The Middle East Channel

A Good Deal in Geneva

On Nov. 24, the United States and its P5+1 partners (Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) reached a historic nuclear accord with Iran. The deal provides the first meaningful constraints on Iran’s nuclear program in more than a decade and, most importantly, provides a six-month window for follow-on talks aimed at producing a peaceful, comprehensive ...


On Nov. 24, the United States and its P5+1 partners (Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) reached a historic nuclear accord with Iran. The deal provides the first meaningful constraints on Iran’s nuclear program in more than a decade and, most importantly, provides a six-month window for follow-on talks aimed at producing a peaceful, comprehensive resolution of the Iranian nuclear impasse. 

Under the deal reached in Geneva, Iran has agreed to a number of important constraints on its uranium enrichment and plutonium activities (both potential pathways to a nuclear bomb). Iran will:

  • Cap uranium enrichment levels at 5 percent for the next six months, ceasing enrichment to the near-bomb-grade 20 percent level.
  • Neutralize its existing stockpile of 20 percent material through oxidation (for use in fuel assemblies) and dilution. (No reconversion line for reversing the oxidation process is allowed).
  • Cap its 3.5 percent low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile by oxidizing a portion equivalent to whatever additional amount it produces over the next six months.
  • Freeze current capacity at the Natanz and Fordow enrichment plants by ceasing additional installation and operation of IR-1 centrifuges and agreeing not to operate existing advanced IR-2m centrifuges or install new ones. (Centrifuge production can continue only for repairs to existing machines).
  • Not commission the Arak heavy water reactor (HRW), transfer fuel or heavy water to the reactor site, and not test additional fuel, construct additional fuel assemblies for the reactor, or install remaining components.
  • Not engage in reprocessing plutonium or construct a facility capable of reprocessing.

The deal also imposes a much more intrusive monitoring regime on Iran’s nuclear program, including:

  • Daily (as opposed to weekly) inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at Natanz and Fordow.
  • IAEA inspections of centrifuge production and assembly facilities and uranium mines and mills.
  • Early declaration and information of all new nuclear facilities.
  • Provision of long-requested design information about the Arak reactor to the IAEA and the conclusion of an IAEA safeguards approach for the reactor.

In exchange, the P5+1 agreed to hold off on additional U.S., European, and United Nations sanctions for the six-month period of the agreement, pause efforts to further reduce Iranian oil sales, repatriate $4.2 billion of Iranian funds frozen in overseas escrow accounts, and suspend sanctions on automobiles, civilian airplane parts, gold and precious metals, and petrochemicals. The agreement also creates a new financial channel to better facilitate already permissible Iranian purchases of food and medicine. The total package is estimated to be worth $6 to 7 billion to Iran.

Throughout the talks, Iran continued to assert its "inalienable right" under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to enrich uranium. As Secretary of State John Kerry made clear, however, the United States does not recognize such an inherent right for any country. (This includes non-nuclear weapons states like Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands that currently enrich uranium but are nevertheless seen by the United States as compliant with the NPT). On this issue, the P5+1 did not make an exception for Iran. Instead, the preamble to the Geneva agreement finesses the dispute. It states that in a final, comprehensive accord, Iran will "fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the NPT in conformity with its obligations therein." It then states that, if a comprehensive agreement is later reached, that "[t]his comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the programme." In other words, it recognizes the likely fact of limited Iranian enrichment in a final deal down the road, without conceding an explicit right to such activities in the NPT. This compromise seems to have been good enough for Tehran. In his press conference on Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif argued that the very inalienable nature of Iran’s right to enrichment meant it did not need to be formally spelled out. Basically, both sides have agreed to disagree, but have done so in a way that allows further talks to establish the final contours and limitations on Iranian enrichment activities.

Although the Geneva deal does not fully resolve the Iranian nuclear challenge, it represents a critical first step. It effectively freezes Iran’s program in place and rolls back some of its most dangerous dimensions. It buys at least six months — the period of the agreement — for the parties to negotiate a more comprehensive framework to ensure that Iran’s nuclear capabilities cannot be used to produce atomic weapons. And, crucially, by halting additional nuclear progress, it precludes Iran from using further talks to creep closer to a bomb.

Not everyone is convinced, however. Israeli officials have been particularly critical. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the accord as a "historic mistake" that produces only "cosmetic Iranian concessions that can be canceled in weeks." Israeli minister of strategic affairs, intelligence, and international relations, Yuval Steinitz, said the "agreement is likely to bring Iran closer to obtaining the bomb." And Israeli economic minister, Naftali Bennett, went even further, arguing: "If five years from now a nuclear suitcase explodes in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the deal that was signed this morning."

Given the Iranian regime’s record of reprehensible rhetoric and actions, Israeli concerns and doubts regarding the Iranian nuclear program are understandable. But a close examination of the Geneva accord reveals that it will put Iran further away from a nuclear bomb than it is today — and, crucially, Tehran will be much further away than it would otherwise be six months from now in the absence of such an agreement. This is the case for at least four reasons.

First, the agreement would lengthen Iran’s nuclear "breakout" timeline (the time required to produce weapons-grade uranium). The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimates it would currently take as little as 1.3 to 2.3 months for Iran to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium (WGU) using a combination of its 3.5 percent and 20 percent uranium stockpile if Iran used its 10,000 currently operating centrifuges; if it used all 18,000 installed (but not currently operating) centrifuges, it could do so in 1 to 1.6 months. However, according to ISIS’s David Albright, if Iran stops 20 percent enrichment and neutralizes its 20 percent stockpile, this would lengthen the breakout time for WGU using 10,000 centrifuges to 3.1 to 3.5 months; if all 18,000 centrifuges were used, th
e breakout time would be 1.9 to 2.2 months. Under either set of calculations, the time for breakout effectively doubles as a result of the agreement. In contrast, in the absence of the deal, Iran may be able to shorten its breakout timeline over the next six months to as little as two weeks. Moreover, by freezing Iran’s centrifuge capacity and capping the 3.5 percent LEU stockpile, the deal would also address the concern that Iran could otherwise expand its centrifuge capacity over the next six months to the point that it could rapidly "skip a step," jumping straight from 3.5 percent LEU to WGU before Tehran’s activities could be detected or stopped.

Second, the Geneva deal would dramatically shrink detection timelines, making a nuclear breakout at declared facilities almost inconceivable. Currently, IAEA inspectors visit Natanz and Fordow every one-to-two weeks — under the deal, they will visit every day. Even with the compressed breakout timelines for WGU discussed above, there would be no way for Iran to divert its stockpile of LEU, reconfigure its centrifuges to produce weapons-grade material, and race to a bomb at declared facilities without getting caught in ample time for the United States, Israel, or other countries to react to interdict the process.

Third, the deal puts the breaks on the plutonium track. Although the Arak HWR is unlikely to be completed for at least a year, once it is it could potentially produce one to two bombs’ worth of plutonium each year. Moreover, some worry that Tehran may rush to make Arak operational by loading fuel into the reactor, effectively making it immune from military attack, and thereby providing an unstoppable plutonium pathway to a nuke. The Geneva agreement, however, prevents Iran from constructing any more fuel assemblies for Arak, prohibits it from loading the fuel it already has, and stops it from transferring heavy water to the reactor. These measures will further delay construction of Arak and ensure that Iran cannot make it operational so long as the agreement remains in place. And, as a further precaution, the agreement prohibits Iran from engaging in reprocessing activities or constructing a reprocessing facility to separate the plutonium required for nuclear weapons.

Finally, the Geneva deal makes it much more difficult for Iran to construct a parallel, covert nuclear infrastructure. Although most analysts focus on breakout scenarios relying on overt, declared facilities, another danger is the construction of clandestine sites to produce weapons-grade material. (Indeed, Iran’s two existing enrichment facilities, Natanz and Fordow, were initially built in secret). Under the Geneva agreement, however, it would be much more difficult for Iran to build a covert program without getting caught since it requires early notification of nuclear facilities and greatly expands inspector access to centrifuge production and assembly facilities, as well as uranium mines and mills. Keeping close tabs on these foundational capabilities would make it much more difficult — relative to today — for Iran to divert technology and materials to secret labs. Limiting centrifuge production to the sole purpose of repairing existing installed machines — another element of the current deal — puts further constraints on diversion.

For all these reasons, the agreement is a positive first step toward the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The deal makes both a nuclear breakout and a "sneak out" using covert sites more difficult and easier to detect. As such, the Geneva deal is very much in the interest of the United States and our closest allies, including Israel.

Still, skeptics charge that the deal does not go nearly far enough in constraining Iran’s program, and gives Iran far too much in return. Some members of the U.S. Congress, for example, have emphasized the failure of the Geneva deal to completely suspend Iranian enrichment as demanded by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions. It is true that the interim agreement does not completely suspend all enrichment. But it does state that there will be "additional steps in between the initial measures and the final step [the comprehensive agreement], including … addressing the UN Security Council resolutions." Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that the goal of suspension under existing U.N. Security Council resolutions is to prevent Iran from accumulating more LEU until it restores confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. And, at least for the period of the agreement, the cap on Iran’s 3.5 percent stockpile and the neutralization of its 20 percent stockpile effectively produces the same result.

Finally, some critics believe that the sanctions relief agreed to in Geneva risks undermining the psychology of fear that currently drives investors and companies away from Iran. The net result, these critics argue, could be an economic "windfall" for Tehran and a substantial weakening of sanctions efficacy, reducing P5+1 leverage going into talks on a final accord. But the $6 to 7 billion in relief offered at Geneva is a fraction of the overall economic burden imposed by crippling international sanctions currently targeting (and motivating) Iran, estimated to total $120 billion. Most importantly, nothing about the agreement dismantles the financial and oil sanctions doing the most damage to the Iranian economy. The notion that companies contemplating long-term, multi-billion dollar contracts and investments would flock back to Iran in response to a limited, temporary, and reversible suspension of sanctions is fanciful. The vast majority of economic transactions with Iran, as well as the channels for financing these transactions, will remain prohibited under remaining sanctions. Any overeager companies seeking to cut major deals with Tehran would thus be exposed to harsh penalties that U.S. Treasury officials are committed to enforce. As a result, the bulk of the private sector is likely to steer clear of Iran until there is a comprehensive agreement that rolls back the overall sanctions architecture. In the meantime, the P5+1 will maintain its leverage over Iran to make further diplomatic progress.

There is thus no need at this point for Congress to pass additional sanctions legislation. Indeed, doing so would violate the letter and spirit of the Geneva agreement. Rushing ahead with fresh penalties now would almost certainly collapse the interim deal and likely end the prospects for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear challenge altogether. Instead, lawmakers should work closely with the Obama administration to ensure that Iran complies with the Geneva agreement and takes the next step toward a comprehensive accord. Congress should certainly be prepared to rapidly ramp up pressure again if Iran violates its commitments or drags its feet. But, as Congress does so, lawmakers should avoid the temptation to micromanage the negotiations as they
enter the next phase. In particular, threatening new sanctions, or refusing to consider meaningful sanctions relief down the line, unless Iran meets a set of maximalist demands — such as a permanent end to all enrichment activities, no matter how constrained — would likely backfire, dooming diplomacy and increasing the odds of a nuclear-armed Iran, a war, or both.

Upon close examination, the interim agreement between the P5+1 and Iran provides meaningful and verifiable constraints on Tehran’s nuclear program, and it does so in a way that sustains momentum and leverage for further progress. If implemented, the deal will buy precious time to negotiate an enduring, peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear challenge. Although no diplomatic agreement is perfect, the one reached in Geneva is pretty darn good.

Colin H. Kahl is an associate professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. From 2009 to 2011, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.

Colin H. Kahl is the inaugural Steven C. Hazy senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies' Center for International Security and Cooperation and a strategic consultant at the Penn-Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. From 2014 to 2017, he was deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. From 2009 to 2011, he served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. In 2011, he was awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service by Secretary Robert Gates. He lives in Redwood City, CA. with his wife and two children. Kahl is a co-editor of Shadow Government. Twitter: @ColinKahl