The Best Deal with Iran That We Can Get

One that Focuses on the Real Threat and Needs for Arms Control

One needs to be very careful about the deal the P5+1 has reached with Iran.  It is still not clear that the Supreme Leader will accept it or that Iran will put it into practice. It is a preliminary agreement that must be followed up by lasting Iranian compliance, acceptance by the U.S. and other nations, and must be maintained indefinitely into the future. 

Making the agreement work requires a delicate balancing act by the U.S. and other members of the P5+1. The P5+1 must make it clear to Iran that any failure to honor the agreement will lead to even more stringent sanctions and that the risk of preventive strikes, extended deterrence, missile developments and a massive military build up in the Gulf remains real, all the while showing Iran that a real opening to the U.S. and the world offers it security and significant new opportunities for economic development.

Arms control agreements fail all too often in the course of time if they do not lead to political agreements and improved relations. Time and new technologies can undermine even the best agreements, and the nuclear issue is only one issue that divides the Middle East. Iran’s tensions with Israel have already triggered an Israeli nuclear effort to deter and confront Iran with assured destruction. The Gulf states and many other Sunni Arab state see Iran as a critical threat because of its role in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, and other Arab states and its growing asymmetric threat in the Gulf.

As first steps go, however, this the agreement the P5+1 reached in Geneva offers what is almost certainly the best possible agreement the U.S. and its allies could negotiate, it offers Iran a new path to progress and development, and it offers the region new hope that it can avoid new conflicts and the risk of a massive arms race.

What the New Agreement Actually Offers

Press summaries tell only part of the story, and far too many commentators have already rushed to take certain aspects of the agreement out of context.  It can only be judged in terms of its full contents, and the White House fact sheet on the agreement says that it offers the following terms:

A Six Month Interim Agreement Will Role Back the Most Critical Parts of the Threat

The initial, six month step includes significant limits on Iran's nuclear program and begins to address our most urgent concerns including Iran’s enrichment capabilities; its existing stockpiles of enriched uranium; the number and capabilities of its centrifuges; and its ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium using the Arak reactor.  

The concessions Iran has committed to make as part of this first step will also provide us with increased transparency and intrusive monitoring of its nuclear program.  In the past, the concern has been expressed that Iran will use negotiations to buy time to advance their program.  Taken together, these first step measures will help prevent Iran from using the cover of negotiations to continue advancing its nuclear program as we seek to negotiate a long-term, comprehensive solution that addresses all of the international community's concerns.

In return, as part of this initial step, the P5+1 will provide limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible relief to Iran.  This relief is structured so that the overwhelming majority of the sanctions regime, including the key oil, banking, and financial sanctions architecture, remains in place.  The P5+1 will continue to enforce these sanctions vigorously.  If Iran fails to meet its commitments, we will revoke the limited relief and impose additional sanctions on Iran.

It is the prelude to a lasting general agreement that would require Iran to fully comply with all the terms and concerns of the IAEA

The P5+1 and Iran also discussed the general parameters of a comprehensive solution that would constrain Iran's nuclear program over the long term, provide verifiable assurances to the international community that Iran’s nuclear activities will be exclusively peaceful, and ensure that any attempt by Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon would be promptly detected.  

The set of understandings also includes an acknowledgment by Iran that it must address all United Nations Security Council resolutions – which Iran has long claimed are illegal – as well as past and present issues with Iran’s nuclear program that have been identified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  

This would include resolution of questions concerning the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program, including Iran’s activities at Parchin.  

As part of a comprehensive solution, Iran must also come into full compliance with its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its obligations to the IAEA.  With respect to the comprehensive solution, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.  Put simply, this first step expires in six months, and does not represent an acceptable end state to the United States or our P5+1 partners.

It would halt the progress of Iran’s program and roll back key elements in every meaningful area of Uranium enrichment

Iran has committed to halt enrichment above 5%: Halt all enrichment above 5% and dismantle the technical connections required to enrich above 5%.

Iran has committed to neutralize its stockpile of near-20% uranium: Dilute below 5% or convert to a form not suitable for further enrichment its entire stockpile of near-20% enriched uranium before the end of the initial phase.

Iran has committed to halt progress on its enrichment capacity: Not install additional centrifuges of any type.

Additionally, Iran has agreed to:

Not install or use any next-generation centrifuges to enrich uranium.

Leave inoperable roughly half of installed centrifuges at Natanz and three-quarters of installed centrifuges at Fordow, so they cannot be used to enrich uranium.

Limit its centrifuge production to those needed to replace damaged machines, so Iran cannot use the six months to stockpile centrifuges.

Not construct additional enrichment facilities.

Iran has committed to halt progress on the growth of its 3.5% stockpile: Not increase its stockpile of 3.5% low enriched uranium, so that the amount is not greater at the end of the six months than it is at the beginning, and any newly enriched 3.5% enriched uranium is converted into oxide.

Iran has committed to making no further advances of its activities at Arak and to halt progress on its plutonium track.  Iran has committed to:

  • Not commission the Arak reactor.
  • Not fuel the Arak reactor.
  • Halt the production of fuel for the Arak reactor.
  • No additional testing of fuel for the Arak reactor.
  • Not install any additional reactor components at Arak.
  • Not transfer fuel and heavy water to the reactor site.
  • Not construct a facility capable of reprocessing.  Without reprocessing, Iran cannot separate plutonium from spent fuel.

Iran has committed to unprecedented transparency and intrusive monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, including to:

  • Provide daily access by IAEA inspectors at Natanz and Fordow.  This daily access will permit inspectors to review surveillance camera footage to ensure comprehensive monitoring.  This access will provide even greater transparency into enrichment at these sites and shorten detection time for any non-compliance.
  • Provide IAEA access to centrifuge assembly facilities.
  • Provide IAEA access to centrifuge rotor component production and storage facilities.
  • Provide IAEA access to uranium mines and mills.
  • Provide long-sought design information for the Arak reactor.  This will provide critical insight into the reactor that has not previously been available.
  • Provide more frequent inspector access to the Arak reactor.
  • Provide certain key data and information called for in the Additional Protocol to Iran’s IAEA Safeguards Agreement and Modified Code 3.1.

Iran has committed to an effective IAEA Verification Mechanism

The IAEA will be called upon to perform many of these verification steps, consistent with their ongoing inspection role in Iran.  In addition, the P5+1 and Iran have committed to establishing a Joint Commission to work with the IAEA to monitor implementation and address issues that may arise.  The Joint Commission will also work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present concerns with respect to Iran’s nuclear program, including the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s activities at Parchin.

Iran will get Limited, Temporary, Reversible Relief that will act as a Major Incentive to move Forward to Reach a Lasting General Agreement

In return for these steps, the P5+1 is to provide limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible relief while maintaining the vast bulk of our sanctions, including the oil, finance, and banking sanctions architecture.  If Iran fails to meet its commitments, we will revoke the relief.  Specifically the P5+1 has committed to:

  • Not impose new nuclear-related sanctions for six months, if Iran abides by its commitments under this deal, to the extent permissible within their political systems.
  • Suspend certain sanctions on gold and precious metals, Iran’s auto sector, and Iran’s petrochemical exports, potentially providing Iran approximately $1.5 billion in revenue.
  • License safety-related repairs and inspections inside Iran for certain Iranian airlines.
  • Allow purchases of Iranian oil to remain at their currently significantly reduced levels – levels that are 60% less than two years ago.  $4.2 billion from these sales will be allowed to be transferred in installments if, and as, Iran fulfills its commitments.
  • Allow $400 million in governmental tuition assistance to be transferred from restricted Iranian funds directly to recognized educational institutions in third countries to defray the tuition costs of Iranian students.

The U.S. and Other Members of the P5+1 Will Facilitate Humanitarian Transactions

Facilitate humanitarian transactions that are already allowed by U.S. law.  Humanitarian transactions have been explicitly exempted from sanctions by Congress so this channel will not provide Iran access to any new source of funds.  Humanitarian transactions are those related to Iran’s purchase of food, agricultural commodities, medicine, medical devices; we would also facilitate transactions for medical expenses incurred abroad.  We will establish this channel for the benefit of the Iranian people.

Limited Relief While Maintaining Economic Pressure on Iran and Preserving Sanctions Architecture

In total, the approximately $7 billion in relief is a fraction of the costs that Iran will continue to incur during this first phase under the sanctions that will remain in place.  The vast majority of Iran’s approximately $100 billion in foreign exchange holdings are inaccessible or restricted by sanctions.

In the next six months, Iran’s crude oil sales cannot increase.  Oil sanctions alone will result in approximately $30 billion in lost revenues to Iran – or roughly $5 billion per month – compared to what Iran earned in a six month period in 2011, before these sanctions took effect.  While Iran will be allowed access to $4.2 billion of its oil sales, nearly $15 billion of its revenues during this period will go into restricted overseas accounts.  In summary, we expect the balance of Iran’s money in restricted accounts overseas will actually increase, not decrease, under the terms of this deal.

  • During the first phase, we will continue to vigorously enforce our sanctions against Iran, including by taking action against those who seek to evade or circumvent our sanctions.
  • Sanctions affecting crude oil sales will continue to impose pressure on Iran’s government.  Working with our international partners, we have cut Iran’s oil sales from 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in early 2012 to 1 million bpd today, denying Iran the ability to sell almost 1.5 million bpd.  That’s a loss of more than $80 billion since the beginning of 2012 that Iran will never be able to recoup.  Under this first step, the EU crude oil ban will remain in effect and Iran will be held to approximately 1 million bpd in sales, resulting in continuing lost sales worth an additional $4 billion per month, every month, going forward.
  • Sanctions affecting petroleum product exports to Iran, which result in billions of dollars of lost revenue, will remain in effect.
  • The vast majority of Iran’s approximately $100 billion in foreign exchange holdings remain inaccessible or restricted by our sanctions.

 Other significant parts of the U.S. and UN sanctions regime remain intact, including:

  • Sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran and approximately two dozen other major Iranian banks and financial actors;
  • Secondary sanctions, pursuant to the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) as amended and other laws, on banks that do business with U.S.-designated individuals and entities;
  • Sanctions on those who provide a broad range of other financial services to Iran, such as many types of insurance; and,
  • Restricted access to the U.S. financial system.
  • All sanctions on over 600 individuals and entities targeted for supporting Iran’s nuclear or ballistic missile program remain in effect.
  • Sanctions on several sectors of Iran’s economy, including shipping and shipbuilding, remain in effect.
  • Sanctions on long-term investment in and provision of technical services to Iran’s energy sector remain in effect. Sanctions on Iran’s military program remain in effect.
  • Broad U.S. restrictions on trade with Iran remain in effect, depriving Iran of access to virtually all dealings with the world’s biggest economy.
  • All UN Security Council sanctions remain in effect.
  • All of our targeted sanctions related to Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism, its destabilizing role in the Syrian conflict, and its abysmal human rights record, among other concerns, remain in effect.

Restricting Iran’s Breakout Capability Does Involves Serious Challenges even if the Agreement is Successful

For all the reasons previously stated, this will not be a perfect agreement. It is only a first step, with no guarantee for a lasting, permanent resolution. The agreement is limited, reversible, and progressive, meaning the U.S. must only ease sanctions as it reaches a lasting agreement with Iran; that it must continue its military presence in the Gulf; it must continue to aid friendly Gulf and other Arab states in building up their military forces, and missile defense capabilities; and it must continue to ensure the security of Israel. 

At the same time, full Iranian compliance would address the security issues that really matter. Far too much of the current debate over Iran’s nuclear programs focuses on trying to keep Iran from getting one nuclear weapon, rather than on the need to create a more stable military balance in the Gulf, preventing Iran from creating a serious nuclear force, and halting the nuclear arms race in the region. It is desirable to keep Iran’s capabilities at a minimum, but it is also necessary to be realistic.

But, No One Can Roll Back the Reality that Iran is Already Near the Break Out Point and can continue Some Weapons Related Activity

Iran is already at the point where it has all of the technology to produce some kind of nuclear device. It has all of the basic components for a fissile device, and has almost certainly acquired all of the necessary technology. It has shown that it can enrich uranium to weapons grade, and seems to have the technology in its Arak reactor to produce weapons grade plutonium weapons, as well. 

There is no way of knowing how much weapons design data Iran has acquired from Pakistani or other sources, or whether it has carried out tests of nuclear designs using non-fissile materials at facilities like Parchin. In short, Iran has come as close to the point of nuclear “break out” as a nation can without actually producing weapons grade material or actually showing it can create a fissile event.

If the P5+1 is successful, it may be able to negotiate the disposal of Iran’s highly enriched material and full IAEA inspection of known and suspect facilities. This, however, will not halt progress in an Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons technology.  Unless the agreement brings a total halt to all Iranian uranium enrichment activity, and either halt activation of the reactor at Arak or bring it under tight control, Iran will still have the ability to produce weapons grade material. If Iran can continue to develop improved centrifuges, it will acquire both far greater ability to conceal a nuclear enrichment and the ability to produce significant stockpiles more quickly.

It is unclear that any agreement (or any preventive strikes) can halt important aspects of Iran’s nuclear weapons design efforts. Iran cannot be sure such post agreement activities will remain covert, but it can have reasonable confidence that they will. Creating a surface facility at Parchin was an unnecessary embarrassment. Iran can disperse design and test facilities, and carry out as much of the nuclear bomb and warhead modeling and testing as it needs with little risk of detection. It can launch simulated nuclear warheads in its missile tests and nuclear bombs in simulated air exercises – testing the technology based on the results of physical recovery or highly encrypted telemetry.

As a fall back, Iran can avoid the design complications of an implosion weapon and go for a gun device. The result would be much heavier, but easily transportable by ship, and present the threat of some kind of rouge attack: a ship sailing into Haifa or a port in the Gulf.  This kind of asymmetric threat may lack the credibility of serious nuclear forces, but would be impossible to dismiss.

However, the Real Iranian Threat is a Nuclear Armed Force and the Interim and Full Agreement Would Prevent This

At the same time, the interim agreement and any full agreement with such terms would prevent the real threat posed by Iran’s efforts. This threat is not an Iranian breakout capability or even a token weapon whose use would only be credible in a crisis so severe that its impact would be marginal at most. The real threat is an Iranian effort that would develop enough effective weapons to arm its long-range missiles and air force and make it a serious nuclear power.

Breakout capabilities and token nuclear stockpiles can give Iran some degree of added deterrence and ability to lever or intimidate other states. The actual use of such limited capabilities, however, escalates a conflict to total war in an environment where the U.S. and the world cannot tolerate such a threat to the flow of world oil exports, and any rogue attack against a mature nuclear power like Israel would be suicidal.  As Henry Kissinger once said, the threat of committing suicide is not an adequate deterrent to being murdered. A potential or token Iranian nuclear force is the real world equivalent to Kissinger’s statement.

Things change the moment Iran can deploy significant nuclear forces and they are mobile or sheltered enough to limit the risk of a successful preventive first strike. A serious Iranian force that can launch significant numbers of nuclear warheads on warning or the moment Iran is under attack, that the U.S. and Israel cannot credibly deter or destroy, and that will have enough surviving elements to make any form of preemption extremely dangerous is a far more credible threat.

The creation of such a force would also correct Iran’s greatest military weaknesses. Iran’s air force is now largely obsolete, as are its surface-based air defense system. Its long-range missiles and rockets lack the accuracy and lethality to destroy key point targets and are largely area weapons that may intimate but have little strategic effect. As long as Iran remains so vulnerable to U.S., Gulf, and Israeli air attack, its growing asymmetric forces have limited real-world value. The U.S., GCC states, and Israel can escalate with precision strikes in ways that make any Iranian use of asymmetric warfare a high-risk effort that may well cost Iran far more than it is worth.

This is a key reason why Iran’s nuclear efforts should not be seen as irrational, a matter of prestige, or some form of military eccentricity. They make perfect sense from the viewpoint of a nation that both sees itself as under siege from the U.S. and many of its neighbors, and wants to greatly increase its influence in the region. Iran’s nuclear efforts make good sense when seen in terms of its overall military posture.

There is no way, however, that Iran could possibly conceal a major weapons production and deployment program under the terms of the interim agreement. Iran also faces serious problems in creating such a force. For all the talk of how quickly Iran could acquire enough fissile material for one or a few nuclear devices, it is years away from developing a reliable mix of fissile nuclear warheads and bombs. Iran would also assume massive risks if it tried to deploy actual bombs and warheads without a series of detectable nuclear tests. It would have to risk arming its missiles and aircraft with implosion weapons of unpredictable safety and yield, and North Korean, Indian, and Pakistani tests have shown just how uncertain the results can be even in carrying out static tests of such devices.

Even the most successful covert program would not bring it close to becoming a meaning nuclear threat if it complied with the terms listed earlier. Moreover, unless Iran reneged completely, any major Iranian activity would be detected far more quickly and reliably, would clearly violate an international agreement recognized by the UN and major powers, and would act as de facto justification for preventive strikes, far more serious sanctions, and/or US guarantees of extended deterrence.

The Risks of an Open-Ended Regional Nuclear Arms Race

There also are good reasons for Iran to avoid any such nuclear efforts in spite of the gains it might achieve. Iran faces the reality that it cannot develop the nuclear forces it needs without provoking a response. It cannot credibly hope to hide the creation of serious nuclear forces in the way it can hope to conceal improvements in enrichment and most aspects of weapons design. It probably would need detectable nuclear tests to be sure such a force would work and would have serious problems in concealing a major weapons production effort. It cannot hope to conceal the actual deployment of nuclear bombs and missile warheads in the field in any serious numbers.

The end result would not be the creation of Iranian nuclear forces in some kind of strategic vacuum. Israel already can probably target most of Iran’s population with missiles armed with thermonuclear warheads, and would find it far easier to carry out decisive preventive strikes if Iran’s actions justified the use of nuclear weapons.

The U.S. has offered the GCC states extended deterrence. While it has not defined what forces might be involved, it clearly can out-deploy Iran for the indefinite future. Saudi Arabia may be able to acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan, and arm its Chinese supplied missile forces. The U.S., Israel, and the GCC state also have far better access to advanced missile defenses, as well as the ability to support any retaliatory or preventive strikes with air power.

The Prospects for Arms Control

The end result is that in some ways it is far easier to counter the Iranian nuclear threat that matters, than it is to create a perfect agreement to limit its progress towards some form of breakout capability. Iran can probably refine its nuclear technology and present some form of breakout capability regardless of such an agreement. Under worst-case conditions, it might just be possible to create a few gun-type weapons or high-risk fusion devices.

However, Iran cannot develop a credible nuclear force under the terms of the interim agreement or any full agreement with the same constraints.  As long as Iran faces the agreed inspection and controls on enrichment, it cannot act in ways that will prevent Israel from at least having mutual assured destruction capability and the U.S. from deploying an effective form of extended deterrence. Iran cannot be sure that Saudi Arabia cannot match or exceed its rate of nuclear deployment. In broad terms, Iran can only “win” the kind of nuclear arms race it needs if other states do not react, and it cannot hope to violate any meaningful nuclear agreement with the P5+1 in trying to create such a force in ways that will not provide ample warning.

In summary, the U.S. and other members of the P5+1 must do everything they can to limit Iran’s capability to improve its breakout capability and prevent it from getting even one nuclear device.  This does not, however, mean reaching a perfect agreement that goes beyond the detailed terms of the interim agreement that have been outlined earlier, and it seems unlikely that any perfect agreement is now feasible at any practical political and technical level.

The main focus of the U.S. and the P5+1 should be on reaching a full agreement that clearly denies Iran any ability to covertly create an effective nuclear force backed by the clear understanding that this will risk preventive war, and that the best case for

Iran would be U.S. extended deterrence, a growing Israeli nuclear threat, and the strong possibility of Saudi nuclear forces – backed by far more effective missile and air defenses.

This not only may be far easier to achieve than totally halting all Iranian enrichment activity or other variants on creating  “perfect” limits on breakout capability, it will have far more military importance and do far more to limit a real nuclear arms race in the Middle East. It also will mean creating the conditions that will show Iran that its has secure route to development, that can ease the other aspects of the arms race in the Middle East, role back the tension between Iranian and Arab, and eases the pressures that have led to a nascent religious war between Sunni and Shi’ite and fueled violent Islamist extremism. It might even at some point in the future offer some real hope of a WMD free zone in the Middle East.