Understanding the Iran Deal

Arms control expert Rizwan Ladha, F12, says the contentious agreement could lead to positive developments in the Middle East
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohmmad Javad Zarif, right, and the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, left, hold a press conference in Tehran on July 15 to announce the milestone nuclear agreement. Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency
September 22, 2015

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Will the Iran nuclear agreement “advance the cause of peace and security in the Middle East,” as a group of nuclear scientists has declared, or will it be a “historic mistake for the world” as decried by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

The pact between Iran and six world powers has provoked strong reactions from those who see it as the best way to prevent war and opponents who believe it will empower Iran and make the world a more dangerous place.

The agreement will limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting a series of debilitating economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union. Critics include members of Congress, among them some in President Obama’s own party.

Opponents say the agreement’s restrictions are not strong enough and fear it gives Iran too much leeway to develop a nuclear weapon. The Obama administration argues that the safeguards are stringent and that rejecting the proposal would mean war is more likely.

Rizwan Ladha, F12, a Ph.D. candidate in international relations at the Fletcher School, sat down with Tufts Now to talk about the agreement. His research focuses on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, arms control, security guarantees and the Iranian nuclear program. He was a participant in the Nuclear Scholars Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has written about Iran for the Huffington Post and is the author of journal articles on nuclear treaties and arms control.

Tufts Now: What is involved in this agreement?

Rizwan Ladha: The deal agreed to by Iran, the United States, France, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and Germany (known as the P5+1) is designed to do one thing and one thing only: prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. It doesn’t freeze or suspend Iran’s nuclear program—it shrinks it. And it does it in a verifiable way.

There are two principal ways by which a country can build nuclear weapons: It can either purify uranium to sufficiently high levels (what we call enriching), or it can acquire plutonium through a procedure called reprocessing.

With this deal, the uranium path is cut off. Iran has agreed to remove more than two-thirds of the 19,000 uranium-processing centrifuges it has spinning right now, so it will no longer have the technical capacity to embark on the kind of large-scale enrichment endeavor needed to get to weapons-grade uranium. It will also have to get rid of 97 percent of the uranium it has stockpiled. And last, it is bound by the agreement to not enrich uranium above 3.67 percent—good enough for nuclear power reactors, but nowhere near the 85 to 90 percent purity you need for a nuclear weapon.

Likewise, the plutonium pathway has been blocked. Plutonium is abundant in spent fuel from a heavy-water reactor, which Iran has at Arak. Under the agreement, Iran has to gut the Arak heavy-water reactor. And it has committed never to build a reprocessing plant and to ship all spent fuel out of the country.

Finally, this deal puts in place an inspections-and-monitoring regime unlike anything we’ve seen before in the arms control agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be armed with a full range of tools and technologies to determine if Iran is cheating.

How can the U.S. and the international community verify that Iran is living up to the agreement?

It’s worth noting that compared with every arms control agreement signed since the dawn of the nuclear age some seven decades ago, this deal is unprecedented in the depth and breadth of the inspections regime that has been negotiated. The Iranians won’t be able to sneak out of this deal.

But what about covert sites or undeclared facilities where the IAEA suspects illicit activity is going on?

To address this challenge, the agreement sets up a Joint Commission, composed of all seven nations that negotiated the agreement. Here’s how it works: the IAEA can submit a request of access to a site of concern, and if Iran doesn’t provide access within 14 days, the Joint Commission will take up the matter and decide on a course of action within no more than seven additional days. Then Iran has three days to comply with that decision.

Why did Iran agree to the treaty? What makes the tradeoff worthwhile?

Anyone who tells you that the Iranians would agree to a deal whereby they get nothing doesn’t understand how diplomacy works. Reaching an agreement necessarily involves negotiating specific points, debating over differences and building on common ground. For the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1, the biggest objective is to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. For Iran, the biggest objective is the lifting of sanctions. The U.S. Treasury Department says that Iran stands to gain up to $100 billion in sanctions relief under this deal, but it’s important to note that this relief is not complete, immediate or unconditional.

First, only certain nuclear-related sanctions will be lifted in 2016, while many of the other financial restrictions will remain in place. Second, the lifting of sanctions will be gradual, not immediate. Third, sanctions relief will be dependent on the IAEA verifying that Iran is in full compliance with its obligations under the agreement.

Is all the Iranian leadership in favor of the deal?

In thinking about this question, it seems to me that there is a real strategic interest for Iran. Despite being the ultimate decision maker, Ayatollah Khamenei is still susceptible to domestic political pressures. The latest polling in Iran finds that everyday Iranians’ expectations of this deal are incredibly high. A majority said they expected an improvement in living standards and better access to foreign investment within a year. That’s why the ayatollah gave Foreign Minister Javad Zarif the go-ahead on the negotiations, while simultaneously issuing statements that would appeal to the hard-liners in the Iranian Majlis [parliament]. In Iran’s hybrid political system, decisions on foreign policy and national security do not rest with Zarif or even President Rouhani. They are the exclusive purview of the ayatollah.

What about other states in the Middle East region?

Traditionally, the Gulf States have feared Iran’s presence; they’ve been torn between wanting to have good relations with their neighbor and being perpetually suspicious of Iranian intentions. To mitigate this suspicion, they have relied on the protection of the United States, which since 1979 has served as the de facto military force maintaining Persian Gulf security.

But with this deal, the Gulf States are losing confidence in their monopoly on U.S. strategic support within the region. As a result, led by Saudi Arabia, they are cementing partnerships with other world powers—notably France over conventional arms sales and Russia over energy sector investment—in a bid to diversify their security portfolios. In addition, Saudi Arabia is trying to rally the Arab world, including its traditional Islamist foes, against Iran, as illustrated by a recent meeting with the Iranian client group Hamas. That’s something I never would have expected, for the Saudis to meet with Hamas.

So understandably, the Gulf States have expressed some deep misgivings about the deal in private. But that seems to be changing, as the Obama administration is expending tremendous energy to convince our friends in the region that the Iran deal is in the region’s best security interests.

What about the continuing opposition in Congress?

Here’s the thing: This agreement is not a treaty. It’s a plan of action. The White House allowed Congress to participate in the review of this deal only because of intense pressure from Congress, not because it is legally required by constitutional law to do so. And I don’t think the president and his team would have given in to that pressure if they thought that doing so would kill the deal.

The question Congress should be asking is: Which is worse for the U.S., Israel and the Middle East—an Iran with a minimal nuclear program that remains under sanctions and an intrusive inspection regime, or an Iran unfettered to do what it wants? Obviously, you want the first. And there was no better way to get that than by getting to this deal.

The real challenges going forward will be, first, how to get our friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, to sign on to this agreement and not do anything hasty, and second, to take advantage of the historic opportunity we have to build on this deal and actually make some positive changes in the Middle East. I am cautious, but hopeful. This is a very good start.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu

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