On Iran, Listen to the Rolling Stones
“You can’t always get what you want,” says one of the Rolling Stones most famous songs. “But if you try sometime you find, you get what you need.”
If the negotiators of the July 14 agreement between the so-called P5+1 group of world powers (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus Germany) and Iran had a theme song, there would be few better than this Stones’ classic.
The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will effectively block Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons development — the uranium enrichment route and the plutonium separation route — and guard against a clandestine weapons program. If Iran attempts to violate its commitments by taking one of these paths, the deal ensures there would be ample time to detect and disrupt such a move. The agreement is consistent with, and in many areas stronger than, the framework announced on April 2.
It’s true: The agreement is not perfect. Nor is it risk free. As with any negotiation, both sides had to make compromises to their opening positions. International negotiations almost never end with one side winning by a score of 100–0.
But the United States got what it needed — and then some. The deal is unprecedentedly strong in many respects. If successfully implemented, the agreement will be a net plus for nonproliferation and will enhance U.S. and regional security. It will not solve all of our problems with Iran in the region, but almost all of them would have been exacerbated if Iran had a quick path to nuclear weapons — and they would, had no agreement been inked.
Under the complex, multi-year deal, Iran’s plutonium path to the bomb will be eliminated and the potential time required for Iran to “breakout” and amass enough bomb-grade uranium for one bomb will be expanded from 2–3 months today to at least 12 months for over a decade. The deal’s strong limits on research and development of advanced centrifuges, coupled with the time it would take to perfect the large-scale deployment and operation of newer centrifuge models, would ensure that Iran’s breakout time won’t rapidly shrink after the limits in enrichment begin to expire.
Most importantly, the deal requires an unprecedented set of verification and monitoring provisions to ensure compliance with the agreed-upon limits and prevent Tehran from building a secret path to the bomb. These include monitoring of Iran’s uranium mines and mills, its centrifuge workshops, all nuclear sites and enhanced on-site inspections of sites — including of military sites — that may be of proliferation concern. Some of these provisions will last for 20 years, others for 25 years, and still others will be permanent.
The deal even establishes a dedicated procurement channel overseen by a working group that for ten years will regulate Iran’s ability to purchase nuclear-related dual-use items, equipment, and materials, thereby further reducing the risks of clandestine breakout.
Tehran must also cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency to address outstanding questions about the past military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.
Successful implementation of a comprehensive agreement will ultimately lead to the removal of nuclear-related international sanctions against Iran. However, the lessening of these sanctions won’t happen all at once and will be conditioned on Iran’s compliance with the deal’s terms. The deal includes a unique — and again unprecedented — formula that would ensure the United States could snap United Nations Security Council sanctions back into place if Iran fails to meet its commitments.
These provisions compare favorably to previous nuclear arms control and nonproliferation agreements and incorporate lessons learned from those deals. For example, while the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea — which collapsed less than ten years later amid accusations of cheating on both sides — blocked Pyongyang’s plutonium path to the bomb, it did not restrict a uranium enrichment path, included minimal monitoring and verification provisions, and did not spell out clear procedures to punish noncompliance.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action suffers from none of these shortcomings.
Despite these and other benefits, critics say the United States got a raw deal. They argue that the United States made all the concessions, that the agreement is a starting pistol for a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and that more pressure would convince Iran to dismantle its nuclear program.
Some have also expressed concern that the United States gave up too much in allowing the United Nations Security Council Resolution arms embargo and ballistic missile sanctions on Iran to sunset after five and eight years, respectively.
These arguments don’t hold up.
First, it is clear that Tehran had to retreat from many of its initial demands, including the scale of uranium enrichment it needed, the intrusiveness and duration of inspections it would tolerate, and the pace of sanctions relief it would require.
Yes, Iran did not unconditionally surrender its nuclear program. But that goal was not attainable once the Obama administration began negotiations. In 2006, Iran had 164 centrifuges enriching uranium. It now has over 19,000 installed centrifuges.
The fact that Iran agreed to limits on its program as part of a negotiated solution where both sides made compromises actually strengthens the likelihood Iran will abide by the deal. Had terms been imposed on Iran by force, Tehran would be more likely to cheat and resist access to its facilities — as was the case with the limitation regime imposed on Iraq after the first Gulf War.
Second, while some of Iran’s Sunni Arab rivals are nervous about the agreement and have announced plans to pursue their own nuclear energy programs, the long-term, verifiable restrictions the deal places on Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities should reduce the incentive of other states in the region to match Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
Prior to the November 2013 interim agreement, Iran had been expanding its capacity to enrich uranium for more than a decade. However, no state in the region responded by developing enrichment, or plutonium reprocessing capabilities, though states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan announced their desire to pursue nuclear energy programs.
Logic would thus suggest that a comprehensive deal that not only stops Iran’s nuclear progress, but also puts Tehran further away from a nuclear weapon, shouldn’t make other states want to pursue nuclear fuel making more than they would if the Iranian program were left unchecked.
The alternative to the current deal is no deal, which would result in an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program with less monitoring. This scenario poses more of a threat to regional security and would be much more likely to trigger a regional proliferation cascade.
Third, there is no viable strategy to secure a “better deal.”
Sanctions have been useful in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, but they have not stopped Iran’s program from advancing. What’s more, Washington’s negotiating partners in the P5+1 would be unlikely to continue implementing sanctions already in place — to say nothing about new sanctions — if the U.S. Congress tries to block implementation of this deal.
While airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities might temporarily set back the program, the delay would be temporary and run a high risk of convincing Iran that it actually needs a nuclear weapon to prevent such strikes and preserve its regime.
In the end, the agreement will keep Iran further away from the ability to make nuclear weapons for far longer than additional sanctions or a military strike possibly could.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the United Nations sanctions on Iran related to arms and ballistic missiles were put in place because of Iran’s failure to resolve international concerns about its nuclear activities. The resolutions authorizing these sanctions make it clear that they would be suspended when Iran resolved concerns about its nuclear program. Retaining restrictions on ballistic missiles for eight years and heavy weapons trade for five years is an important achievement that could also provide additional leverage to ensure Iran complies with its obligations under the deal.
As Congress now turns to reviewing the agreement, it has a solemn responsibility to weigh the deal on its merits and not according to the dictates of partisan politics. The consequences of preventing the United States from living up to its end of the bargain would leave Iran closer to a nuclear weapon and increase the risk of war.
The deal on the table is an effective one that would avert these outcomes. America should take it.
Kingston Reif is the Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association.