A Huge Deal

This agreement will shrink wrap Iran’s nuclear program for a generation.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, German Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier, EU representative Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during the final press conference of Iran nuclear talks in Vienna on July 14.

Photo by JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

The deal just struck by Iran, the United States, and five other world powers in Vienna is a major victory for U.S. national security. It shrinks Iran’s nuclear complex down to a token capability and wraps it in a permanent inspection and monitoring regime.

The new agreement doesn’t overthrow the clerical regime ruling Iran. It doesn’t change Iran’s policies toward Israel or its Arab neighbors. And it doesn’t force Iran to end the repression of its own people.

The agreement forged between Iran and the world’s powers does only one thing, but it is a big one: It reverses and contains what most experts consider the greatest nuclear proliferation challenge in the world. Whatever else Iran may do in the world, it will not do it backed with the threat of a nuclear weapon.

U.S. negotiators went into the Iran talks with three key objectives: cut off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb, put in place a monitoring system to catch any Iranian cheating, and keep together the global coalition that can snap back sanctions if Iran breaks the deal. After 22 months of hard bargaining they have emerged with that and more. This detailed 100-plus-page agreement dismantles much of Iran’s nuclear program, freezes it, and puts a camera on it.

The deal eliminates the three ways Iran could build a bomb.

First, without the deal, Iran could use its centrifuges to purify enough uranium for one or more bombs within weeks. These high-tech machines are the size and shape of water heaters but made of specialized metal alloys. They spin uranium gas at supersonic speeds, cascading the gas through assemblies of thousands of machines. When it reaches a purity level of about 5 percent, the gas can be turned into a powder form used to make fuel rods for nuclear reactors.

Iran says that is all it wants to do—make fuel. The problem is that the same machines in the same facilities can keep going until the uranium is enriched to 90 percent purity. Then the gas can be turned into the metal core of a weapon.

This deal blocks that path. Iran has agreed to rip out over two-thirds of the 19,000 centrifuges it has installed. Just over 5,000 centrifuges will be allowed to continue enriching uranium. All will be located at one facility at Natanz. The deep underground facility at Fordow that so worried Israeli planners (since it could not be destroyed with their weapons) will be shrunk to a couple of hundred operating centrifuges—and these are prohibited from doing any uranium enrichment. They will be used to purify other elements and be closely monitored.

Furthermore, Iran must shrink its stored stockpile of uranium gas from some 10,000 kilograms to just 300 kilograms—and cannot enrich any uranium above 3.67 percent. This limit lasts for 15 years.  

Together, these cuts mean that even if Iran tried to renege on the agreement, it would take it at least a year to make enough uranium for one bomb—more than enough time to detect the effort and take economic, diplomatic, or military steps to stop it.

Uranium path, blocked.

Without the deal there is a second way Iran could make a bomb—with plutonium. The bomb at Hiroshima was made of uranium; the bomb at Nagasaki was made of plutonium. Unlike uranium, plutonium does not exist in nature. It is made inside nuclear reactors, as part of the fission process, and then extracted from the spent fuel rods. Iran is constructing a research reactor at Arak that would have produced about 8 kilograms of plutonium each year, or enough theoretically for about two bombs.

Under the new deal, Iran has agreed to completely reconfigure the Arak reactor so that it will produce less than 1 kilogram a year. The old core will be shipped out of the country. Further, Iran has agreed to never build facilities that could reprocess fuel rods and all spent fuel will be shipped out the country.

Plutonium path, blocked.

Finally, without the deal Iran could try to build a covert facility where it could secretly enrich uranium. The verification and monitoring system required by this deal makes that all but impossible.

Inspectors will now track Iran’s uranium from the time it comes out of the ground to the time it ends up as gas stored in cylinders. There will be state-of-the-art fiber-optic seals, sensors, and cameras at every facility, inventories of all equipment, tracking of scientists and nuclear workers, and 24/7 inspections. Inspectors will also monitor the manufacture of all centrifuges and related machinery. A special “procurement channel” will be set up through which all of Iran’s imported nuclear-related equipment must go.

This makes it extraordinarily difficult for Iran to cheat. Iran might want to set up a covert enrichment plant, but where would it get the uranium? Or the centrifuges? Or the scientists? If a 100 scientists suddenly don’t show up for work at Natanz, it will be noticed. If the uranium in the gas doesn’t equal the uranium mined, it will be noticed. If the parts made for centrifuges don’t end up in new centrifuges, it will be noticed. Iran might be able to evade one level of monitoring but the chance that it could evade all the overlapping levels will be remote.

Covert path, blocked.

This agreement, however, does leave Iran with significant capabilities. It would be better if the entire nuclear complex was razed to the ground and the earth salted so it could never be rebuilt.

But we are not Rome and Iran is not Carthage. Such a deal was the preferred option of most nonproliferation experts, including myself, 12 years ago when Iran’s enrichment program was first disclosed. But the Bush administration rejected talks with Iran, when it had only a few dozen centrifuges. “We don’t negotiate with evil,” said Vice President Dick Cheney, “we defeat it.” That strategy failed. Iran’s talks with the European Union collapsed; Iran had 6,000 centrifuges by the end of the Bush administration, and even as sanctions against it increased, Iran built thousands more.

The interim agreement reached in November of 2013 froze that progress, and rolled back some of the most dangerous parts, including the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned with his cartoon bomb diagram at the U.N. could lead to an Iranian bomb “within weeks.”

This final comprehensive agreement goes much further. It is cleverly crafted so that all sides can claim victory. Iran can say with pride that its rights have been recognized, that sanctions will be lifted, and that it will not destroy a single nuclear facility.

And they will be correct. The beauty of this agreement is that Iran gets to keep its buildings and we get to take out all the furniture.

  • Centrifuges cut by two-thirds, research and new facilities limited for 10 years.
  • Uranium gas stockpile cut by 97 percent, no new enrichment above 4 percent and no new facilities for 15 years.
  • Plutonium production in new reactor cut 90 percent, no new reactors for 15 years.
  • Monitoring of all centrifuge manufacturing for 20 years.
  • Confinement of all purchases to monitored procurement channel for 25 years.
  • Monitoring of all uranium mines for 25 years.
  • Permanent ban on any nuclear weapons research or activities.
  • Permanent ban on reprocessing of fuel to extract plutonium.
  • Permanent intrusive inspections.

These terms effectively freeze the program for longer than it has been in full operation. It will shrink and confine Iran’s nuclear work for a generation.

But this is not the end of the story. This negotiated deal is a major victory, a major step, but it is only one step. The nonproliferation regime is an integrated net of dozens of treaties, agreements, and barriers to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. This agreement now becomes a critical new part of that arrangement.

The United States, its allies and partners, and Iran will have to conclude other agreements, other reductions in nuclear capabilities to ensure that after the time limits are reached, incentives for renewed nuclear activities are less strong, conflicts that fuel a desire for nuclear weapons are reduced, and the nature of Iran’s regime and its relations with the West and its neighbors have positively evolved.    

A lot of change can happen in a generation. This deal gives us the best possible chance to influence the direction of that change.