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Stanford Experts Assess Iran Nuclear Deal

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Hossein Fereydoun, the brother of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif before announcing a historic nuclear agreement to reporters in Vienna, Austria.
Photo credit: 
U.S. State Department

Today’s landmark deal between six world powers and Iran, which would limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions, was an important step toward stopping Iran from building a nuclear bomb.

However, the key challenge for the international community will be making sure Iran keeps its part of the bargain, according to Stanford experts.

“Both sides have made a series of compromises that will help Iran’s economy in exchange for constraining its nuclear capabilities – and that’s a deal worth making, in my view,” said Scott Sagan, the Caroline S.G. Munro professor of political science and senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation.

“Iran will still have a technical capability to develop nuclear weapons, given the technology and materials that they have, but under this deal it will both take them a much longer period of time and would require them to take actions that would be easily discerned by the International Atomic Energy Agency, so it constrains their break-out capabilities in important ways.”

The U.S.-led negotiations also included fellow United Nations Security Council members Britain, China, France, and Russia, as well as Germany – a group known collectively as as the "P5+1."

Sig Hecker, former Los Alamos National Laboratory director and senior fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, said the nuclear deal was “hard-won and is better than any other reasonably achievable alternative.”

“Iran agreed to considerably greater restrictions on its program than what I thought was possible before the Joint Plan of Action was signed in November 2013,” said Hecker.

Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford and an affiliate at the Center for Democracy Development and the Rule of Law, called it the “least bad deal” for both Iran and the international community.

“Nobody gets everything they want,” Milani said. “Every side gets some of what they want.”

Under the deal, Iran would be allowed to continue to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes in its energy and health industries.

But it would have to reduce the number of its centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,000, and cut its stockpile of low enriched uranium down from more than 20 thousand pounds to about 660 pounds.

“Reducing that stockpile actually lengthens the breakout time more than any other measure,” said Hecker.

These limits were designed to increase the “breakout time” it would take for Iran to produce enough fissile material to make a nuclear weapon from the current two to three months, to one year over a period of the next 10 years.

The agreement still faces a series of political hurdles before it gets implemented, and will face tough scrutiny from a Republican-controlled U.S. Congress, as well as the parliaments of European countries that were parties to the talks.

“I think it’s going to be hard for the U.S. Congress and [European] parliaments to kill the deal and be perceived as the ones who would rather have a war than give diplomacy a chance,” said Thomas Fingar, distinguished fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

If the deal survives the inevitable political challenges, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency will be responsible for confirming that Iran is living up to its obligations.

“The key is going to be the effectiveness of the verification procedures and IAEA access,” Fingar said.

“There’s an element of trust, but a far more important part is the rigorous verification protocols.”

As soon as the IAEA confirms that Iran is abiding by the terms of the agreement, economic sanctions can be lifted.

Sagan warned that the international community should not be surprised if Iran pushed the limits of the agreement, and should be ready to reimpose economic sanctions if Iran violated the deal.

“We should anticipate that Iranian opponents to the agreement will try to stretch it and do things that are potential violations and that we have to call them on that, and not treat every problem that we see as unexpected,” said Sagan.

“We should anticipate such problems and be ready, if necessary, to reimpose sanctions. Having the ability to reimpose sanctions is the best way to deter the Iranians from engaging in such violations.”

But Hecker said the international community should focus on incentivizing Iran.

“The best hope is to make the civilian nuclear path so appealing – and then successful – that Tehran will not want to risk the political and economic consequences of that success by pursuing the bomb option,” he said.

The negotiations were a diplomatic balancing act, with serious consequences for both sides of the negotiations if they failed to reach an agreement.

Iran faced the threat of military action if it continued to press forward with its nuclear program.

While Russia and China had both signaled that they were likely to abandon the sanctions regime if talks fell apart.

One of the key challenges to reaching an agreement was “finding a language that would allow both parties to declare victory”, according to Milani.

“Iran has clearly made some very substantive concessions, but Iran has also been allowed to keep enough of its infrastructure so that it can declare at least partial victory for the domestic political audience."

Now the scramble is on in Tehran to claim credit for the deal.

Reformists, led by current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, hope it will strengthen their hand as they head into the next election.

On the other side of the political spectrum, conservatives believe it could give them the edge in the battle to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iran’s Supreme Leader.

“They understand that whoever gets the credit for this will be in a much better position to determine the future leadership and future direction of Iran’s foreign policy,” said Milani.

It’s too early to tell what impact the agreement might have on Iran’s foreign policy, which is often at odds with U.S. interests in hot spots like Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. But Sagan said today’s deal was an important step in making sure that future conflicts with Iran don’t go nuclear.

“Hopefully those disagreements will be played out without the shadow of nuclear weapons hanging over the future, and that’s a good thing.”