What do unicorns and a perfect agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear activities have in common? The question is rhetorical of course, but it makes a serious point about the deal recently reached by Iran, the U.S., and six other key international players, and is currently being debated in Congress.
By any reasonable standard, the deal places stringent limits on the Iranian nuclear program and subjects it to highly intrusive verification—under penalty of re-imposed sanctions if Iran fails to comply. But that hasn’t stopped critics from judging the agreement by unreasonable unicorn-like standards and the fantasy of walking Iran back to the tiny program it had ten years ago.
Before dissecting the critics’ flimsy arguments, let’s look at the strengths of the deal itself. Instead of enriching uranium to the 20 percent purity Iran had previously—way too close for comfort to weapons-grade—for the next 15 years they’ll be prohibited from enriching higher than 3.75 percent. Meanwhile, their maximum allowable stockpile will be a token 300 kilograms, requiring them to give up 98 percent of what they now have.
The enrichment process runs uranium through huge cascades of centrifuges (imagine your laundry in the spin cycle, getting passed from one washing machine to the next). Iran currently operates nearly 20,000 centrifuges, yet for the next decade they’ll have to mothball all but 6,104 of their least modern centrifuges—with strict R&D limits that will constrain their ability to modernize afterwards.
To keep Iran from amassing plutonium as another route to a bomb, they will be prohibited for the next 15 years from reprocessing plutonium from its nuclear reactor waste; plus, the Iranians went even further by declaring they have no intention of reprocessing in the longer term. And the U.S. and the nuclear deal’s other international parties will know Iran’s reactors quite intimately as they work with Iranians on redesigning their main reactor and demolishing a new plant that was under construction.
Indeed, the ability of outsiders to keep close watch on Iran’s nuclear activities is a pillar of the deal, covering each step in the technological process. Iran’s every move will be monitored not just for the operation of reactors and centrifuges, but also for related exports and imports as well as the mining of raw uranium.
What gets lost in the bickering over the deal is the fact that many key provisions—particularly for re-imposing sanctions, if needed—actually tilt toward U.S. interests. Under the process for disputes over compliance, a bloc vote of the U.S. and our European allies can rule against Iran without Russia or China’s vote. If the dispute persists, the UN Security Council mechanism to put economic sanctions back in place is similarly rigged to keep China or Russia from shielding Iran and give the US the final word.
This “snap-back” provision is a great example showing that the Iran nuclear deal could hardly be better. When critics find fault with the agreement, they are gauging it against a totally unattainable ideal. Of course there wouldn’t be any controversy about a deal in which Iran ceased any work on nuclear research, medicine or energy—or if Iran’s commitments were open-ended rather than time-limited. That would be fantastic from a U.S. perspective. But if we insisted on such terms, there wouldn’t even be a deal to debate. Critics are forgetting the essential condition for any agreement: You need the other side to agree.
The 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty forbids Iran and other “have-not” countries from getting the bomb, while also promising to help them develop the technology for civilian purposes. So when diplomats looked for a solution, they had to juggle Iran’s technological prerogatives as well as past abuses like building an enrichment facility in secret. The heart of the negotiations was always to limit the nuclear material of near-weapons grade Iran possessed or could produce. Having spent decades developing the technology and enduring five years of especially tough sanctions, Iran would never have agreed to completely de-nuclearize.
The Iran talks’ main metric of success was how long it would take Iran to produce a bomb’s worth of material. The agreement stretches that time out to a year, compared with the two or three months it would take with all the centrifuges Iran currently has. Furthermore, Iran’s stockpile adds up to nine bombs’ worth (they’ll have to get rid of 98 percent).
An honest and healthy policy debate focuses on realistic options, not unicorn fantasies. Iran will not offer a better deal. The rest of the world will not go along with continued sanctions if we reject this deal. Even the advocates of military strikes admit Iran could rebuild its nuclear capabilities within just several years after being attacked. So if a war would bring us back to square one after just three to five years, how is that preferable to limits set for 15 years?
Some critics of the agreement simply don’t want to deal with Iran at all. They’re correct that the agreement won’t stop Iran’s leaders from oppressing their own people or sewing instability in the region. There are two big problems with this position. First, Iran’s leading dissidents are on-record supporting the nuclear deal. And second, anyone arguing this case and rejecting the deal cannot then complain about the special dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. The deal does not solve all problems with Iran, but it does an excellent job with most urgent one.
As a career-long analyst and advocate, David Shorr has been a prominent voice in debates on US foreign policy for over 25 years.