President Barack Obama has achieved his breakthrough with Iran — provided there is no backslidding.
March 31 was intended to be the deadline for the Iranian nuclear talks. For months, Iranian officials met in Lausanne, Switzerland with diplomats from each country of the United Nations permanent security council (the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, and France) plus Germany. But the artificially-imposed deadline came and went without an official settlement. The deadline was even postponed until June, signaling to Republicans that Tehran had the upperhand in the talks. However, progress has been made; on April 2, international negotiators announced that an agreement had been reached to curb Iran’s nuclear program for six months while the two sides work toward a broader and more permanent solution. Arriving at this arrangement took two years of negotiations, which concluded with eight days and nights of talks that often appeared at the brink of breaking down.
Obama announced that the United States had come to an “historic” agreement with Iran on Thursday afternoon. “A diplomatic solution is the best way to get this done and offers a more comprehensive and lasting solution,” he said, describing how the deal would advance the security of the American people and the world. “Today, after many months of tough, principled diplomacy, we have achieved the framework for that deal,” he proclaimed. “And it is a good deal, a deal that meets our core objectives. This framework would cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran will face strict limitations on its program, and Iran has also agreed to the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear program in history. So this deal is not based on trust, it’s based on unprecedented verification.”
According to the outline provided by the White House, the “long-term” framework creates checks to Iran’s nuclear program, which is an estimated two to three months away from creating a weapon.
Here’s a look how Obama’s “good deal” breaks down:
- The terms prevent Iran from creating a bomb by enriching Uranium. Iran will agree to reduce its installed centrifuges by two-thirds, from about 20,000 to about 6,000 total, and it will not enrich uranium with its advanced centrifuges for at least the next 10 years. The “vast majority” of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium will be neutralized, leaving the country with 300 kilograms instead of 10,000 kilograms.
In simple terms, this means that Iran will have a much small nuclear program. Centrifuges are the pieces of equipment used to enrich uranium, a natural ore, into nuclear fuel. Uranium mined from the earth is comprised of less than 1% of U-235, the isotope that fuels reactors and is used for bombs. Centrifuges separate U-235 from the rest of the uranium, a process known as enrichment. The centrifuges Iran will be left with are its oldest and least capable centrifuges, knock-offs of 1970s European models.
- Iran will be allowed to enrich raw uranium to just 3.67%, leaving it with fuel that can be used to power a nuclear plant but nothing more.
- Iran will not develop weapons-grade plutonium, and the core of its reactor at Arak will be dismantled and repurposed to only make nuclear fuel. Plutonium is the second type of radioactive material that can be used to make a bomb. Arak was one target that John Bolton, the the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under George W. Bush, suggested bombing in an New York Times opinion editorial published last week.
- To protect against Iran developing a nuclear weapon covertly, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have “unprecedented access” to Iranian nuclear facilities and the supply chain that supports the program, including the uranium mills that provide the raw materials. Essentially, the deal covers the entire life stages of building a bomb.
These terms will lengthen the breakout time, or how long it would take for Iran to build a nuclear warhead from the moment Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave the order, from between two to three months to a full year.
“If Iran cheats, the world will know it,” Obama said. “If we see something suspicious, we will inspect it.” The parameters for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program outlines what violations inspectors will flag. These so-called “unprecedented transparency measures” will be kept in place for a period of 20 years, while Iran will not be allowed to enrich uranium for the next ten years and the limitations on the country’s weapons stockpile will expire in 15 years. And the White House claimed that even if Iran is to violate the deal, “for the next decade at least, Iran would be a minimum of a year away from acquiring enough material for a bomb.”
It is important to remember that this document is just a hint of a deal, of a possible framework that will ease tensions between the United States and one of its longest-lasting enemies and dilute what has been considered a major threat to U.S. national security. It allows both the west and Iran to claim to be the victorious party, if all goes according to plan.
What does Iran get?
In return for compliance, which will be confirmed by IAEA inspectors, certain international sanctions imposed by the United States and the UN Security Council will be lifted. Sanctions pertaining to Iran’s support of terrorism, human rights violations, and its ballistic missile program, will continue to be fully enforced by the United States. The White House fact sheet stipulates that the sanctions’ “architecture” will remain in place in case they ever need to be reactivated.
To be clear, this is not a complete surrender for Iran. Not only are certain sanctions being lifted, but Iran won some concessions. Iran will be able to use its nuclear facility in Natanz for enrichment and its facility at Fordow for research, although inspectors will have access to these once-secret structures. For Iran, keeping these facilities is partly a matter of national pride.
Is this really a good deal? Will it work?
Remember, Iran, a signatory to the United Nations’ Non-Proliferation Treaty, has long insisted it has no intention of building a nuclear bomb, a claim considered suspect by both Washington and other world powers.
For Obama, this framework represents a campaign promise fulfilled. Before the 2008 election, candidate Obama promised to chart a new course with Iran as part of his broader goal of changing the direction of U.S. foreign policy. “A serious, coordinated diplomatic effort will, if nothing else, change world opinion about our approach to Iran and will strengthen our ability should they choose not to stand down on the nuclear issue,” he stated in a 2007 interview with the New York Times. By inking this agreement with Iran, Obama is not only making good on a campaign promise, but also proving (to a small degree) that his foreign policy, rooted in the less-than-popular concept of “don’t do stupid shit,” works. And if this blueprint is formally approved in June, it could have broader implications for U.S. policy in the region. At the very least, it eases tensions that began with the 1979 seizure of the American embassy in Tehran.
Whether the framework will achieve the Obama administration’s most important goal, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, is still unknown. Obama has said it is good deal, but that claim bears further examination.
Ahead of the announcement, it was postulated that any tentative promise to draft a framework would merely kick the proverbial can down the road. However, as the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson reported, the framework already has more detail than observers expected, and that is a sign the coming accord might actually be a technical document and not more deferred diplomacy. The New Yorker’s Robin Wright wrote that the deal will actually “seriously” curtail Iran’s nuclear capabilities. It is true that the deal does not address Iran’s participation in terrorism. But it is also true that Secretary of State John Kerry was never going to push Iran to agree to no longer be aggressive on the international stage. And there is no reason to throw away a nuclear reduction deal because Iran will not agree to withdraw its support for terrorism, Davidson argued. “Having this deal needn’t, shouldn’t, and surely won’t mean never challenging Iran about anything else again.”
Obama himself noted, “So when you hear the inevitable critics of the deal sound off, ask them a simple question: Do you really think that this verifiable deal, if fully implemented, backed by the world’s major powers, is a worse option than the risk of another war in the Middle East? Is it worse than doing what we’ve done for almost two decades with Iran moving forward with its nuclear program and without robust inspections? I think the answer will be clear.” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) claimed that the deal appeared to be “an alarming departure” from what the president previously said his goals were. But Obama’s speech contained a pragmatic rebuttal for that criticism. “Iran is not going to simply dismantle its program because we demand it to do so,” the president said. “That’s not how the world works. And that’s not what history shows us.” Is that cynicism or optimism? The world is not a place where you can simply look tough and your enemies will crumble; but it is a place where, with some work and some luck, you can try to get something done.”
“Symbolically, it is enormously important, because it means that, after thirty-six years, we can move to something other than just spitting at each other,” John Limbert, a former hostage and political officer, told Wright. “When the ‘bomb, bomb Iran’ crowd says we can’t trust Iran, I say, ‘So what?’ Throughout history, we’ve made deals with people we don’t trust. I support whatever gets us out of this morass.” For proponents of rapprochement, Iran’s acceptance of these restrictions is a small but nonetheless significant step toward a full reconciliation, even if three decades of enmity does not end immediately.
Republican opposition to Obama’s foreign policy approach is standard, and the Obama administration’s nuclear talks with Iran were no exception. In early March, 47 Republican senators attempted to derail the deal, even though both Republicans and the White House both have the same goal, ending Iran’s nuclear program. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) penned an open letter to the “Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” signed by 46 other Republicans, was overtly threatening, noting that any agreement the more lenient Obama might make with Iran needs to be agreed to by Congress. That, political analysts say, made it harder for American negotiators to push a deal that the White House itself would accept.
Earlier this week, Boehner argued that it “would be naïve to suggest the Iranian regime will not continue to use its nuclear program, and any economic relief, to further destabilize the region.” And his comments make clear that Obama will have a difficult time convincing Republicans, who are very skeptical of the deal. Even many Democrats are worried that the president was too desperate to reach an agreement and may have traded away American and Israeli security to get it. The worry is that Iran may choose to build a bomb clandestinely, not through the facilities monitored by international investigators.
However, by a margin of almost two to one, the American public supports making a deal that stops Iran’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for ending economic sanctions, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll this week.
“The proposed agreement would constitute a real danger to the region and the world, and it would threaten the existence of Israel,” the country’s recently reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, insisting that any final deal include a “clear and unambiguous Iranian commitment of Israel’s right to exist.”
That was essentially the thesis of his controversial address to a joint session of Congress in early March. He warned the assembled senators and representatives that the deal the Obama administration will make to freeze Iran’s nuclear program was not only bad, but that the world would be “better off without it.” To show Iran continues to have negative designs on the United States and the West, even as nuclear talks continued, he recounted how Iran blew up a mock U.S. aircraft carrier in a military exercise conducted the week previously. This action proves that the Iran regime — which took dozens of Americans hostage in Tehran, had hundreds of American marines killed in Beirut, and was responsible for “maiming thousands” of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan — has not changed course over its 36-year history. He also stressed how committed Iran is to withholding basic freedoms, an appeal always well received in Washington. “I’m standing here in Washington, D.C. and the difference is so stark. America’s founding document promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Netanyahu said. “Iran’s founding document pledges death, tyranny, and the pursuit of jihad.” Jihad is another word that plays well.
Iran broke the news first
— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) April 2, 2015
“Found solutions. Ready to start drafting immediately,” tweeted Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister.
Iranian state television broadcast Obama’s remarks live, and across social media was evidence that Iranian citizens approved. While these posts and tweets are not representative of the entire country, and of course many social media platforms are technically banned, they do offer some perspective on how the deal was received by the ordinary Iranians. “If there will be a guarantee that the deal is going to be implemented, surely we won’t lose anything. My only concern is about the US congress that might ruin everything,” wrote one Facebook user.
Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS
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