Critical Questions on the Iran Deal

Q1: How far-reaching was the agreement announced in Switzerland on April 2 by negotiators of the Iran deal?

A1: Politically, the agreement is very significant: the parties will continue to work toward the June 30 deadline to finalize the text of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that will be signed and further enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution. In making his case for the “understanding” reached in Lausanne, President Obama starkly referred to this as an issue of war and peace.

At the same time, President Obama and other officials have cautioned that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” Significant details are missing. In particular, it looks like the four key areas that eluded resolution earlier in the week may still be up for discussion: the duration of the agreement, whether to ship some material (low-enriched uranium) out of Iran or process it in-country, the sequencing of sanctions relief, and Iran’s research and development into advanced centrifuges.

Q2: Technically, is the agreement sound?

A2: The statement showed significant advances in resolving technical issues. On enrichment, Iran’s capacity will be scaled back and limited to the Natanz site (for the duration of the agreement). The underground Fordow site—the one discovered just a few years ago—will be converted to other research purposes, at least for the life of the agreement. Iran has agreed to implement state-of-the-art Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) monitoring and more. The clearest victory, however, is in mitigating risks from Iran’s plutonium-related efforts: the Arak heavy water reactor will be redesigned to not produce weapons-grade plutonium; its spent fuel will be shipped out of the country, and Iran has committed not to reprocess or build other heavy water reactors in the next 15 years. This drastically reduces opportunities for Iran to break out of the NPT using a plutonium route to the bomb.

Q3: Politically, is the agreement sound?

A3: In the past, Iranian negotiators have agreed to measures on these issues, only to vetoed by their capital. The March “soft deadline” was probably devised to allow Iranian diplomats a little more time to gain approval from power centers in Tehran. The joint statement by EU high representative for foreign affairs Federica Mogherini and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was clear about two things important to Iran: the lifting of sanctions and the ability to continue conducting research and development on centrifuge enrichment. Ultimately, approval will have to await definitive details.

On the U.S. side, the 800-pound gorilla is the U.S. Congress. Although U.S. negotiators do not need approval from Congress to ink a deal, efforts to pass new sanctions legislation could have negative effects on the process of negotiations in this next, sensitive, 12-week period pending the final June deadline. Undoubtedly, the Obama administration will be working to win as much support from Congress as possible.

Q4: Are there gaps? If so, are they manageable?

A4: Immediately after the press conference, the State Department issued a detailed, four-page document entitled “Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program.” This document contains many more details than the joint statement by Mogherini and Zarif. However, it’s not clear whether the parameters document represents truly agreed elements of the negotiations or simply the U.S. interpretation and/or negotiating position.

As many observers have noted elsewhere, there is no perfect agreement. There never was any prospect of Iran completely dismantling its nuclear program. Looking forward, the foundational treaty of the nuclear nonproliferation regime—the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—does not restrict countries from engaging in a variety of sensitive (and thus risky from a proliferation perspective) nuclear activities. The essential question is whether the international community has enough resolve to find permanent solutions to those gaps in the nonproliferation regime.

Sharon Squassoni is a senior fellow and director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Sharon Squassoni