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A Guide for the Perplexed: The Iran Nuclear Agreement

Will the deal hold the Islamic Republic in check? The former under secretary of state explains and defends the most complex and important treaty this century.

Thomas R. Pickering
July 27, 2015
Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images
President Barack Obama, standing with Vice President Joe Biden, conducts a press conference in the East Room of the White House in response to the Iran Nuclear Deal, on July 14, 2015 in Washington, DC. The landmark deal will limit Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions. The agreement, which comes after almost two years of diplomacy, has also been praised by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images
Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images
President Barack Obama, standing with Vice President Joe Biden, conducts a press conference in the East Room of the White House in response to the Iran Nuclear Deal, on July 14, 2015 in Washington, DC. The landmark deal will limit Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions. The agreement, which comes after almost two years of diplomacy, has also been praised by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images
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This agreement is arguably the most important and the most complex of this century. It treats with widespread concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. It resolves a serious nonproliferation problem for at least 15 years and likely beyond. It sets U.S.-Iranian relations on a new course. It opens the door of possible change in the Middle East region while at the same time also raising issues for key U.S. relationships there. The agreement between Iran and the P-5 + 1 (Five Permanent Members of the U.N. Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany) was concluded after many years of negotiation on July 14, 2015.

This article describes the agreement, explores the arguments against it, and summarizes the views of experts on how to evaluate it. The agreement is 159 pages, technically complex as it deals with key elements of nuclear science related to civil nuclear uses and weapons. It is accompanied by a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolution and is before the U.S. Congress until about Sept. 20, 2015. It has been and will continue to be the subject of debate, politics, and emotion. This guide is provided to be helpful in understanding its key elements and importance—politics and emotion are left to the individual reader.


The Deal

First we should understand the objective—to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon—that and nothing more.

Secondly, we should understand the strategy followed by the parties to the negotiation in getting to the objective—strict limits on Iran’s nuclear activities as they touch on areas of potential military use; verification and inspection to ensure compliance; and sanctions and other pressures to open negotiations and then to craft a satisfactory result and finally to be available as the first resort to any violation.


Both the enrichment of uranium and the production in a reactor in the used (spent) fuel of plutonium provide routes to preparing enough material for use in a weapon.

Enrichment: Iran will be constrained for 10 years to just over 5,000 early type, IR-1 centrifuges to conduct enrichment at the Natanz site in Iran of low enriched uranium (LEU) up to a maximum of 3,67 percent of the fissile isotope U-235. Iran has over 19,000 centrifuges—14,000 will be stored under the supervision of the U.N. inspectors—the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). One thousand centrifuges will be allowed at the deep underground Fordow site for the production of medical isotopes and strictly limited R and D. No uranium will be allowed to be present at Fordow.

Iran’s current stockpile of LEU, 10,000-12,000 kgs, will be reduced by 98 percent to 300 kgs and will be required to stay at that level for 15 years.

There are clear and tight restraints on centrifuge research and development.

This set of limitations is positive insurance that under the agreement Iran will not be able to make a weapon with material and equipment in place, and if it violates the deal the time to make enough material for one weapon has been increased from the present two to three months to at least a year.

Plutonium: Iran is building a reactor of a type well suited to produce plutonium in its spent fuel for weapons purposes. That reactor at Arak will have its central core (calandria) redesigned and changed to reduce to a small quantity the plutonium output, which will be regularly shipped out of Iran.

Iran has agreed to 15 years of no reprocessing to recover plutonium from spent fuel and that afterward it still does not intend to reprocess.


Iran will accept to apply the Additional Protocol of the IAEA designed in the main to deal with inspection and monitoring more effectively for covert activities, an accompanying arrangement on early declaration of nuclear-related construction activities, and 24-hour access to nuclear sites.

Iran will accept monitoring of its entire uranium nuclear fuel cycle from the mine to spent fuel to assure against any diversion to covert facilities and weapons purposes for 25-years.

Centrifuge manufacture inside Iran will be subject to IAEA monitoring and inspection at all key locations and stages.

A special monitoring commission will be organized to ensure that all Iranian imports with a nuclear connection are monitored and controlled.

Access to sites where the IAEA has reason believe it must inspect is assured through a managed process that could extend for up to 24 days and be enforced by sanctions resumption if access is denied.

The last four arrangements are new and currently unique to Iran and designed to deal with the need to apply President Ronald Reagan’s dictum regarding the Soviet Union: “Trust but Verify”; in this case perhaps better expressed as “Distrust and Verify.”


The current agreement has a hold period of 90 days in part to accommodate the 60-day congressional examination in the United States that will end on Sept. 20, 2015. Following that period implementation starts.

Iran must comply with a dozen or so major steps before sanctions lift takes place. These include in the four most important steps the storage of 14,000 centrifuges; the reduction of the LEU stockpile to 300 kgs; the change in the Arak reactor; and the completion of the IAEA review of 18 questions regarding Iran’s past nuclear activities where nuclear weapons-related activities had taken place. The director general of the IAEA has signaled he expects that process can be completed in three more months. (Before 2003, Iran engaged in weapons-related activity. Since 2007, the U.S. director of National Intelligence has annually reported with “high confidence” that such activities have stopped and that Iran has not made a decision to produce a nuclear weapon.)

A U.N. Security Council resolution passed on July 20, 2015, provides in part that should any violation of the agreement be raised and should the UNSC within 30 days fail to take action regarding that question, there is an automatic resumption in force of all previous U.N. nuclear sanctions against Iran. The U.S. veto in effect can be exercised to ensure that violations are sanctioned under this arrangement.


Concerns About the Deal—Pros and Cons

Most of these relate to questions arising around the impact and effect of the deal, but one at least is connected to the terms of the agreement itself.

Time Limits

Iran is subject to some limitations for 10 years (centrifuges), others for 15 (LEU stockpile of 300 kgs), and others for longer periods of time. Sanctions against conventional arms sales are set for five years and on missiles for eight years. (The missile sanctions to be removed are U.N. only; national sanctions stay, and all countries with missile sales capacity except North Korea are in the Missile Technology Control Regime, which would continue to block any such sales to Iran.)

For the opponents of the deal, 10 years is too short a time period. For supporters it is significant that some two years ago Israel argued for military action against Iran that both Israeli and U.S. military experts agreed would buy perhaps as much as a two-year stoppage of the Iran program. The limitation on the LEU that can be accumulated makes a 15-year period more relevant if Iran does not seek to violate the terms of the deal.

The Impact of the Deal—Iran Money Released With Sanctions Termination

It is estimated that Iran will have access to $50 billion (all in foreign banks and all Iranian money) upon sanctions termination. Opponents believe this can and will be used to support Iranian activities in the region favoring Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Assad regime in Syria among others.

Supporters argue that conclusion is far from certain. Iran has many very expensive priorities including repairing its oil-production base and stimulating its domestic economy.

Sec. John Kerry has stated that the U.S. intelligence community does not support the conclusion of nefarious uses by Iran, that the United States is committed to the Gulf States with new programs of support in cyber- and counter-terrorism among others, and that the United States will maintain a close watch and is committed to take actions to counter such Iranian activities.

Failure To Use Additional Sanctions To Seek a “Better” Deal.

There are two questions here: the use of additional sanctions, and what qualifies as a better deal.

For the former, the opponents argue that even tighter sanctions and the continued exercise of more leverage would bring Iran to accept stricter limitations and tighter terms. For the latter, zero enrichment and even no nuclear program has seemed to be the objective. They say the administration didn’t use all at its command and signed on too early.

The supporters of the agreement argue that additional sanctions require the full cooperation of the international community and especially our P4 +1 partners. They were not ready to go that far and are satisfied with the present arrangements. Pressure to do so would lose them, their support for current and continuing sanctions and the current deal, a counsel of folly since the only increased value of a better deal seems to be something that is a little easier to inspect and monitor. Iran knows how to enrich, and that cannot be taken out of their heads.

Sec. Kerry has said he walked away three times and had the president’s full support to do so when he felt it was necessary. Four years of U.S. involvement in negotiations, he said, should indicate clearly we have taken our time and been careful.

Concern That the Present Deal Signals a New U.S. Tilt Toward Iran and Its Ambitions in the Region

The opponents’ argument is clear. Israel and the Gulf States are worried by such possibilities.

The supporters of the deal argue that this is not the U.S. approach or policy. The United States accepts that Iran is not to be trusted and that 35 years of misunderstanding and mistrust do not disappear overnight. Certainly the United States at Camp David and with Defense Sec. Ashton Carter’s recent visit to the region and Sec. Kerry’s constant contacts have worked to make that point clear and that we are committed and ready to deliver on that in specific ways. Sec. Kerry will shortly follow up, and Iran has said they want an improved relationship with the region and are taking action to visit the Gulf States to seek that goal.



Experts believe the minimum requirements include: adherence to the Additional Protocol and its subsidiary arrangements; fixing the Arak reactor; no reprocessing; limits on the level of enrichment and the number and types of centrifuges; limits on the size and composition of the LEU stockpile; resolution with the IAEA of outstanding problems from the past; prompt and reciprocal sanctions removal; a process for timely investigation of violations; and provision for re-introduction of sanctions. (James Walsh of MIT provided excellent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 25, 2015. I strongly recommend anyone seeking a clear and simple template from a recognized scholar in judging the agreement to consult his presentation, here.)


The Bottom Line

No deal is likely to be perfect and can be usefully evaluated without looking at the alternatives. There appear to be three—the use of military force, increasing sanctions, and pressure and walking away.

One way or another each of these has been seen to be unfeasible because of lack of international support, failure to be able to achieve real improvement, or horrendous side effects.

Rational and logical thinking may well produce a conclusion in favor of the present agreement, of trying it, and of seeing how it works, and doing so against the backdrop that should Iran fail to comply there are additional remedies on the table that, however costly, would be widely supported in the case of a clear material breach of the arrangements.

American political life also shows that emotion, ideology, and political attachments can and will play a large role in the answer both in the public and Congress. Let us hope that in the end our national interest and those of our friends and allies, including Israel, will prevail.


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Thomas R. Pickering is former under secretary of state and served as ambassador to the United Nations, Russia, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Jordan.