Whatever it ultimately proves to be, the agreement announced in Vienna on Tuesday between the United States, Iran and five other world powers is designed to sidetrack Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions in return for the lifting hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of economic sanctions that have crippled that country’s economy.
The debate over how good or bad the deal is for the U.S. and its allies already has begun in earnest on Capitol Hill, with Republicans including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and even some Democrats such as Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York signaling strong reservations. Boehner said today that if the agreement proves to be as bad as he and other Republicans suspect, “We’ll do everything to stop it.”
President Obama has couched the agreement in terms of forestalling the possibility of military action against Iran and even gradually moving towards an easing of tensions between the U.S. and Iran after decades of diplomatic strife.
“Put simply, no deal means a greater chance of more war in the Middle East,” Obama said Tuesday in anticipation of a two month battle to win congressional approval of the agreement. “Moreover, we give nothing up by testing whether or not this problem can be solved peacefully. If, in a worst-case scenario, Iran violates the deal, the same options that are available to me today will be available to any U.S. president in the future.”
While the upcoming debate is certain to be politically charged and often mind-bogging in its technical detail, here’s a guide to the eight most important things you need to know in evaluating the U.S. – Iranian nuclear deal:
- Probably the most important thing to keep in mind — and the biggest concern of Israel and congressional critics — is that nothing in this agreement eliminates Iran’s ability to eventually become a nuclear power in the Middle East. While Secretary of State John F. Kerry and other U.S. and allied negotiators deserve kudos for winning tough concessions from Iran in terms of shutting down its nuclear program and allowing access to its facilities by international atomic energy inspectors, the deal only postpones the prospects of Iran developing a bomb for the next 10 to 15 years.
- Iran agrees to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium that potentially could be processed into bomb grade fuel by 98 percent, while reducing by two-thirds the number of centrifuges operating to enrich uranium at its primary processing center in Natanz. The rest of those machines for enriching uranium would be moved to closely monitored storage sites.
By agreeing to these provisions, Tehran has essentially increased from two months to roughly a year the time it would take its scientists to produce sufficient nuclear grade uranium to build a single bomb if it decides to renege on its commitments. The length of the so-called “breakout period” was an important element of the negotiations because the U.S.., Germany, France, Great Britain and other allies wanted to be assured of the maximum time possible to respond to Iranian treachery.
- International sanctions against Iran will be lifted, meaning that it can start selling oil again on international markets. Sanctions by the U.S., Europe and the U.N. dating back to the U.S.-Iran hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981 have seriously stunted Iran’s economy and frozen hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of assets and oil revenue. But there is no set date for lifting the sanctions. The agreement will not take effect until Iran is certified to have met its terms. That is something that Iranians say could happen in a matter of weeks but that Western diplomats have said could take at least until the end of the year.
- If the International Atomic Energy Agency certifies Iran is not violating the agreement, the UN will lift a conventional arms embargo after five years and the embargo for missiles after eight years. Iran sought this concession late in the talks and it became a major sticking point in the hours leading up to the final agreement. Lawmakers have warned that the concession will only worsen tensions in the Middle East and enable Iran to provide more support to its allies in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the region.
- Inspections will be an essential part of the overall deal. As Obama said today, the agreement is not built on trust, it is built on verification. And under the agreement, international nuclear inspectors based in Iran will have relatively free access to Iran’s nuclear program. If Iran tries to divert raw materials to covert facilities, for example, inspectors will be able to access any suspicious locations.
However, the inspection provisions appear to fall well short of earlier demands for access to Iranian civilian and military nuclear facilities “any time, any place.” Under the final agreement, if international inspectors want to visit a site, they must first submit a request to Iran. Iran then would have 14 days to grant it. If it refused, a joint commission including the U.S. and its five allies, the European Union and Iran itself would have 10 days to determine the outcome.
- In the event an international panel concludes that Iran is not living up to the accord, the economic sanctions could “snap back” under an unusual procedure. A panel consisting of the U.S., Great Britain, China, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia and Iran itself would make that decision, with a majority vote of the eight members sufficient to restore the sanctions. But actually reinstating sanctions after they have been lifted would be difficult at best. Critics note that it has taken years to get all the sanctions in place, and that the U.S. could run into resistance from Russia and China in reestablishing the sanctions if it came to that.
- New restrictions will prevent Iran, for a set period of time, from experimenting with designing warheads and conducting experiments on “multipoint detonations” and other nuclear weapons-related triggers and technologies.
- Congress will now have 60 days in which to review the terms and then vote on a resolution of disapproval if they choose to reject it. But the Senate would have to muster at least 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster, making it very difficult to pass such a resolution. In the unlikely event the House and Senate both vote to formally reject the agreement, Obama has vowed to veto their action. It would be next to impossible for Congress to muster the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto.