The Obama administration has cut an interim nuclear deal with Iran that gravely worries some of America’s strongest allies in the Middle East and even gives pause to some of President Obama’s allies in the U.S. Senate. It’s easy to see what Iran gets out of this: a reprieve from crippling economic sanctions worth some $6 billion to $7 billion in cash. It’s more difficult to figure that Iran views this as the first step toward giving up its nuclear ambitions.
Iran will stall some of its development efforts, but it will not significantly step back from the timetable it faces to build a nuclear weapon.
Iran curbs, but doesn’t stop, enriching uranium in the interim deal. It continues to enrich at lower levels, though it commits to dilute or neutralize its higher enriched uranium that is closer to weapons grade. At best, this could add a few weeks to the time Iran needs to produce weapons-grade uranium for a bomb.
Tehran faces other modest curbs. It can’t install new centrifuges, but it can keep those it has and replace broken units. Iran will allow inspectors to visit its declared nuclear sites daily to ensure that it is not cheating. That’s of limited value if Iran has secret nuclear facilities.
One concession of value: Iran cannot take critical steps to bring online its nuclear power plant at Arak. If that reactor goes online, its spent fuel eventually could be reprocessed into plutonium. That’s a second path to the bomb for Iran. Once the reactor starts, any military action against it would be nearly unthinkable because an explosion would risk nuclear fallout.
The reason for deep concern, though, is that Iran escapes from some of the economic sanctions that forced it to negotiate in the first place. The Obama administration says those sanctions can be reinstated if Iran cheats or negotiations fail. But Iran will reap the benefit of billions of dollars. And it may not be that easy to persuade international businesses to forgo trade with Tehran if trade resumes.
Republicans, as would be expected, sharply criticized the terms of the deal. But Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, was unsparing as well. “In my view, this agreement did not proportionally reduce Iran’s nuclear program for the relief it is receiving,” he said.
He might as well have said hope has triumphed over experience.
The deal provides six months for negotiations toward a final agreement. It also buys Iran time to gain a firmer financial footing. The greatest risk here is that Iran — which has a history of duplicity in its dealings with the world on nuclear matters — will lead along negotiators for months, then resume its efforts to build a nuclear weapon.
The deal should not halt bipartisan efforts in the U.S. Senate to approve legislation for tougher economic sanctions on Iran. In the hours after the deal was announced, there were indications that Democrats might still join Republicans in that effort, but Democrats wouldn’t agree to new sanctions that would take effect during the six-month negotiating window. The best that may be on the table is legislation that would quickly impose harsher sanctions if Iran violates the agreement or walks away from negotiations.
The United States and other nations who negotiated this deal appear to have put only a speed bump in front of Iran, a speed bump in a very dangerous race.