When people wonder why we have been so loud against this agreement with Iran it is because for us it is not academic or theoretical, it is existential. Here is a regime that has been loud, not about a dispute with Israel, but rather about its wish and commitment to the destruction of Israel.
—Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid
Yes, it is interim; and yes, we must now direct all our energies to the struggle to shape the endgame deal. Still, before we do, and so we know how tough that struggle will be, we should also register just how bad the deal struck in Geneva really is.
First, it legitimized the Iranian regime’s claim to a right to enrich (in the face of six UN Security Council resolutions demanding that enrichment stop).
Second, it confirmed there will be a reactor at Arak. The UK, US, and France might hope that this will be converted to a light water reactor (posing much lower proliferation risk) but the agreement only specifies that there will be no facility capable of reprocessing. This leaves wide open the possibility that Arak could become a heavy water reactor as planned, ultimately capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.
Third, the prohibition on enriching and stockpiling 20 percent uranium enrichment is of much less relevance now that Iran has 1,000 installed IR2 advanced centrifuges equivalent to 3,000 to 5,000 additional IR1 centrifuges. Yes, it is unlikely Iran’s leaders will dash openly for the bomb any time soon, preferring to creep toward their goal, but they currently retain all their capacity to break out (i.e., weaponize) at some point in the future.
Fourth, the deal explicitly allows the regime to continue R&D on enrichment. Iran has IR5 and IR6 designs in testing that could greatly increase enrichment efficiency. This could increase Iran’s ability to break out faster with a smaller number of centrifuges, and therefore in a smaller (potentially secret) facility. And Iran has a long and rich tradition of building secret facilities.
Fifth, the deal left major parts of the path to nuclear weapons unrestricted. For example, there is no prohibition on Iran working with uranium metal (part of the process of creating the bomb core). Iran could do this under the cover of developing depleted uranium conventional anti-armor shells, but mastering the technology could shorten future breakout times.
Sixth, the wording on the regime’s cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency on the program’s military dimensions is very weak. The IAEA reiterated in its most recent safeguards report that, “It remains imperative that … Iran address the IAEA’s concerns about past and possibly ongoing nuclear weapons work.” But the Geneva agreement knocks the issue of the IAEA’s suspicions over to a vaguely defined joint commission with the six powers, without even mentioning the nuclear weapons suspicions explicitly.
Seventh, the sanctions relief could be worth $20 billion over six months, of a total sanctions cost of $40 billion, creating an economic situation that is sustainable for Iran.
Eighth, sanctions relief has reversed the tide. From a buildup of pressure on the regime that forced them to the table, new confidence has been injected into Iran’s economy, and is liable to encourage international firms to start repositioning themselves for the opportunity of reopening Iranian markets.
Ninth, while some of the increased inspection measures look good on paper, there is very little detail about when they will be implemented, leaving big question marks over how effective these inspections will be, particularly on elements of the program previously under wraps.
Tenth, all the Iranian steps are very quickly reversible, but the cash given to Iran can’t be retrieved, and sanctions pressure will take time to rebuild, or may never be rebuilt.
In short, the Geneva deal endorses Iran’s right to enrich, leaves wide scope for Iran to develop capabilities even during the supposed six-month “freeze,” and deals a major blow to the sanctions regime. Many commentators have been tempted to say the deal is not really bad and it is not really good. But that is wrong. It’s really bad. (And we are not even talking about what Michael Weiss and Jamie Kirchick, who sometimes write for this journal, have identified as the “invisible riders” agreed to at Geneva—the P5+1’s abandonment of the people of Syria and Iran, or the way the deal has freaked out America’s allies and incentivized the Saudis to think hard about acquiring a nuclear capability themselves.)
What now? It is likely nothing will happen in six months. The six-month “first step” has an open-ended renewal clause and it is already expected that it will be triggered. The agreement sets November 24, 2014, one year on from the signing, as the target date for reaching and implementing the comprehensive agreement, but this is defined as an “aim,” not an obligation with consequences for failure. So there seems a good chance we could be stuck in this position for some time, with Iran’s economy stabilized, and Iran in a position to continue advancing toward its strategic goal.