Late last night (or early this morning Geneva time), the P5+1 (the United States, China, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany) and Iran reached a historic first step agreement that if successfully implemented would verifiably halt Iran’s nuclear progress and provide a much larger window into Iran’s nuclear program and activities than we have ever had. The deal is a significant blow to Iran’s ability to make weapons grade fissile material without detection. Simply put, it is a win for U.S. national security, the security of its allies, and nonproliferation diplomacy.
Below is a brief outline of the details of the initial, six-month agreement and what it means. You can read the White House fact sheet on the deal here.
The deal halts and rolls back the most proliferation sensitive aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran is required to halt all enrichment above 5% and, according to the White House fact sheet, “dismantle the technical connections” to enrich beyond that level. In addition, Iran must dilute or convert to a form than cannot be further enriched its accumulated stockpile of uranium enriched to 20% . As of the most recent IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran had stockpiled nearly 200 kilograms (kg) of uranium enriched to 20 percent. This material is a big proliferation concern because, while uranium is not considered weapon-grade until it is enriched to about 90 percent, most of the work has occurred by the time it reaches 20 percent. Approximately 240 kg to 250 kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent, when further enriched to weapon-grade, is enough for one bomb. Last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the accumulation by Iran of one bombs worth of 20% enriched uranium would be a “red line” for Israel. The first step agreement effectively neutralizes this threat.
The deal stops Iran’s enrichment progress. The agreement prohibits Iran from installing or activating additional centrifuges beyond those that are already spinning, making additional centrifuges except for those needed to replace damaged machines, and increasing its stockpile of 3.5% low enriched uranium “so that the amount is not greater at the end of the six months than it is at the beginning, and any newly enriched 3.5% enriched uranium is converted into oxide.”
The deal includes unprecedented transparency measures. Notably, the deal provides the IAEA with daily access to Iran’s enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow and access to centrifuge assembly facilities and centrifuge component and storage facilities. To reiterate, this is unprecedented, and the greater access is also an important (but by no means sufficient) step toward increasing our ability to deter and detect the construction of undeclared/covert Iranian nuclear facilities and sites.
The deal freezes work on Iran’s heavy water reactor near Arak. According to the White House fact sheet, Iran has committed to no further advances of its activities at Arak and to halt progress on its plutonium track.” Kudos to the French for driving a hard bargain on this point.
In return for these significant Iranian concessions, the deal provides Iran with limited, proportional, and reversible relief from some sanctions in the amount of approximately $7 billion. The much-stronger sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors would remain in place as leverage to secure a final deal.
The deal provides time and space to test Iranian intentions and negotiate a more encompassing agreement that places even more stringent verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear capacity, addresses the past military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, and more. As the White House fact sheet notes, “Put simply, this first step expires in six months, and does not represent an acceptable end state to the United States or our P5+1 partners.”
The first step deal agreed to last night is a remarkably strong agreement without which Iran would continue to advance its nuclear progress and march toward a breakout capacity. In assessing the deal it is vital to keep in mind the nuclear advances Iran could have made over the next six months in the absence this cap on its nuclear program and the much larger window into the program we now have because of the deal. If after six months we are unable to reach a more permanent deal with Iran we will be no worse off than we are now; in fact we will be better off because of the additional time this agreement buys.
The criticism some are already making that the deal “only” marginally increases the time it would take Iran to dash to a bomb (if it were to decide to do so) is misplaced. This is precious time and the agreement’s transparency and monitoring measures significantly increase the odds that any dash to make weapons grade would be detected.
Ultimately, Iran’s nuclear program is highly unlikely to be stopped by more sanctions or U.S. military force. The purpose of sanctions was to bring Iran to the table, not stop its program – and this is what has transpired. While the deal isn’t perfect, it is much more stringent than many thought or predicted and puts us on the best path to placing even stronger and more intrusive constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. Calls for more sanctions or insisting that the initial and/or final agreement must require that Iran permanently cease enrichment makes it much more likely that the outcomes we’re trying to prevent (i.e. unconstrained Iranian nuclear development; a nuclear-armed Iran; a US war against Iran; or all of the above) come to pass.
Finally let me end with a note of caution. While we should applaud this first step, the hard diplomatic work is far from over. The important verifiable caps contained in the initial deal are low hanging fruit relative to the imitations the United States will ask of Iran and the sanctions relief Iran will ask of the United States and others after six months. Moreover, a diplomatic freeze on Iran’s program has been achieved before, but it wasn’t sustained. This is a good, meaningful first-step. But much more work remains.