final deal are to continue over the next six months.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
From left, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, US Secretary of State John Kerry, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, gather at the United Nations Palais, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Geneva, Switzerland, during the Iran nuclear talks.

The United States and allied world powers have struck a deal to temporarily freeze Iran’s nuclear program. In return, Iran will get $6 billion to $7 billion to ease the impact of international economic sanctions.

The agreement is a first step, according to the White House. Negotiations aimed at a final deal, meant to ensure that Iran’s program is peaceful, are to continue over the next six months.

“If Iran cannot address our concerns, we are prepared to increase sanctions and pressure,” a White House fact sheet says.

Here is an explanation of the main elements of the deal:

What has Iran promised to do?

In the agreement, Iran has committed itself to a series of actions meant to make its stockpile of fissile material less dangerous and to lessen its ability to produce dangerous new material, fast.

For instance, Tehran has promised to stop enriching uranium above the 5 percent level. It will also disconnect links in the chain of machines that allow it to produce such enriched uranium.

Why is uranium enrichment such a big deal?

Uranium is not naturally explosive stuff. Ninety-nine percent of natural uranium ore is in the relatively unexciting atomic form, or “isotope,” U-238. But the other 1 percent is the isotope U-235, which can be split to release astounding amounts of energy. Uranium enrichment is a process that increases the percentage of U-235 in the natural ore, turning it into fissile material useful in reactors – or bombs.

Uranium needs to be enriched to about 3.5 percent for use in nuclear power plants. Enrichment of about 20 percent makes the material useful for medical treatments and research reactors. Enrichment of 90 percent or more is the purity level needed to make an atomic weapon.

How will Iran limit enrichment machines?

To enrich uranium, the raw material is first turned into a gas. This gas is then spun in long, upright tubes at fantastic speeds. The heavier U-238 isotope gets flung toward the outside of these centrifuges, while the lighter U-235 stays nearer the axis, where it can be drawn off.

The gas is then pumped through another centrifuge, and another. They’re linked together in long arrays, a sort of assembly line that in the end produces enriched uranium.

Right now, Iran has about 11,000 usable centrifuges. Under the new deal, Iran promises it won’t increase this number. Tehran also says it will leave many of the machines at its Fordow and Natanz enrichment facilities inoperable and won’t install or use any next-generation IR-2 centrifuges.

Iran’s IR-2 plans have long worried US analysts, because the newer machines are based on much more efficient European designs and would greatly increase Tehran’s enrichment capacity.

What happens to the enriched uranium Iran already has?

Several aspects of the uranium agreement are meant to increase the amount of time it would take for Iran to go for broke and race to produce nuclear weapons.

The Iranians already have a stockpile of about 200 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent. They’ve said this is for research reactors, but this has long worried the US. As part of the new deal, Iran says it will dilute this stockpile below a level of 5 percent enrichment or convert it to a form that cannot be enriched any further.

Furthermore, Iran says it won’t increase the size of its stockpile of uranium enriched to the 3.5 percent level – at least, not during the six-month time frame of the initial agreement.

Will Iran close any facilities?

Iran’s dispersed collection of nuclear sites, including a secret site near the city of Qom revealed in 2009, has also long been a concern for US intelligence.

Iran hasn’t promised to shutter any of these plants, per se. But it has agreed that it won’t move forward with work on a heavy-water nuclear reactor under construction at Arak. This plant is a particular concern to others because its spent fuel will contain plutonium, used in the core of sophisticated nuclear weapons. If Arak were operational, Iran theoretically would have two ways of producing bomb fissile material.

Iran says it won’t commission or fuel Arak or construct a reprocessing facility there, according to the White House.

How will the world know that Iran lives up to the deal?

There’s an inspection part of the deal, too. Iran has agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors daily access to the big Natanz and Fordow sites. Tehran will also provide the United Nations with long-sought design plans for the Arak reactor.

What does Iran get?

In a word, money. The US and its allies say they will allow Iran to collect about $4.2 billion in money from sales of Iranian oil and about $1.5 billion from the export of gold and other valuable items.

But virtually all economic sanctions on Iran will remain in place, according to the White House. Under these sanctions, Iran’s oil sales have been cut from about 2.5 million barrels per day at the beginning of 2012 to 1 million barrels per day today, leading to $80 billion in foregone revenue during that time period.

Is it a good deal?

That’s the central question, isn’t it? The US and its allies say this is a necessary first step that limits Iran’s nuclear program for the first time, freezes it for the moment, and may establish the diplomatic trust that could lead to a more comprehensive deal, soon. 

Some outside experts agree. Strategic analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says that Iran must still live up to the terms, and that’s not a foregone conclusion. But the deal “is almost certainly the best possible agreement that US and its allies could negotiate, it offers Iran a new path to progress and development, and it offers the region new hope that it can avoid new conflicts and the risk of a massive arms race.”

Israel and Saudi Arabia are adamantly opposed to this deal, however. Both nations see a nuclear Iran as a possible existential threat. The initial reaction among some key members of Congress has not been positive, either. Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, for example, says he will push for new sanctions on Iran when Congress returns from Thanksgiving break.

To critics, the deal represents at best a pause in a nuclear program that has been proceeding at a breakneck pace for years. Furthermore, the agreement may have set a dangerous precedent, according to Michael Doran, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. The US has paid Iran for a bit of progress. When that deal expires, Iran may come back and want more to extend it, and so on.

“In my view, there will never be a final agreement. What the administration just initiated was, rather, a long and expensive process by which the West pays Iran to refrain from going nuclear,” writes Mr. Doran.

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