A Skeptic’s Guide to the Iran Nuclear Deal

The mostly good, the slightly bad, and where it could all fall apart.

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

OK, I admit it. I thought this framework was going to suck. Actually, it’s not bad.

OK, I admit it. I thought this framework was going to suck. Actually, it’s not bad.

My main concern all along was that the P5+1 countries (technically the E3/EU+3; congratulations if you know the difference) were too focused on “breakout time” — imposing arbitrary limits on Iran’s centrifuge program to ensure that if Iran used its known nuclear infrastructure, it would take at least a year to build a bomb. The bigger worry about Iran’s nuke program, I always thought, was unknown nuclear infrastructure, such as any hidden centrifuge sites.

To my surprise, the deal — at least as it is described in the fact sheet released by the White House — manages to impose measures to guard against breakout, while also providing for a number of measures that help substantially with the problem of covert facilities. All in all, it’s a pretty comprehensive framework for managing the problem. It’s certainly worth lifting some sanctions, though a crucial detail is how quickly that will happen and whether sanctions can be reimposed if things go pear-shaped.

But there are still reasons to be cautious. First, all we have at the moment area White House-released fact sheet and a couple of ambiguous news conferences in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the White House Rose Garden. (Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and lead negotiator, is already complaining about the White House’s fact sheet.) There is, after all, a reason one writes these things down. The parties will need a few more months to work out the details of the actual agreement in order to implement the “framework” that was announced Thursday, April 2. Those negotiations will be crucial because the kind of language in the statements and fact sheet — which probably seem pretty detailed to a casual observer — doesn’t provide the sort of clarity that a final agreement will need in order to work. (Ask me about long-range missiles of any kind sometime.)

Second, getting a deal on paper is only the first step. The parties have agreed to do all sorts of things. This may shock you, but sometimes parties have trouble delivering on such promises. Agreements aren’t self-implementing, so a major test will be how the parties deal with the inevitable challenges that human beings pose to implementing even a beautifully written final agreement. That’s not a reason to reject agreements, just a caution about being realistic.

Finally, please keep in mind that this deal makes it marginally less likely that Iran will build a nuclear weapon. That’s great. But it doesn’t solve the problem of Iran’s missile program or Tehran’s less-than-stabilizing role in the Middle East.

Expectations for any written agreement should be modest. I wouldn’t let myself get swept up in loose talk about a new relationship with Tehran. We’re agreeing to not kill each other, for the moment, over this one thing. In my business, that’s pretty good!

Still, the details are pretty interesting. The big-ticket item for the U.S. national security community will be the “breakout” timeline. I am not going to do a calculation, but the important parameters are about 5,000 centrifuges enriching to less than 3.7 percent and a reduction in the existing stockpile of low-enriched uranium to 300 kilograms. The fact sheet claims this extends the breakout timeline from two to three months to more than a year. I don’t see any reason to doubt the administration’s math, but I just don’t think the breakout timeline matters. So I will just step aside and let other people who are invested in this argument fight it out.

The provisions against covert sites — what my friend James Acton calls “sneak-out” and what I worry about most — look very strong. The fact sheet asserts that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have continuous access to the facilities that produce Iran’s centrifuge rotors and bellows for 20 years. The agreement also provides access to Iran’s uranium mines and mills, as well as a dedicated procurement channel for any goods destined for Iran’s nuclear program. Iran will return to the Additional Protocol and modified Code 3.1 of the subsidiary arrangements — these are improvements to the safeguards agreement and subsidiary arrangements that Iran has with the IAEA. They are an important part of verifying any agreement. And it seems Iran has agreed to certain measures to address the so-called “possible military dimensions” of the nuclear program — all the intelligence, such as the infamous “laptop of death,” that suggests Iran had a covert bomb program until 2003.

Iran also agreed to limit enrichment to a single site at Natanz. Again, the details will matter here. The E3/EU+3 would be well advised to make sure the agreement includes a nice map of the Natanz facility — lest we find secret centrifuge halls in a Natanz “annex” down the road. The advantage of limiting work to a single site is that, should the U.S. intelligence community catch Iran building a centrifuge site elsewhere (again), Tehran won’t be able to make any tendentious legal excuses. Finally, there are reasonable limits on Tehran’s program to develop new generations of centrifuges.

These measures can’t guarantee that Iran doesn’t have a parallel, secret program. That’s still going to depend on the capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community. But they do force Iran to ensure that any parallel program is fully parallel, from uranium mines through centrifuge workshops to the proverbial underground mountain lair. That’s an imposition, and if secrecy breaks down at any point along that chain, the whole endeavor is compromised. The fact sheet really does assert what looks to be an impressive monitoring regime.

Last but not least, the agreement seems to deal adequately with Iran’s enrichment plant at Fordow and its heavy-water reactor at Arak.

Fordow — the covert enrichment site under a mountain and revealed in 2009 — will be converted into non-nuclear isotope separation. An earlier story indicated that a small number of centrifuges at Fordow would separate “stable” isotopes — “stable” here means non-radioactive. The nuclear fuel company Urenco has a side business that sells stable isotopes, so it’s not a crazy idea. It’s a little hard to tell from the fact sheet, but that seems to be what has happened. The IAEA will still have access to the site to make sure that it’s only used for non-nuclear purposes.

The heavy-water reactor at Arak, meanwhile, will apparently be redesigned so that it “will not produce weapons grade plutonium.” There are real benefits to redesigning the reactor to produce less plutonium, though the fact sheet isn’t clear about the nature of the redesign. Iran also committed to ship the spent fuel from the reactor out of the country and to refrain “indefinitely” from reprocessing or reprocessing-related research. The terms “reprocessing” and “reprocessing research” are not defined, but if the goal is to make Arak no scarier than, say, the light-water reactor at Bushehr, they’ve succeeded.

What Iran gets out of all this, of course, is sanctions relief. The fact sheet is vague about which U.S., EU, and U.N. sanctions will be removed by tying relief to certain “key” steps or the resolution of “key” concerns. The fact sheet also makes use of the term “snap back” to indicate that sanctions could be reimposed. Snap back? I’d like to know what sort of elastic we’re dealing with here.

This seems to still be an area of disagreement. Almost immediately, Zarif tweeted, “The solutions are good for all, as they stand. There is no need to spin using ‘fact sheets’ so early on.” Then Zarif followed with two more tweets indicating that sanctions relief would be immediate, even though the fact sheet says no such thing. This suggests to me that the two sides are still apart on the fundamental question of how quickly sanctions will get lifted. It seems there remains a devil — a Great Satan, even — in the details to be worked out. At the same time, Zarif expressed his commitment to start drafting the agreement.

The negotiators clearly still have a lot of work ahead of them. But the purpose of a “framework” agreement is to establish that both the P5+1 and the Iranians are close enough to spend the next months hammering out the details. They will spend the next few months trying to fashion the framework into a proper international agreement that can be printed on nice paper and signed by the negotiators. I suspect the conditions for sanctions relief will prove to be the most difficult aspect of these talks. Time will tell if they can succeed, but the initial descriptions are far more promising than I expected.

Photo credit: JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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