War Stories

How the Iran Deal Will Pass—and Why It Should

Lawmakers decided to read the actual agreement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Benjamin Netanyahu should have held his tongue. Above, the Israeli prime minister speaks during a press conference on Nov. 18, 2014, in Jerusalem.

Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

It’s looking more and more like Benjamin Netanyahu committed a strategic blunder in so ferociously opposing the Iran nuclear deal and in rallying his American allies to spend all their resources on a campaign to kill the deal in Congress.

If current trends hold, the Israeli prime minister and his stateside lobbyists—mainly AIPAC—are set to lose this fight. It’s politically risky for Israel’s head of state to go up against the president of his only big ally and benefactor; it’s catastrophic to do so and come away with nothing. Similarly, it’s a huge defeat for AIPAC, whose power derives from an image of invincibility. American politicians and donors might get the idea that the group isn’t so invincible after all, that they can defy its wishes, now and then, without great risk.

It would have been better for Netanyahu—and for Israel—had he maybe grumbled about the Iran deal but not opposed it outright, let alone so brazenly. He could have pried many more favors from Obama in exchange for his scowl-faced neutrality. Not that Obama, or any other American president, will cut Israel off; but relations will remain more strained, and requests for other favors (for more or bigger weapons, or for certain votes in international forums) will be scrutinized more warily, than they would have been.

If the House and Senate do vote down the deal next month, Obama will impose a veto. To override the veto, his opponents would need to muster a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress. As even many of these opponents admit, they are unlikely to do so. There is even a fair chance that they’ll fall short of the 60 votes needed to block the threat of a Democratic filibuster.

Something interesting has happened the past few weeks. Many lawmakers have read the 159-page deal, known as the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” signed by Iran and the P5+1 nations (the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany). Many more have been briefed on the deal’s fine points by the American negotiators and technical specialists, as well as by Western ambassadors. And many of them—those who aren’t bound by GOP discipline or constituents’ pressure (and even a few who are)—have concluded that this is a good deal.

Most criticisms of the deal actually have nothing to do with the deal. They concern the Iranian regime’s potential threat to Israel, its support of terrorist groups, its expansionist ambitions in the region, its record of duplicity, and its oppressive policies toward its own people. All these concerns are valid, but they’re also irrelevant. Critics (in some cases the same critics) inveighed against 30 years of Soviet-American arms control accords for similar reasons, having less to do with the text of any treaty than with the brutal, aggressive nature of the Communist regime in the Kremlin. Still, those accords capped the deadliest of the era’s dangers and created diplomatic forums that eventually helped foster the end of the Cold War.

To the extent the Iran nuclear deal has any impact on concerns about the mullahs’ regime, it should be, for the most part, beneficial. Slashing Iran’s nuclear program (which the deal clearly does) reduces the threat to Israel; opening its facilities to international inspectors (which the deal does to an extent unmatched by any previous arms agreements) makes its activities more transparent, harder to hide.

Another widespread criticism is that Obama and the P5+1 partners were “fleeced” or “bamboozled” by the Iranians. Or, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it, “Our negotiators got out-negotiated.” Gates has nonetheless urged that Congress approve the deal, saying, “I think we swallow hard, acknowledge … that we have a flawed deal, and make the best of it.”

But is it so “flawed”? Did Secretary of State John Kerry and his team of diplomats and nuclear scientists get “out-negotiated”? Gates didn’t cite specifics, but other critics have noted disparities between the Obama administration’s demands as the talks got under way and the actual deal it wound up signing.

First, this is a shallow criterion for assessing any negotiated deal. Sometimes opening positions are just that—tactical ploys, bargaining chips. Sometimes concessions are made in exchange for concessions from the other side. (Rarely, except after military surrender, does one side get everything it wants in negotiations.) Sometimes new facts emerge that make an earlier demand less important.

But second, let’s look at the issues on which the P5+1 nations supposedly caved to Iran. Early in the talks, the Obama administration demanded that Iran halt the enrichment of uranium; Iranian officials insisted on their nation’s “inalienable right” to enrich uranium. Two things happened as the talks progressed. It became clear that not even the most reform-minded Iranian politician would accept a deal that scrapped the enrichment program. And it became clear that the Iranians had a point. Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—signed by 190 nations, including Iran—acknowledges “the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” The NPT does not specify the right to enrich uranium as an “inalienable” path to produce nuclear energy, but it doesn’t preclude that path either. Meanwhile, the deal forces the Iranians to destroy all the uranium that they’ve enriched beyond the level of 3.67 percent (weapons-grade uranium is 90 percent enriched); it limits all future enrichment to 3.5 percent; it cuts their stockpile of uranium by 90 percent, to 300 kilograms (not enough to build a single bomb, even if further enriched); and it slashes their stockpile of centrifuges—the spinning paddles that enrich uranium gas—by two-thirds.

And when it comes to centrifuges, Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made the biggest concession of all. In July 2014 he bellowed that Iran needed to increase its stock of centrifuges by a factor of almost 20. Under the deal, Iran has to cut this stock by two-thirds—and it bars the nation from deploying more advanced models that it has developed. This is quite a comedown from the Iranians’ initial position. Would Robert Gates say that they were “out-negotiated”? Or is this just the way that negotiations sometimes evolve?

In any case, critics claim that these limits expire after 15 years, at which point Iran could embark on a massive uranium enrichment program and build a bomb in a matter of months. Sen. Charles Schumer cited this as the main reason for his opposition to the deal. Retired Gen. David Petraeus and former White House official Dennis Ross made the same argument in a recent op-ed piece, though they supported the deal nonetheless (on condition that Obama and future presidents take stiffer measures to deter a post-deal Iran from going nuclear).

Three points are worth making here. In the annals of nuclear arms accords, 15 years is a long time; most accords are set to expire after a shorter span. It’s also a long time in the course of national and international politics; think of all the changes that have taken place—in the United States, Iran, the Middle East, the entire world—since 2000.

Finally, the argument is simply wrong. The limit on production of low-enriched uranium expires after 15 years. But continuous international monitoring of Iran’s centrifuge production continues for 20 years; monitoring of its uranium mines and mills goes on for 25 years; Iran’s commitment to the NPT (including the Additional Protocol, which allows inspectors to enter facilities) has no expiration date—though signatories are allowed to give notice of abrogating the treaty, as North Korea did. (Only four U.N. member states have never signed the NPT: India, Pakistan, South Sudan, and—ahem—Israel, which is believed to have about 200 nuclear weapons, a fact curiously omitted from nearly every discussion of this issue.)

What about those inspections? At one point during the talks, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was quoted as saying that the deal must allow inspections “anytime, anywhere.” The deal, as concluded, does no such thing. Some claim that the deal gives the Iranians 24 days to comply with a request for inspection—enough time for them to hide illegal activity.

Again, three points are worth making. First, Moniz was misquoted. Here is what he told Bloomberg News journalists in full: “We expect to have anywhere, anytime access in the sense of a well-defined process with a well-defined end-time for access to places that are suspected of out-of-bounds activities.”

There is an inherently fine line between inspectors and spies, and as a result, no nation would let foreigners roam through any factory, facility, or military base of their choosing. “Anytime, anywhere” was never a realistic option—and never will be in any agreement with friends, foes, or entities in between.

Second, the deal gives international inspectors anytime/anywhere rights to visit facilities known and declared to be involved with nuclear production—from uranium mines and mills, to factories that have built or assembled detonators (which could set off the first stage of a nuclear reaction), to reactors, enrichment facilities, centrifuge factories, and storage centers: everything.

The tricky part comes if Iran is suspected of doing any of these things covertly at a site that it has not declared. If that happens, it’s misleading to say that the Iranians are allowed 24 days to comply with a request for inspection. They must respond to a request within 24 hours. Since this is a multinational agreement, not a bilateral treaty, there is a process for dealing with these requests—similar to the process that the International Atomic Energy Agency has set up to inspect facilities of signatories to the  NPT’s Additional Protocol—and the entire process can take as many as 24 days to complete. However, from the moment this process begins—in fact, from the moment anyone suspects the existence of a covert nuclear site—every U.S. intelligence agency (and those of other countries as well) will be plastering that site, collecting satellite imagery, signals intelligence, communications intelligence, and much, much more. The CIA, NSA, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, various branches of military intelligence, and other agencies that nobody has ever heard of are quite adept at this sort of thing. If the Iranians do take up the entire 24 days, and if they are trying to hide something, there is a very strong chance that they’ll be seen, heard, or otherwise detected.

In other words, the deal’s inspection provision does fulfill Secretary Moniz’s expectations, as fully quoted.

Granted, a “very strong chance” of detection doesn’t mean absolute certainty. But nothing in these matters is absolutely certain. The indisputable fact is that, with the deal, the West will amass much more knowledge about Iranian programs—what they have, how they operate, their strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities—than without the deal.

These are some of the considerations that have convinced many on Capitol Hill that the deal is a good one. But while the trends suggest Obama will ultimately push this deal through, it’s not a sure thing.

The biggest source of uncertainty, among some vote counters, is that the whole exercise is a bit theatrical. Because Obama has said he would veto a rejection, all the Republicans and a few Democrats feel that they have leave to succumb to political pressures. They can vote “no,” and satisfy their party whips or constituents, without shouldering any responsibility for their actions.

The irony and danger of this is that, the safer Obama’s margins seem, the more Democrats might defect, believing that the deal will pass without their support. But if enough Democrats act on that calculation, the outcome could shift—maybe enough to override a veto, even though none of the swing voters has that intention.

This can happen in a political system, such as ours today, that encourages legislators to take their jobs less than seriously. Obama is banking on two hopes for victory. The first is that the Democratic whips don’t loosen their grips. (Only two Senate Democrats have announced they’ll vote against the deal, while at least six are needed to help the Republicans block a filibuster and at least 12 are needed to override a veto). The second hope is that more lawmakers read the text and listen to the briefings; if they’re open to an argument and honest with themselves, there’s no way this deal looks worse than no deal.