A historic deal with Iran?

The agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear work mixes the language of a treaty with the details of a technical paper

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement on the Iran talks deal at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria Tuesday July 14, 2015. After 18 days of intense and often fractious negotiation, world powers and Iran struck a landmark deal Tuesday to curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from international sanctions — an agreement designed to avert the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran and another U.S. military intervention in the Muslim world.

AP/Carlos Barria

VIENNA, Austria – Weary diplomats finally delivered an agreement on curbing Iran’s nuclear programs July 14 after 20 months of talks in this graceful European city, surrounded by blissfully oblivious tourists on their summer holidays.

Although the talks seemed on the verge of collapse two days earlier, the negotiators produced a 128-page agreement that supporters said will deny Iran a nuclear arsenal and critics said will at best defer the day the country will have one.

The United States, five other countries, and the European Union struck the bargain with the Islamic Republic after years of tension and rancor over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But it is not clear that it will mark the end of those tensions, as the agreement – which calls for the cessation in coming months of some punishing economic sanctions — sparked criticism from some of Iran’s neighbors, including Israel.

The painstakingly negotiated deal is the product of the efforts of both diplomats and engineers, combining the genteel language of treaties – it says for example that the purpose was to “ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful” – with the specifications of a technical paper.

It states, for example, the exact number of machines that Iran will be allowed to use to turn natural uranium into civilian nuclear reactor fuel at a key site — 5,060. It also lists in a voluminous index hundreds of Iranian companies scheduled to be exempted from sanctions under the deal.

The text warns that the provisions of the agreement are a unique, one-time-only deal with Iran, and “should not be considered as setting precedents for any other state.” But it nonetheless will amount to an international recognition – in an expected vote by the United Nations Security Council – that Iran has the right to produce nuclear materials that have aroused security concerns.

The White House website on Tuesday boasted that the pact was “a historic deal that will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” blocking all of Iran’s potential pathways to the bomb. But the deal was always intended to buy time rather than prevent any possibility of Iran ever achieving a capability to make a nuclear weapon, because the latter goal was seen as unrealistic.

The unspoken hope is that during the 10 to 15 year life of the agreement, the United States and other nations can settle at least some of their differences with Tehran. U.S. officials have said they don’t expect the current Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 75 years old and medically infirm, to be in power when the deal’s terms end. They also have said that Iran will lose some of its technical skills during the period of the agreement, while U.S. military capabilities and its knowledge of the Iranian program will both increase.

The Obama administration strenuously sought the pact, promising it would increase the amount of time Iran would need to make enough nuclear explosive material to build a single bomb from three months to one year. But some critics say that the deal would still give Iran a window to repudiate the agreement and race to the bomb, possibly before the rest of the world could react effectively.

At a press conference yesterday at the United Nations’ compound in eastern Vienna, Yukiya Amano, who is charged with implementing the deal as director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was peppered with questions from journalists asking if Iran could be trusted. While not directly answering these questions, he said he was “very pleased” with the deal.

Amano said Iran had agreed to help settle a major source of tension between Iran and the IAEA, by promising to answer outstanding questions about its past suspected nuclear weapons-related research. A report based on those answers is expected December 15.

Asked whether the IAEA had determined independently that the deal would expand the time Iran would need to build a bomb to one year, Amano said the “concept” of a break out was not an issue his agency was tasked to address. His mission, he said, was to “detect the diversion or misuse of nuclear material. So we are going to work on that basis.”

The deal would ban nuclear weapons research by Iran as well as the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons through the reprocessing of spent nuclear reactor fuel. It would also cut the total number of Iran’s centrifuges – which are used to enrich key isotopes of weapons-usable uranium — by two-thirds and require that Iran export or transform such uranium into fuel.

An underlying presumption is that to fashion a bomb, Iran would need to produce at least 55 pounds of uranium enriched to 90 percent, compared to the 3.67 enrichment level it has agreed to maintain. But some academic experts have challenged the administration’s claim.

The critics have said that Iran in theory – and in a desperate, risky move — could kick out the weapons inspectors, re-install more than 1,000 mothballed centrifuges, quickly enrich some uranium and, perhaps, build a weapon in three months. A 1995 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that even a country with moderate technical ability could build as powerful a bomb using just 15.5 pounds of highly-enriched uranium.

Gary Samore, President Obama’s former senior advisor on weapons of mass destruction and now the head of research at the Belfer Center think tank at Harvard, said in an email Tuesday, however, that Iran would need longer than a few weeks or months to rebuild and reinstall the centrifuges.

He noted that once Iran’s stocks of more highly-enriched uranium are converted to reactor fuel, it cannot be easily turned back into weapons fuel, and that Iran or any other nuclear novice would likely require more uranium than the NRDC estimated to make a small, sophisticated bomb.

Samore wrote that he still believes that the deal reaches the White House’s goal of a one-year delay in any sprint to build a bomb and that the estimate was based on the advice of experts at the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons laboratories, where Iran’s nuclear program has been tracked and studied for decades.

But he hedged a little on the timing. “Iran might be able to reduce one year by a few months by improving performance of [a particular centrifuge type know as] IR-1, reinstalling centrifuges, etc.” Samore wrote, “but it’s still too long to be a practical threat” because the IAEA would detect that diversion from the agreement immediately.

U.S. officials have said that as a result, the most likely path for a "breakout" from the agreement would be covert, and that the deal signed this week contains adequate assurances that IAEA inspectors will be able to visit anyplace in Iran that looks suspicious, albeit in some cases with a delay of more than three weeks. 

Still, no one is claiming that the deal will automatically mean the end to fears about the scope of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. President Obama himself conceded in an interview with National Public Radio in March that after most restrictions expired in 13 to 15 years Iran would have “advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.”

But the president also defended the deal, which at the time had not been completely negotiated. “Keep in mind, though, currently, the breakout times are only about two to three months, by our intelligence estimates,” he said. “So essentially, we’re purchasing for 13, 14, 15 years assurances that the breakout is at least a year…that – that if they decided to break the deal, kick out the inspectors, break the seals, and go for a bomb, we’d have over a year to respond.”

National security managing editor R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this article from Washington.

This story was co-published with the Huffington Post.

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