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Iran Deal is less than perfect, but is it good enough?

by Jonah Lowenfeld

November 25, 2013 | 10:00 am

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Geneva on Nov. 24. Photo by Carolyn Kaster/Reuters

The interim deal (PDF) signed in Geneva early Sunday morning gives Iran some relief from international sanctions in exchange for the Islamic Republic’s halting some nuclear development activities and rolling back others.

Politicians, analysts and others from around the world – who had been vocally supporting or opposing a potential deal for weeks – quickly reiterated their positions on Sunday about the deal that was actually signed.

President Barack Obama said the agreement was a necessary “first step.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the agreement with the Iranians signed by the United States and five other world powers a “historic mistake.” Other members of Israel’s cabinet also decried the agreement.

Those who support the deal acknowledge that it isn’t perfect, and emphasize its “interim” nature. And for all who take a position on the matter, the question isn’t just whether the deal is better or worse than some other hypothetical deal; it’s whether striking such an interim deal now is better than doing nothing.

The basic contours of the interim deal are as follows: Over the next six months, Iran, which has approximately 11,000 centrifuges that can enrich uranium to various levels, must not build any additional ones, and must not produce any more low-grade enriched uranium (3.5 to 5 percent).

Today, in addition to the 7,154 kilograms of the lowest grade uranium, the Iranians have stockpiles of 196 kilograms of higher-grade uranium (20 percent). These must be diluted down to the lower grade or converted to fuel, a form that is more difficult to convert into weapons-grade uranium.

The agreement also requires the Iranians halt construction on the Arak research reactor, which is intended to produce plutonium, another potentially bomb-worthy substance.

Throughout the negotiations -- and still today -- Iran maintains that its nuclear development is intended for peaceful purposes. Western powers fear that it is intended to produce a bomb. As such, the interim deal in Geneva allows inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) daily access to some Iranian facilities and increased access to others.

Combined, all of these measures are intended to ensure that Iran cannot make the “dash” to the bomb-quality uranium -- which is enriched to 90 percent – without the United States and its allies having time to respond.

In exchange, the Iranians will receive between $6 and $7 billion in sanctions relief, including about $4.2 billion worth of oil revenue that has been frozen in foreign banks.

Opponents of the interim deal say they’re concerned that it does not require Iran to stop enriching uranium to the lower-level (3.5-5 percent) grade. Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, also argues that the relief to Iran from an interim deal would add up to about $20 billion, far higher than the official estimates.

And even those who are happy with the interim deal are expressing that support only tentatively. Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief and the head of the Institute for National Security Studies, said that the deal is better than nothing – for now.

“If this was a final agreement, it would indeed be a very bad deal, but this is not the case,” Yadlin told reporters on a conference call on Sunday.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Yadlin said that his preferred final agreement would require Iran to shut down centrifuges, ship its low-enriched uranium out of the country, and boost inspections, granting IAEA inspectors daily access to all sites.

Over the next six months, many will be following and trying to influence what goes on in Washington, where members of Congress disagree on whether the deal is good or bad. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R – Va.) called it “dangerous,” while Rep. Adam Schiff (D – Pasadena) told MSNBC it was a “positive step.”

But, as I made clear in the cover story of this week’s Journal, supporters and opponents do share many points of agreement. They broadly agree that the sanctions have worked, and they all explicitly state that a military option is undesirable. And even Rep. Brad Sherman (D – Sherman Oaks), who said in a statement that the interim agreement is significantly flawed, and is pushing Congress to take up legislation next month that would impose additional sanctions on Iran, acknowledged in the same statement that the Geneva deal had “many positive elements.”

But with the Geneva deal a fait accompli – and with some, even in the normally hawkish halls of congress, wondering if the Israeli leadership went too far in lobbying against administration policy in the lead-up to Geneva – the Netanyahu administration has shifted gears in the hopes of shaping the final pact.

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