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The Iran Deal

IRAN got there in the end. More than 42 hours after the deadline had passed for reaching a framework agreement between six world powers and Iran to constrain its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions, the exhausted negotiators came up with a document outlining the parameters for a comprehensive agreement to be concluded by June 30th. Fears that this would be little more than a fuzzy declaration of principles were confounded. The document goes into a degree of detail that should be enough for the Obama administration to persuade a sceptical Congress to postpone a vote on new sanctions when it returns on April 14th. Barack Obama was right both to describe the agreement as “historic” and also to add the caveat “if implemented”. There is still a lot of hard bargaining to be done, and there may well be devils lurking in the technical details.  


The main components of the deal struck in Lausanne plausibly succeed in extending Iran’s “breakout capability”—the key yardstick of the time it would need to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon—from a couple of months currently to at least year, and to do so for a decade or more. To that end, Iran will reduce its installed enrichment centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,000, only 5,000 of which will be spinning. All of them will be first-generation centrifuges: none of its more advanced models can be used for at least ten years and R&D into more efficient designs will have to be based on a plan submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog.

Fordow, Iran’s second enrichment facility (its main one is at Natanz) buried deep within a mountain and thought to be impregnable to conventional air strikes, will cease all enrichment and be turned into a physics research centre. It will not produce or house any fissile material for at least 15 years.

Despite earlier Iranian briefings claiming there was no agreement on the size of its low-enriched uranium stockpile (which can be spun further into weapons-grade material), Iran has said it will reduce its LEU stockpile from 10,000 kg to 300 kg for the next 15 years—probably sending fresh stocks to Russia for reprocessing.

Iran’s alternative plutonium path to a bomb also appears to have been satisfactorily dealt with. The heavy water reactor at Arak will be redesigned and its original core, which would have produced significant quantities of weapons-grade plutonium, will be removed and destroyed. No other heavy water reactor will be built for 15 years.

Important though these undertakings are, they hinge on the assurance that Iran will abide by them. Without a uniquely intrusive inspection and verification regime, sceptics would still be right to question their worth given Iran’s past history of lying and cheating over its nuclear programme. After all, it only declared the two enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow after Western intelligence agencies found out about them and it has never admitted to having a nuclear weapons programme despite overwhelming evidence that it had a large and active one, at least until 2003 and probably beyond.

Under the terms of framework agreement, inspectors from the IAEA will be able to inspect any facility, declared or otherwise, as long as it is deemed to be “suspicious”. Such powers for the IAEA, which will remain in place indefinitely, are a lot more sweeping than those it has under the normal safeguard agreements that are part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They even go beyond those conferred by the so-called “additional protocol”, which Iran has agreed to implement. But in Iran’s case such unprecedented powers are seen as essential.

Disappointingly, however, there is no specific reference to military sites, such as Parchin, a facility that the IAEA believes may have been used for testing the high-explosive fuses that are needed to implode, and thus set off, the uranium or plutonium at the core of a bomb. The implicit assumption is that the agency’s inspectors will be able to go and see whatever they want. The agreement also states that Iran will address the IAEA’s concerns about what it calls the Possible Military Dimensions (PMDs) of its nuclear programme.

That will require a big change in its behaviour. Iran still insists it has never had a nuclear weapons programme. On March 23rd Yukiya Amano, the IAEA’s director, said that Iran had replied to only one of a dozen questions the agency had put to it about PMDs. As well as keeping Parchin strictly out of bounds, the Iranians have also refused access to Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the physicist and Revolutionary Guard officer alleged to be at the heart of its weapons development research. The IAEA’s efforts to interview other Iranian scientists and engineers have also been blocked.

As recently as February 19th, the agency reported that it “remains concerned about the possible existence—of undisclosed nuclear-related activities—including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” Iran says that it will sign up to stringent new inspections only when all the main elements of the deal are in place. But its lack of cooperation in the past is concerning. In particular, elements of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who control access to military sites, may be quite happy to find a way of sabotaging the deal.

Yet Iran now has every incentive to honour its side of the bargain. If it verifiably meets all its commitments, American and EU sanctions will be suspended (although there is a “snap back” provision if evidence emerges of any Iranian violation or non-compliance). Mr Obama cannot permanently get rid of sanctions legislated by Congress even if he wanted to. But the sanctions imposed by UN Security Council resolutions, other than those dealing with the transfer and acquisition of “sensitive” technologies, will be lifted—a key aim of Iran in these negotiations.

Will this be a good deal if it is signed and sealed on June 30th? Clearly not in the eyes of some, not least Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. But Mr Obama’s contention that it has the potential to make the world a safer place is hard to argue with. The alternatives look much worse. Military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, even if carried out by America, would only set back Iran’s nuclear programme by a few years, and would certainly drive it underground. Walking away from a deal that most of the world would affirm risks both the collapse of the international sanctions regime and the expansion of Iran’s nuclear programme. There is still plenty that could go wrong, but getting this far was worth all of those sleepless nights in Lausanne.  

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