GENEVA — The interim accord struck with Iran on Sunday interrupts the country’s nuclear progress for the first time in nearly a decade, but requires Iran to make only a modest down payment on the central problem.
The deal does not roll back the vast majority of the advances Iran has made in the past five years, which have drastically shortened what nuclear experts call its “dash time” to a bomb — the minimum amount of time it would take to build a weapon if Iran’s supreme leader or military decided to pursue that path.
Lengthening that period, so that the United States and its allies would have time to react, is the ultimate goal of President Barack Obama’s negotiating team. It is also a major source of friction between the White House and two allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have made no secret of their belief that they are being sold down the river.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has described the accord announced early Sunday as a “bad deal” that does not require Iran “to take apart even one centrifuge.” That bitter assessment reflects the deep suspicion inside Netanyahu’s government that Obama will settle for a final agreement that leaves Iran a few screwdriver turns short of a weapon.
The Saudis have been equally blistering, hinting in vague asides that if the United States cannot roll back the Iranian program, it may be time for Saudi Arabia to move to Plan B — nuclear weapons of its own, presumably obtained from Pakistan, which entered the nuclear club on Saudi subsidies.
Such warnings are part of the expected theater of these negotiations, in which the United States must look simultaneously accommodating enough to a new Iranian leadership to keep fragile talks going and tough enough to its allies and Congress that it cannot be accused of naïveté. That is why Secretary of State John Kerry described the interim accord as a necessary first step. Iran’s agreement to convert or dilute the fuel stocks that are closest to weapons grade, Kerry said, allows the West to negotiate a larger deal without fear that Iran will use the time to inch closer to weapons capability.
But the rollback he won for this first stage, according to American intelligence estimates, would slow Iran’s dash time by only a month to a few months.
The most immediate risk to the interim agreement comes from hard-liners in Washington and Tehran who, after examining the details, may try to undo it. Obama met with senators from both parties last week, hoping to dissuade them from imposing new sanctions just as he is lifting some in an effort to coax Iran toward disarmament. But even some of his closest allies are unconvinced: Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., signed a letter to Kerry last week noting that the temporary accord “would not require Iran to even meet the terms of prior United Nations Security Council resolutions,” which require complete suspension of nuclear production.
On the Iranian side, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which U.S intelligence agencies have accused of running a secret weapons-design program, may try to chip away at the accord as well, arguing that the sanctions relief is puny and that even the caps on enrichment will slow Iran’s efforts to build its nuclear capabilities.
Kerry and his chief negotiator, Wendy Sherman, say they have no illusions that the interim agreement solves the Iranian nuclear problem. It simply creates time and space for the real negotiations, they say, where the goal will be to convince Iranian leaders that the only way to get the most crippling sanctions — those that have cut the country’s oil revenue in half — lifted is to dismantle large parts of a program on which they have spent billions of dollars and staked national pride.
“Rollback may be a step too far for the Iranians,” said Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Iran’s recently elected president, Hassan Rouhani, “can’t go there for some time,” Nasr said, “because he can’t been seen at home giving up such a huge investment or abandoning national security.”
Lurking over the U.S. negotiating team is the specter of what can go wrong even with a seemingly good deal to buy time. As Sherman was coaxing Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, toward the interim agreement, the North Koreans were restarting a nuclear reactor that they had partly dismantled in a similar agreement struck late in the administration of President George W. Bush — a deal meant to halt North Korea’s ability to produce plutonium fuel for weapons.
“It lasted five years, which isn’t bad,” said Christopher R. Hill, who conducted the North Korean negotiations for the Bush administration and is now dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. “But the reality is that, over time, everything is reversible.”
The North Korean example has become Exhibit No. 1 in Israel’s argument that the deal struck on Sunday gives a false sense of security. “There are two models for a deal: Libya and North Korea,” Israel’s defense minister, Yuval Steinitz, said in an interview during a recent trip to Washington. “We need Libya.”
Steinitz was referring to a 2003 agreement in which Libya gave up all of its nuclear equipment and was left with no ability to make nuclear fuel. But Libya had barely managed to unpack its equipment, purchased from Pakistan; it had invested far less than Iran and was nowhere near enriching nuclear fuel. In reality, no one imagines the Iranians will give up everything. The question is, how much is enough?
The complexity of the task ahead is evident from a glance at the main measurements of Iran’s progress since Obama took office in 2009, promising a new opening to the Iranians — an opening they had largely rejected until this summer, when the mounting toll of economic sanctions helped Rouhani win the presidential election.
At the beginning of Obama’s presidency, Iran had roughly 2,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, barely enough for a bomb. It now has about 9,000 kilograms, by the estimates of the International Atomic Energy Agency. There were a few thousand centrifuges spinning in 2009; today there are 18,000, including new models that are far more efficient and can produce bomb-grade uranium faster. A new heavy water reactor outside the city of Arak promises a new pathway to a bomb, using plutonium, if it goes online next year as Iran says it will.
True rollback would mean dismantling many of those centrifuges; shipping much of the fuel out of the country or converting it into a state that could not be easily adapted to bomb use; and allowing inspections of many underground sites where the CIA, Europe and Israel believe hidden enrichment facilities may exist. There is no evidence of those facilities now, but, as a former senior Obama administration official said recently, speaking anonymously to discuss intelligence, “There has never been a time in the past 15 years or so when Iran didn’t have a hidden facility in construction.”
There is also the problem of forcing Iran to reveal what kind of progress it has made toward designing a weapon. For years, its leaders have refused to answer questions about documents, slipped out of the country by a renegade scientist nearly eight years ago, that strongly suggest work on a nuclear warhead. Inspectors have never been able to interview Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the academic believed to be in charge of a series of weapons development projects.
The good news for the U.S. negotiators is that if there are no hidden facilities, it would take Iran several months to produce weapons-grade fuel from its current stocks, and perhaps a year or more to fashion that fuel into a usable weapon and shrink it to fit atop one of the country’s Shahab missiles.
Even then, a single weapon would do Iran little good next to Israel’s 100 or more and the United States’ thousands, as Zarif, the foreign minister, often points out. But the mere knowledge that Iran was on the cusp of a weapon would affect the perception of its power around the world, and that may be all its leaders seek.
Ultimately, the toughest challenge for Obama may be bridging the gap between the United States’ interests and those of Israel and Iran’s Sunni Muslim neighbors. For Obama, the interim deal to freeze Iran’s program is a major win, and a deal that rolled it back, even to where it was when he took office, would be an even bigger win.
After all, his stated goal has always been to prevent Iran from getting a bomb, not to prevent it from getting the capability to do so. He knows he cannot destroy, by bombs or deals, whatever knowledge Iran has gained of how to build a weapon. It is too late for that.