Caveats and qualifications. This is only a “framework” agreement. A lot of details are still missing, and that’s where the devil lies. But I claim some qualifications for expressing an opinion on it: bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physical chemistry, plus seven years as a science counselor in American embassies abroad, where one of my primary responsibilities was preventing the transfer of technology that might enable one country or another to develop nuclear weapons. I’ve done my share of climbing around reactors, fuel fabrication facilities, enrichment laboratories, and reprocessing plants, not to mention talking with would-be bomb builders as well as their enablers.

The Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program is remarkably detailed and exhaustive in specifying restraints on Tehran and their duration. I counted 32 specific Iranian commitments, including no enrichment above the level needed for power production for 15 years, a limited stockpile of that low enriched uranium for 15 years, a dramatic reduction in the number of centrifuges available for enrichment, verifiable conversion of Iran’s underground enrichment plant to other purposes for 15 years, permanent and intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, restrictions on nuclear imports, and reconfiguration of Iran’s heavy water reactor to limit severely its production of plutonium as well as a ban on reprocessing.

Nothing like these restrictions has ever before been agreed to by a potential nuclear weapons state. They are truly unprecedented.

The one all-too-obvious gap is this sentence:

Iran will implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns regarding the Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of its program.

Iran has stiffed the IAEA on accounting for its suspected secret nuclear activities many times. This sentence offers nothing more than has been pledged many times in the past. That is too bad, as no state has ever developed nuclear weapons in an IAEA-monitored program. Accounting for past clandestine activities is important. But there are three months now to make good on the pledge–I trust Washington will insist.

On sanctions, the promise to Iran is vague: “relief, if it abides by its commitments.” Presumably Iran can expect China and Russia to press in particular for removal of UN Security Council sanctions at an early date, but that will require US, British and French concurrence. In addition:

U.S. and E.U. nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps. If at any time Iran fails to fulfill its commitments, these sanctions will snap back into place.

The US at least maintains human rights and other non-nuclear sanctions, so at least some will not be suspended. But this sentence appears to promise an “early harvest” of unspecified sanctions relief if everything is going smoothly.

As I read it, this is about as good an agreement as anyone had any hope of achieving. The question is whether it is better than no agreement, which would have left Iran free to generate enough highly enriched uranium to build at least one nuclear weapon within a few months. A 15-year delay in getting to that point seems a significant achievement to me. I see no sense in which this deal “paves the way” to the bomb, as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed in his speech to the Congress.

Without this deal, we would have faced an Iran forging ahead unconstrained to make weapons grade uranium and possibly plutonium. Sanctions would be fraying. The only option left would be war, which might set Iran back a few years but cause Tehran to redouble its nuclear weapons efforts, as Saddam Hussein did after the Israelis* bombed the Osiraq reaction in 1981. That sounds much more like paving the way to nuclear weapons than this deal, even without the precious details on Iran’s past clandestine activities.

This is an unprecedented achievement, but I don’t expect the Congress, Israel or the Gulf Arab states to readily agree. President Obama has got his work cut out for him, both to fill in missing details and sell the package to domestic political adversaries and Middle Eastern friends.

*I originally wrote “French” here. Hazards of hasty drafting. The reactor was French. The bombs were Israeli. Apologies.

PPS: Jeb Bush’s statement on the Iran deal, with {my comments}:

Today, the Obama administration has agreed to remove U.S. and international sanctions {it agreed to still unspecified sanctions relief and suspension, not removal}, while permitting Iran to enrich uranium using most {less than one-third} of the centrifuges in use today, conduct research into faster, next generation centrifuges {but not deploy them for 10 years}, maintain an underground, hardened facility at Fordow {but not use it for enrichment}, and expand its ballistic missile capabilities {which are not included in the agenda of the talks}. It fails to obtain a guarantee of sufficient inspections {apparently Mr. Bush thinks insufficient the most intrusive inspection regime available to the IAEA, in addition to access to “suspicious sites” and uranium production facilities, monitoring of nuclear imports and early notification of newly constructed facilities}. Iran isn’t required to disclose its past weaponization activities and many of the deal’s provisions will expire in the near future {the failure to answer IAEA questions about weaponization is a serious issue that should be solved before the final agreement is concluded in June, but I can’t find any of the deal’s provisions that expire in anything I would call the near future, unless a decade is your idea of the near future}.

This statement is a sad commentary on Bush’s ability to respond quickly and accurately to an admittedly technical subject.


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