Five Big Questions About the Iran Nuclear Deal
Policy + Politics

Five Big Questions About the Iran Nuclear Deal

REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

As we approach the final showdown, here are five important questions and answers about the U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations:

Why should we care about a potential deal with Iran?  For the Iranians, the stakes are obvious:  If a deal is reached, then the tough economic sanctions by the U.S., Europe and the United Nations dating to the U.S.-Iran hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981 would be gradually lifted – unfreezing literally hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of assets and oil revenues. The sanctions have badly stunted Iran’s economy and denied them vast resources to pursue their aims throughout the Middle East, including their sponsorship of Hezbollah, the Islamist terrorist group based in Lebanon, which is assisting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

From the Obama administration’s perspective, lifting the sanctions may be a small price to pay to halt the nuclear arms race in the Middle East for at least a decade and alleviate the threat of all-out war between Iran and Israel. It might also lead to other cooperative efforts, including collaborating on the war against ISIS.

What’s the rush? What’s in it for Obama?  With less than two years remaining in his administration, President Obama – a 2009 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize that many would like to revoke because of his administration’s drone attacks in the Mideast that have killed innocents – no doubt would very much like to add an historic Iran nuclear deal to his legacy.

How close is Iran to developing a nuclear weapon?  With its thousands of gas centrifuges,  “Iran currently has the ability to enrich uranium to a grade suitable for use in nuclear reactors or to a higher grade suitable for use in nuclear warheads,” according to Iran Watch. By using the approximately 9,000 first generation centrifuges operating at its Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, Iran could theoretically produce enough weapon-grade uranium to fuel a single nuclear warhead in less than two months.

Related: Corker Says Obama May Be Too Eager to Sign Iran Nuke Deal  

Wasn’t there a deal in April?  What happened to that? After two years of intense negotiations, Kerry and Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister, announced a plan in Lausanne, Switzerland. If implemented, it would keep Iran’s nuclear facilities under strict production limits – including international site inspections -- in return for a gradual lifting of the economic sanctions against Iran. As part of the agreement, Iran agreed to cut the number of operating centrifuges it has by two-thirds, to 5,060, all of them first-generation, and to cut its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium from around 10,000 kilograms to 300 for 15 years. A  U.S. characterization of the deal also referred to inspections “anywhere in the country” that could “investigate suspicious sites or allegations of a covert enrichment facility.”  

Who else is taking part in the talks?  Five other world powers, including France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, have joined with the United States to negotiate a nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran. The power of six world powers underscores the extreme importance and urgency that many international leaders attach to containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 

What’s stopping the deal from going through?

Probably the biggest problem for the U.S is whether they can trust the Iranians to live up to their word. Can they count on what Zarif and other Iranian negotiators agree to at the bargaining table, or will a final agreement be upended by Iran’s Supreme Leader?

In a televised address in late May, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ruled out allowing international inspectors to interview Iranian nuclear scientists to learn more about their program or to inspect military sites. Khamenei, who is generally regarded as having the final say on the agreement, also insisted that all the economic sanctions be lifted as soon as a deal is ratified – in contravention of the U.S. understanding of the tentative accords.

Related: Rare Bipartisanship Rules the Day on Iran Nukes Deal

American officials have estimated that it could take six months to a year for Iran to carry out the key steps, including reducing the number of centrifuges it operates and reducing its fuel stockpile. From the standpoint of the U.S. and others, the sanctions must be gradually lifted in as the Iranians meet certain deal benchmarks.

It sounds like Khamenei holds all the cards.  Many observers are treating Khamenei’s statement as part of a tough bargaining strategy with the West – as well as reassurance to many of Iran’s hardliners that the government would not compromise the country’s long-term nuclear ambitions.

Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz have had to try to work out an understanding with Iran on how fast it could expand its enrichment activity during years 11 to 15 of an agreement. As part of an accord with the International Atomic Energy Agency called the “Additional Protocol,” Iran would also have to notify the international community well in advance about any plans to expand its nuclear capability after the first 10 years of an agreement. Yet those notifications would not bind Iran to limit the scope of its work.

An equally challenging issue has to do with the procedures for reinstituting sanctions should Iran violate an agreement or what experts have called “snap back” provisions. In the case of United Nations sanctions, the United States wants to avoid an arrangement in which Russia or China could use a Security Council veto to block the re-establishment of sanctions.

To that end, negotiators have been discussing an arrangement in which the need to “snap back” sanctions would be determined by a committee, which could include the United States, its negotiating partners, Iran and the European Union.  

What will be Congress’s Role?  Under new legislation that was drafted by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Corker   and others, President Obama must submit any final agreement to Congress for review and an up or down vote. If the deal is presented to Congress by this coming Thursday, July 9, lawmakers will have just 30 days in which to study and act on the agreement. If the talks run past that deadline, then lawmakers will have 60 days in which to review any final agreement.

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