Bombs Away

Iran Deal: Don’t Pop the Champagne Yet

The agreement is better and more complete than many expected. Yet something close to a miracle is needed to make it stick.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was the first to issue a cryptic message of hope on Twitter: “Found solutions. Ready to start drafting immediately.” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini followed quickly. “Good news,” she tweeted.

And so it was. In statements that followed over the next few minutes, including one from the White House Rose Garden by President Barack Obama, the outlines of a deal were sketched that, according to Obama, will “cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon.”

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials and Iran watchers said they were “pleasantly surprised” by the deal, noting that more details were put on paper than they’d expected, and that they saw more concessions from Iran than they thought were possible given that the talks in recent days appeared headed toward a stalemate.

“I think that [the negotiators] were able to specify enough detail in this agreement to justify the effort to continue another three months and try to complete a comprehensive agreement,” Gary Samore, Obama’s former coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, told The Daily Beast.

Samore cautioned that many technical details remain to be worked out, including (crucially) what the mechanism will be for additional inspections and monitoring measures to ensure that Iran is living up to its end of the deal.

In Iran, there was dancing in the streets as people heard the arrangement would end all sanctions related to the country’s nuclear program.

But the celebrations, unfortunately, are premature.

After more than a year and a half of intense negotiations, and the latest grueling talks in the palatial Beau Rivage Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, that went on more than 43 hours past the supposed March 31 deadline for a framework agreement, the diplomats had every right to congratulate themselves.

But Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif all emphasized a basic truth: The deal’s not done yet, and while what came out of Lausanne was a better and more complete framework than many diplomats expected when they went in, nothing has been signed, sealed and delivered.

It will be a miracle, in fact, if the deal outlined today can be wrapped up by the end of June, the deadline that’s been announced. Not only are the technical details to be resolved enormous and complicated, attacks on the whole process are likely to be relentless.

On one side are those in Washington who think no deal with Iran is satisfactory unless it results in complete capitulation by Tehran (and, they hope, the fall of the regime there). On the other are those in Iran who believe the best long-term guarantee for their security is the threat they will present as a “nuclear threshold state,” able to build atomic weapons on short notice, even if they choose not to do so.

At the same time, the wars raging in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, all of which involve Iran and the United States to varying degrees, are fraught with the possibility that collapsing states and proxy fights will make any solid understanding on the nuclear issue untenable.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Even in a more stable environment, many details would be hard to resolve, and as things stand the enemies of the deal in both governments will seize on the lines of fine print one by one as they are revealed. Obama, clearly bracing himself, declared, “I welcome a robust debate in the weeks and months to come.”

The most critical question is not whether Iran can be trusted. Its history of nuclear deceit shows that is a dubious proposition, even if, for the record, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa against building nuclear weapons. The critical question is whether the agreements being hammered out now will allow the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to discover any Iranian attempts to build a bomb in time to stop it.

In a briefing with reporters Thursday, senior administration officials insisted that inspectors would be allowed full coverage of the “supply chain” that Iran could use to build a weapon, and that they’d be able to uncover any covert activity. But one senior official acknowledged that Iranian negotiators still have to sell the deal back in Tehran, just as U.S. officials will face a skeptical Congress when they return to Washington.

“If Iran cheats, the world will know it,” Obama declared. “If we see something suspicious, we will inspect it. Iran’s past efforts to weaponize its program will be addressed. With this deal, Iran will face more inspections than any other country in the world.”

The rest of the current understanding is essentially about scaling back Iran’s production of nuclear fuel so that it cannot “break out”—that is, renege on its treaty obligations, oust inspectors, and build a nuclear bomb—in less than a year. As things stand now, without the deal in place, Obama said, “estimates indicated that Iran is only two or three months away from potentially acquiring the raw materials that could be used for a single nuclear bomb.” By comparison, a year is a better deal, but it’s still not a great deal.

Still, Samore said there were two notable “big wins” for the United States and its partners in the talks: The facility at Fordow will be “neutralized” for the next 15 years, and a facility that had been under construction at Arak will effectively be put out of the nuclear weapons-making business all together.

Those concessions should make even critics of an Iran deal happy, said Samore, now the executive director for research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Greg Thielmann, a former senior State Department intelligence official, likewise told The Daily Beast that he was pleased and cautiously optimistic after the announced deal. And where some saw bedeviling details still to be worked out that could scuttle the whole agreement, Thielmann said that the big ticket items had actually been addressed.

“It seems to me like most of the heavy lifting has been done,” said Thilemann, now a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association. It was particularly noteworthy, he said, that Iran had agreed not to enrich uranium above 3.67 percent for the next 15 years, well below the 90 percent enrichment that it takes to make material for a weapon. And he noted approvingly that Iran had agreed to reduce by about two-thirds the number of centrifuges currently in use.

“That’s setting aside a lot of stuff or taking it out of action,” Thielmann said.

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, said even he was surprised by how much progress the parties had made.

“Many significant parameters of a comprehensive agreement have been set out, and in greater detail than many, myself included, believed would be possible during this stage of the negotiations,” Schiff said in a statement.

Although Zarif was crowing that the sanctions would be lifted, that is not supposed to happen until the IAEA has verified “implementation by Iran of its key nuclear commitments,” according to today’s official communiqué. And under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory, and the Additional Protocol to that treaty, which it has now agreed to implement, there are a number of areas that could cause problems. (More on those in a minute.)

So, here’s the good news from the point of view of the United States and the five other countries—France, Great Britain, Germany, Russia and China—that participated in the negotiations:

Iran has agreed to reduce by about two-thirds the number of centrifuges it has installed to enrich uranium, and not to enrich above the level of 3.67 percent for the next 15 years. To be useful in a bomb, the enrichment level has to be closer to 85 percent. Everything else will be put in storage and locked up by the IAEA, and Iran won’t build any new facilities for the purpose of enriching uranium for 15 years.

The deal blocks another pathway to the Bomb—plutonium from Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak. The core of that facility is going to be replaced so that no weapons grade plutonium can be produced. Additionally, no new heavy water reactor will be built for 15 years.

To the extent that uranium enrichment continues, it is supposed to be conducted at only one facility, Natanz, which was kept secret until 2002 but is now the main enrichment plant. At the moment Iran has about 19,000 operational centrifuges for enrichment. For the next 10 years it will be able to use 5,060 of the oldest ones.

But the deal concerning another facility at Fordow, which is buried deep inside a mountain and theoretically invulnerable to attack from the air, is more problematic. Iran has agreed not to enrich uranium or have any fissile material there for 15 years. Instead it is supposed to be a “nuclear, physics, technology, research center,” according to the White House.

Critics of the deal already say the administration should have demanded that Fordow be shut down completely. The idea that a facility hardened against bunker buster bombs is just a research center strikes them as, to say the least, implausible.

The other area where it is essential but difficult to hold Iran accountable is on the question of what are called the PMDs, or the possible military dimensions, of its programs. For much of the last decade the IAEA has been trying to get Iran to explain intelligence that suggested it had a hidden weapons program, and its response has been to insist the intelligence was fabricated. Critics of the Iran negotiations are concerned that the administration will allow sanctions relief for Iran to begin before Tehran has offered a satisfactory explanation.

A senior administration official told reporters that Iran’s concessions were hard won. “The issues were tough, no question about it. We were requesting some very tight restraints—and constraints on their [research and development], with breakout for at least a year for 10 years,” the official said, referring to the decade that Iran would need to stay at least one year away from being able to build a bomb, should it decide to resume its effort.

That R&D agreement was the “last tough issue,” the official said, noting that the principal U.S. negotiators raced toward a final agreement, they didn’t sleep more than an hour or two each night. “We closed it out at 6 a.m. [Thursday] morning, and it’s not because we got up early,” the official said.

On Wednesday night, the negotiating team, including Secretary of State John Kerry, got on the phone with National Security Adviser Susan Rice and and officials at the White House. The president was on the phone from his residence around midnight to go through the issues.

The president made clear, a senior administration official said, what he would accept in a final deal. “People know what my bottom line is, and I trust that by the time I wake up, they could have this closed out,” the official said, describing the president’s remarks to his team.

Obama made clear that his priority was transparency and inspections as the best possible way to block Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, officials said. They went through in detail the nature of the inspections, and what means Iran might use to covertly go around them.

Obama received another update on Thursday at 10 a.m. Washington time as part of his daily national security briefing. He saw the final contours of the deal and was comfortable that it was coming together, officials said.

So, now that the Obama administration has managed to come to a political framework, attention turns to Congress, which is scheduled to consider legislation requiring additional congressional input into the deal.

“There is concern among some Democrats that the administration will sell a bad deal as passable, just for the sake of having a deal,” a senior Democratic aide told The Daily Beast.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to vote April 14 on the Corker-Menendez bill, a piece of legislation that would force a congressional review of any Iranian nuclear deal. The bill already has nine Democratic cosponsors, and the presumed support of all 54 Republican senators, putting it within striking distance of a veto-proof majority.

But Menendez, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, has come under immense scrutiny because of his recent indictment on federal corruption charges. After they were filed against him this week, he stepped down as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, limiting his influence over the course of the legislation.

Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged the public to “remain clear-eyed regarding Iran’s continued resistance to concessions, long history of covert nuclear weapons-related activities, support of terrorism, and its current role in destabilizing the region” while the negotiating parties work out a final deal.

“If a final agreement is reached, the American people, through their elected representatives, must have the opportunity to weigh in to ensure the deal truly can eliminate the threat of Iran’s nuclear program and hold the regime accountable,” Corker said in a statement from his home state of Tennessee.

For the moment, the prospect for additional American sanctions has declined thanks to the tentative political framework announced with Iran. Democratic senators had been willing to give the Obama administration more time before moving ahead on sanctions—and that negotiating breathing room has led to the outlines of a diplomatic deal.

Meanwhile the Republican-led House of Representatives has been quiet over additional Iran sanctions legislation—the House Foreign Affairs Committee hasn’t considered any legislation on the issue in this Congress.

Instead, Chairman Ed Royce and Ranking Member Eliot Engel opted to put together a letter signed by 367 House members outlining their concern about “grave and urgent issues” in the negotiations. This is much less forceful than in previous years: In July 2013, the House of Representatives actually voted on tougher sanctions, overwhelmingly expressing their support in favor of them by a vote of 400 to 20.

With Shane Harris and Eleanor Clift