Iran and the U.S. Just Reached a Big Agreement on Nuclear Proliferation

July 19th 2015

Nicole Charky

After years of international negotiations, on Tuesday the U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran reached a historic deal: Iran will curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

"No deal means a greater chance of more war in the Middle East," said President Barack Obama, whose legacy could be defined by the fate of this agreement.

What did the U.S. get out of this deal?

  • Iran has agreed to keep its uranium enrichment levels at no more than 3.67 percent for the next 15 years, down from its current levels of approximately 20 percent. What does that mean? Here's some context: According to the Federation of American Scientists, you need a uranium enrichment level of at least 80 percent (and preferably 90 percent) to create a nuclear weapon. Thus, the 3.67 percent maximum should keep Iran far from developing a nuclear weapon. The idea is that Iran still has the capability to enrich enough uranium for nuclear power plants, an important issue for Iran, but not nearly enough for nuclear weapons.
  • Iran has to give up 98 percent of its uranium -- from 10,000 kilograms to under 300 kilograms for the next 15 years. This also would create a longer "break-out" time for Iran to create a nuclear weapon. "Break-out time" refers to the length of time required for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon if it started today. Right now, that break-out time is estimated to be two to three months. Analysts say that the deal will extend the time to at least a year for the next 10 years.
  • Iran has to give up most of its equipment that would be used to create a nuclear weapon, and the equipment it's allowed to keep must be older and less sophisticated. Currently, Iran has about 20,000 centrifuges, which is the machinery used to enrich uranium in order to create nuclear weapons. The deal will reduce that number to 6,104 for the next 10 years. It also says those 6,104 centrifuges must be "their oldest and least efficient models," as the White House put it. After 10 years, Iran will be allowed to have more sophisticated centrifuges.

What did Iran get out of this deal?

Sanctions relief worth hundreds of billions of dollars to the Iranian economy. Over the past few decades, the U.S., Europe, and the United Nations have drastically limited Iran's ability to participate in the global economy through sanctions. The sanctions' intent has been to put pressure on Iran to stop pursuing nuclear weapons development, and they have had a huge effect on Iran. In 2012, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said that Iran's economy is 15 to 20 percent smaller as a result of sanctions. The country has also lost $160 billion in oil revenues and had another $100 billion in frozen assets, according to Business Insider.

How will the deal be enforced?

  • The International Atomic Energy Agency is the UN nuclear watchdog responsible for enforcing the new restrictions on Iran. The agreement will not be in effect until Iran is certified by the group of UN inspectors, who, according to Reuters, could have access to nuclear sites in Iran within 24 days, although Western diplomats say this could be closer to the end of the year. This group of 50 people will verify whether Iran upholds its end of the bargain by carrying out the "monitoring and nuclear detective work" in site visits at nuclear facilities and in interviews with Iranian scientists. They plan to compose a report on their findings by the end of the year that will aim to answer key questions about Iran's nuclear program.
  • If Iran does not meet the terms of the deal, which allow inspectors to have "anytime, anyplace" access to nuclear facilities—including military installations, the sanctions will return to the country. (This is called the "snapback" provision of the agreement.) Iran accepted a plan that will restore sanctions in 65 days if the country violates the deal, diplomats said. (Other, non-nuclear U.S. sanctions, along with the U.S. trade embargo, would not be affected. Human rights violations and sponsorship of terrorism are the basis for those sanctions.)

Although the president likes this deal, can Congress kill it?

Congress will have 60 days to review the deal and can pass a resolution of disapproval to stop implementation. But it will be difficult to pass a resolution that gets past President Obama's veto.

It's very possible that Congress could pass some type of resolution attempting to stop the agreement. After all, the Republicans, who are against the deal, control both the House of Representatives and the Senate. But such a resolution would also need the signature of President Obama, and considering that Obama is an architect of this agreement, he would surely veto any resolution that undoes his deal.

That's where things get interesting. Congress can override the president's veto, but override requires a two-thirds vote, not a just a simple majority. Consequently, there can be no veto override without many Democrats in Congress abandoning the president and voting with the Republicans. While there are surely a few who will do so in both the Senate and the House, it seems unlikely that enough Democrats will cross party lines to override President Obama.

Obama is leading an aggressive campaign to persuade Congress to support the pact, and his focus will be on his Democratic allies in Congress who have expressed skepticism about the deal.

What do critics not like about this deal?

Republicans in Congress have been critical of the deal since negotiations started. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) authored an open letter, signed by 47 Republican senators, warning Iran's leaders that any deal struck would only last as long as the Obama presidency. Now that the deal is out, here are the main critiques.

1. Iran cannot be trusted. There is a belief among many that that the Iranians cannot be trusted to uphold their end of the deal and that the accountability provisions -- inspections and snapbacks -- are not strong enough.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the agreement is “on the belief that somehow the Iranian government will fundamentally change in the next several years.” That is “delusional and dangerous,” McCain said.

The temporary nature of the deal is also a cause for concern. As most of the restrictions expire after 10 or 15 years, many question whether the Iranians will simply wait out this agreement and then pursue nuclear weapons as soon as it's over.

2. Iran gets to keep too much of its nuclear infrastructure. Another argument against the deal is that it leaves too much of Iran's nuclear infrastructure in place. "[T]his deal allows Iran to improve those capabilities by conducting research and development on advanced centrifuges and building intercontinental ballistic missiles, whose sole purpose is to carry nuclear warheads," Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer wrote in the Washington Post.

3. This makes Iran stronger and more able to sponsor terrorism and upheaval abroad. Because the Iranian economy will dramatically improve as sanctions are relieved, a large part of that money will flow back to the Iranian government. "With this very large pot of money, the regime will be able to fund both domestic works and foreign adventures in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere," The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg wrote. "It is hard to imagine a scenario—at least in the short termin which Hezbollah and other terror organizations on the Iranian payroll don’t see a windfall from the agreement. This is a bad development in particular for the people of Syria."

Israel, a U.S. ally, and several surrounding Arab countries, likely including Saudi Arabia, are concerned about the agreement for this reason. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has strongly condemned the deal:

There's also the argument that it's never a good thing to enrich a country such as Iran, which is accused of human rights violations that include repression of women, abuse of minorities and the LGBT community, widespread use of the death penalty, and suppression of free expression.

4. The inspections won't work. Some think the inspections will not be tight enough and will provide Iran with too much leeway to deceive inspectors. Netanyahu has argued that the 24 days of notice prior to inspections, in particular, are a concern.

"Can you imagine giving a drug dealer 24 days' notice before you inspect the premises?" Netanyahu told NBC News' Lester Holt. "That's a lot of time to flush a lot of meth down the toilet."

Another point is that the inspections sound great on paper, but might be tough to actually execute in practice. For one, Iran is a big country, 636,374 square miles, which is nearly the size of Alaska, the largest U.S. state. That's a lot of ground to cover.

The inspections are also subject to interpretation -- who is to decide what's a violation and what's not? Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Secretary of the Treasury George Schulz made this argument in a joint op-ed in the Wall Street Journal:

Devising theoretical models of inspection is one thing. Enforcing compliance, week after week, despite competing international crises and domestic distractions, is another. Any report of a violation is likely to prompt debate over its significance—or even calls for new talks with Tehran to explore the issue. The experience of Iran’s work on a heavy-water reactor during the “interim agreement” period—when suspect activity was identified but played down in the interest of a positive negotiating atmosphere—is not encouraging.

5. "Snapback" sanctions would not hurt Iran as badly as the current sanctions. If Iran violates the agreement, the next president will have the ability to reimpose sanctions. As some have pointed out, though, "it would be reimposing these sanctions on what will be a much-richer country, one that could withstand such sanctions for quite a while," as Goldberg explained. Additionally, the current sanctions regime includes not only U.S. sanctions, but also sanctions from other nations. In the case of a violation of the deal, most believe that other nations, particularly China and Russia, will not be as tough on Iran in reimposing sanctions as the United States.

So how do supporters of the deal answer these criticisms?

1. This deal is better than no deal. Supporters, including President Obama, have stressed that Iran is now further away from a nuclear weapon than they were last week. They also have pointed out that the deal's critics have not offered much of a realistic alternative for the U.S. and the rest of the international community. As Jeffery Goldberg wrote, "Netanyahu’s dreamof total Iranian capitulationwas never going to become a reality. The dirty little secret of this whole story is that it is very difficult to stop a large nation that possesses both natural resources and human talent, and a deep desire for power, from getting the bomb."

For the most part, as Vox reported, the arms control community supports the deal. The Arms Control Association, a self-identified non-partisan U.S. group that promotes arms control, wrote that the "agreement with Iran that will verifiably block Iran's pathways to nuclear weapons development--the uranium-enrichment route and the plutonium-separation route--and guard against a clandestine weapons program." They also note that "[t]here is no better deal on the horizon." Andrea Berger, a defense expert who works for the UK-based think tank, the Royal United Services Institute, tweeted:

2. The alternatives to this deal were worse than the deal itself. In a Vox interview with Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, as well as a global research professor at New York University, said that while he doesn't "expect the Iranians are going to hold firm on their commitments," the alternative would have probably been worse as some nations were ready to roll back sanctions even without a deal:

You would have had the worst possible scenario, where the Iranians were not subject to any international inspections or strictures but they were starting to get out from under the tough sanctions regime anyway."

Bremmer also thinks that removing sanctions could weaken Iran's theocratic regime.

This is why Kim Jong Un doesn’t want sanctions removed from his country. If North Korea became a functioning part of the international system, his regime would fall pretty quickly. Iran’s theocrats also know how dangerous this is. If Iranian expats begin going back to Iran, and Western investment starts flowing in, the likelihood that over a longer period of time the Iranian government opens a little and maybe a lot is much greater.

Where do the presidential candidates stand on this deal?

While Republican White House hopefuls are unanimously against the agreement with Iran, Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in contrast, has publicly voiced her support for the deal. On Tuesday night, she received a review of the documents and plans to back the pact.

"It can help us prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon," Clinton said. "With vigorous enforcement, unyielding verification and swift consequences for any violations, this agreement can make the United States, Israel and our Arab partners safer."

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) predicts the nuclear agreement "will be remembered as one of America's worst diplomatic failures." Like Walker, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has vowed, if elected president, to kill the deal. Rubio said "this deal undermines our national security."

While campaigning in Iowa, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) called the president's Iran actions "naive and wrong." 

What does this mean for the price of gas?

Iran has the fourth biggest oil reserve in the world, and if it follows the terms of the agreement, it could reopen its oil supply to the global market. Unsurprisingly, oil prices began dropping Tuesday following news of the Iran nuclear deal. Bremmer thinks this will be a trend: "[T]he Iranians will be producing, I would say, at least another million barrels of oil on the market by the end of 2016 under this deal. That means prices are going down. That really hurts OPEC, it really hurts the Saudis, but it’s an unmitigated good for the US!"

The major takeaway: Time will tell

With the deal still nothing more than a piece of paper, it is impossible to say for sure whether or not this is a good deal for the U.S. and the world at large. There will be many questions along the way. Will the inspections work? Will the Iranians approach their commitments in good faith? Will the deal's expiration date allow Iran to go right back to its old ways? Will this create more tension in the Middle East? Will this deal lead to progressive reform in Iran?

How are Iranians reacting?

Here are some tweets from people in Iran after the deal was announced: