Less than two weeks after a much-heralded agreement was struck between the P5+1 and Iran in Geneva, details have emerged that call into question whether the P5+1 interim agreement is actually a deal at all.
Questions range from the fundamental (is there even really an agreement?) to the ominous (whether or not the deal will actually freeze Iran’s ability to accumulate more material it can use to build nuclear weapons the way the deal’s proponents claim it will). For their part, the Iranians have declared that the agreement would not be legally binding. They also made it clear they intend to continue building what top analysts have referred to as Iran’s plutonium bomb factory.
One area, however, where the impact of the deal’s announcement is less murky is the serious ramifications it holds for the strategy of effectively isolating Iran, which like a balloon is rapidly deflating. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the deal will be a boon for Iran’s economy. Over the weekend, major automakers and parts suppliers flocked to Tehran to assess the country’s vast market potential. Three Iranian airlines are pushing for direct flight routes to the U.S. Iran and the U.S. announced over the weekend that they are opening a joint Chamber of Commerce. In anticipation of further sanctions relief, Iran is already moving to regain authority in OPEC.
The contrast between the certainty of disintegrating international isolation and the uncertainty of implementation show the dangers of the administration’s approach. The agreement inked in Geneva breathes life into Iran’s economy, but allows Iran to delay and drag out the six-month period of the agreement even before it officially begins. In six months, the deal will not put Iran further away from building nuclear weapons than they are now.
That’s why we are counting the six months from the day agreement was announced in Geneva. Every day Iran is left enriching uranium, in possession of thousands of centrifuges, and working on their plutonium track is a day that they make progress toward their goal of nuclear weapons capability.
Even Iran’s own president has said if Iran can enrich uranium to 3.5 percent, it can make nuclear weapons. We have been told that the interim agreement, should Iran adhere to it, will limit their ability to make more enriched uranium than they already have — which is enough for multiple nuclear bombs, according to experts at the Institute for Science and International Security.
Like much of the arguments which are circulating, it’s either simply incorrect, or a red herring, or both. It’s the functional equivalent of saying “I won’t have any more cash in six months than I do today.” In reality, however, during the six months, I can collect as many quarters, dimes, pennies, dollar coins, etc. as I can get my hands on.
What do I mean? The agreement’s language. U.S. officials say, allows Iran to continue enriching uranium, as long as they convert anything over their current stock of 3.5 percent into oxide. This keeps level the amount of enriched material Iran is storing in one form, but it allows them to stockpile limitless amounts in a different form that can also be used to make nuclear weapons. The only difference is that it would take Iran a month or two more to produce weapons-grade material. The oxide can easily be reconverted in weeks into material suitable for further enriching to weapons-grade levels.
Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-based associate in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program, says it only takes a few weeks. The former top nuclear inspector for the IAEA Olli Heinonen, now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and fellow expert Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute, have gone public with similar warnings.
Again, to underscore this woefully misunderstood danger: Six months from now (or however many months of delay and improved economic trade and investment that Iran can eke out of this dilatory tactic) Iran will retain the same number of centrifuges (19,000), construct additional centrifuges as long as they don’t make them immediately operational and produce more nuclear material than they have now.
The interim deal was also supposed to halt progress on Iran’s Arak facility, which has a heavy water production facility and a plutonium-breeding reactor. However, per statements made overnight by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, Iran appears to disagree with the White House’s interpretation of these terms.
Iran will press on with construction at a nuclear reactor site at Arak, said Zarif, despite an agreement with Western powers to halt activity. “The capacity at the Arak site is not going to increase. It means no new nuclear fuel will be produced and no new installations will be installed, but construction will continue there,” Zarif told parliament in translated comments broadcast on Iran’s Press TV.
Add up all of these uncertainties, plus the games Iran is playing on the start of the agreement — all of which the administration seems to countenance — and one does not feel confidence that the Obama administration is able and willing to achieve what U.N. Security Council resolutions, congressional leaders and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consider to be a good deal — the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities and weapons program.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) blasted the administration for signing an agreement that “appears to provide the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism with billions of dollars in exchange for cosmetic concessions that neither fully freeze nor significantly roll back its nuclear infrastructure.” On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) expressed his disappointment over the asymmetries of the current deal as well as his support for increasing pressure on Iran: “Iran simply freezes its nuclear capabilities while we reduce the sanctions. It was strong sanctions, not the goodness of the hearts of the Iranian leaders, that brought Iran to the table, and any reduction relieves the psychological pressure of future sanctions and gives them hope that they will be able to gain nuclear weapon capability while further sanctions are reduced.”
While congressional leaders are coalescing to ratchet up the pressure on Iran after the six-month period is up, foreign policy watchers will have to watch closely as the situation evolves. Without focusing on the tangible effects of the agreement, it will be impossible to have an honest productive discussion that moves us toward a safer world.
Joshua Block is the CEO and president of The Israel Project.