The Buzz

Interpreting the New Iran Deal

The swarm of journalists killing time in the lobby of Geneva’s Intercontinental Hotel can finally go home. A deal has been reached between Iran and the P5+1 (Germany and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the United States) in the ongoing dispute over the Iranian nuclear program. It’s not a final deal--all sides say they want something more comprehensive--and it’s only set to last six months. Yet it’s a remarkable step forward. The Iranian nuclear issue had smoldered for a decade. The diplomatic process appeared useless, if not dead. Only three things changed: Iran enriched more uranium, the world imposed more sanctions, and the risk of war grew. The new deal stands in the way of all three, but its value is broader. American and Iranian diplomats were meeting openly, and were apparently able to hammer out their differences on an important issue. A little more trust between the two states could yield benefits elsewhere. And the deal itself isn’t so bad, at least according to details released by the White House.

Iran agrees to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, and to “dilute or convert its entire stockpile” of 20 percent enriched uranium within six months. This is reassuring. Taking a unit of raw uranium and producing 20 percent-enriched uranium from it requires far more effort than getting that 20 percent up to the 90 percent or so needed for a typical nuclear device. A large stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium would let Iran create warheads (if it chose to do so) relatively quickly. Diluting or converting Iran’s stockpile makes that take longer, giving monitors and intelligence agencies more time to find them out and giving international leaders more time to craft an appropriate response. Iran had previously resisted restrictions on its 20 percent enrichment--a worrying indicator, given the few peaceful uses such uranium has. A step back from 20 percent enrichment sends a more positive signal about Iran’s intentions.

More importantly, Iran agreed to significant restrictions on the centrifuges it uses to enrich uranium. The faster-working centrifuges that Iran has been developing won’t be used, and Iran won’t be installing new centrifuges. Iran has a lot of centrifuges that have been installed but aren’t yet operating, and the deal appears to keep those from starting up (the White House’s statement isn’t entirely clear, but it is clear that the number of centrifuges enriching will stay roughly the same). And Iran agreed to not build new enrichment facilities, a reversal from what they had suggested was their plan. More enrichment facilities would have compounded the diplomatic disputes, and they’d have made monitoring more difficult.

The heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak, which could allow Iran to make a plutonium-based nuclear bomb, also faces significant restrictions. Meaningful construction will stop. This is a victory for the West--the previous round of talks had broken down after France took a tough stance on Arak, insisting that the interim deal include halting construction. Something like the French position appears to have prevailed, and while it might not have been absolutely necessary to get to this point as quickly as Paris wanted (there are other milestones later in the reactor’s deployment that could also have served as stopping points), it’s better than what we might have expected, even in a final deal.

Crucially, Iran made major concessions on international monitoring of its nuclear facilities. Observers now get daily access to the enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, potentially giving swifter notice if Iran does decide to bolt for the bomb. They also get more access to Arak, including details of its design that had been kept under wraps. And Iran will make some disclosures that would be required if it signed on to the stringent Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a good omen since getting Iran to sign the Additional Protocol is a key goal of a final deal. But most importantly of all, the facilities Iran uses to make centrifuges will now be monitored, making the diversion of centrifuges to any hidden enrichment facilities harder. This will also allow verification of another element of the deal. Iran agreed not to build up a big stockpile of centrifuges while the deal is in effect, which would have allowed the nuclear risk to continue growing even as negotiators work.

What did we have to give up to get all this from Tehran? The U.S. will suspend key sanctions on Iran’s (already faltering) auto industry and on its trade in gold and oil; Iran will also get access to some of its money being held overseas. And some of the most controversial sanctions, such as restrictions on repairs to Iranian airliners, will also be lightened, while measures will be taken to increase Iran’s access to humanitarian goods like food and medicine. Lifting these restrictions could be win-win, since Iran and its apologists will have a harder time convincing the world that, a la 1990s Iraq, the sanctions are creating enormous human costs. Other governments will face less pressure to push back on the more effective parts of the U.S. sanctions regime.