Understanding the Iranian agreement

President Obama makes a statement announcing an interim agreement on Iran's nuclear program at the White House on  Saturday.  Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick-Pool/Getty Images
President Obama makes a statement announcing an interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program at the White House on
Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick-Pool/Getty Images

There wasn’t a news site by last Sunday morning void of a story about the historic deal — or “mistake,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was calling it — which was signed between Iran and the P5+1 (United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France plus Germany) late last Saturday night.

But, according to analysts, many of the headlines that cluttered the Internet were inaccurate and deceptive. There was no “freeze,” “halt” or “stopping” of the Iranian nuclear program as the papers described. Rather, said Dr. Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute, on a Jewish Federations of North America leadership briefing Monday afternoon, “it impedes or limits” nuclear progress.

What does Iran give up? What does it get to keep?

Iran’s key commitment is to limit its enrichment of uranium — the element needed to make a nuclear bomb — to 5 percent, according to a summary of the agreement released by the White House. Iran will dilute its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium down to 5 percent, freeze many of its centrifuges that produce uranium and disable some technical features of some centrifuges. Iran also will stop construction of, and fuel production for, its unfinished plutonium reactor and not expand its enrichment capabilities.


Under the agreement, Iran may continue to enrich uranium and does not need to dismantle any centrifuges or its plutonium reactor — conditions Netanyahu has said are necessary for any agreement.

What is the significance of different levels of uranium enrichment?

Only a rare and specific type of uranium, uranium 235, can be used for a nuclear weapon. Enrichment, which is conducted using centrifuges, is the process of separating that material from the rest of the uranium supply. Five percent enrichment, for example, means that 5 percent of the uranium stockpile in question is uranium 235.

Five percent-enriched uranium can be used for civilian purposes like nuclear power; to be used for a nuclear weapon, uranium needs to be enriched to 90 percent. Iran long has claimed that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only.

The agreement aims to curb Iran’s uranium enrichment at 5 percent. However, getting uranium from zero to 5 percent is the hardest part of enrichment; jumping from 5 to 90 percent is easier. So by allowing Iran to enrich to 5 percent, the agreement allows Iran to continue clearing the biggest enrichment-related hurdle to bomb-making capacity.

Iran also possesses “next-generation” centrifuges that allow it to jump from 5 to 90 percent in a matter of weeks — what Israelis call a “breakout capacity.” The agreement freezes those centrifuges but doesn’t require Iran to fully dismantle them.

In exchange, most of the sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors will stay in place, including $100 billion in holdings that Iran cannot access, but there will be $7 billion in relief, including the release of funds from some Iranian oil sales and the suspension of sanctions on Iran’s auto, precious metals and petrochemical industries.

And this is why Israel is calling the deal a “historic mistake,” as Netanyahu put it during his Sunday Cabinet meeting.

“Today the world has become much more dangerous because the most dangerous regime in the world took a significant step to getting the most dangerous weapon in the world,” Netanyahu said.

“If a nuclear suitcase blows up five years from now in New York or Madrid,” said Naftali Bennett, chairman of the Jewish Home Party and a government minister, “it will be because of the deal that was signed [in Geneva].”

Several American congressmen and senators — as well as analysts — are seconding that notion.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement that she feels the agreement reached with Iran “leaves unfulfilled our ultimate objective: a complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program and related activities. … The agreement … simply does not go far enough to ensure our national security interests and those of our allies, like the democratic Jewish state of Israel.”

Opponents of the deal were spewing off terms like “worried” and “suspicious” in blogs and on social media, as well as in official statements disseminated to supporters and the media. Concern came from those in official capacities, as well as Jewish citizens in the area.

“I have serious concerns,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) in a statement.

“I am deeply concerned,” said Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

“I have little trust in the Iranian regime,” noted Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee. “We will need to scrutinize Iranian behavior to ensure they do not cheat.”

Shimmy Rosenblum from Silver Spring, now living in Israel, said, “It will work well for Iran bombing its enemies. Obama has shown a new low in world diplomacy.”

Added the Maryland/Israel Development Center’s Peter Telem, “Substitute the words ‘Nazi Germany’ for Iran, then think again about how this will turn out.”

Iran, too, sees this as a victory. Iranian officials reportedly welcomed the agreement saying it confirmed the country’s right to enrich uranium and that, “all plots hatched by the Zionist regime to stop the nuclear agreement have failed,” the state-owned Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

According to Satloff, this is something to which the media is not paying enough attention. He explained that the above is accurate, that the two sides have agreed that in a final deal there will be a mutually defined uranium enrichment program in Iran.

“Technically, [this agreement] gives Iran a hechsher [certification] to enrich uranium in the future and limitations on that will only be defined for a period. And the end of the road, after Iran has gotten through this deal, and through the final comprehensive deal, if it is a Boy Scout through that process, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for Iran to have free reign on its enrichment. That may be many deals down the road, but that appears a major achievement.”

“The text of the interim agreement with Iran explicitly and dangerously recognizes that Iran be allowed to enrich uranium when it describes a ‘mutually defined enrichment program’ in a final, comprehensive deal,” seconded House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “It is clear why the Iranians are claiming this deal recognizes their right to enrich.”

Israeli politicians such as Israel’s Avigdor Lieberman termed the deal, “Iranian’s greatest victory.”

The other struggle that has come to light is one between the U.S. and Israel, which Satloff termed “a cold war.” This stemmed from the fact that not only does Netanyahu not trust the deal, but, according to David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, “Israel appears to have come up with the short end of the stick.”

In an article titled, “Mind The Gap On Iran,” Harris said Israel is now taking into account that the U.S. had back-channel talks with the Iranians over many months, and barely, if at all, kept it in the loop as those talks progressed. He noted that it is not clear how much the Saudis, Kuwaitis and other American allies were in the know — or, for that matter, the U.S.’ closest European partners.

“How can Israel — and the Gulf nations — roll over and play dead when what happens affects them far more than any of the P5+1 nations?” Harris asked. “I hope Washington will use the coming days and weeks to reaffirm that Jerusalem and our Gulf friends, and the essential quality of American alliances, do continue to matter — and remain a fundamental tenet of America’s national interest.”

President Obama and Netanyahu did talk by phone on Sunday. On Monday, Netanyahu said he was dispatching his national security adviser, Yossi Cohen, to Washington to consult on the parameters of a permanent accord.

There are those Jewish organizations praising the bold steps Obama took to strike the deal. On Nov. 24, 100 Jewish clergy announced support for the steps taken toward peace with Iran.

Luminaries of the Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Conservative, Modern Orthodox and Humanist streams of Judaism signed a document called “Step by Step Toward Shalom with Iran.” That document, which called on Iran to recognize Israel and to do teshuvah (repentance) for its past actions, urged Israel to “welcome steps by Iran to make clear and verifiable its commitment to use nuclear energy and research for peaceful purposes only.”

Likewise, Jeremy ben-Ami of J Street said the P5+1 deal with Iran is “on the right path,” and equated its success with possibilities for Palestinian-Israeli peace.

And, Americans for Peace Now said in a statement by President and CEO Debra DeLee that, “We believe that anyone who cares about U.S. national security, the security of Israel and stability in the Middle East should likewise welcome this agreement.”

But lack of concern does not seem to be mainstream opinion.

Satloff noted there is a discrepancy between the timeline for this deal to run out (six months) and the timeline for completion of a final agreement (one year). He noted there is an option to extend the interim agreement and it is likely that this is what will play out, which could lead to political pressure. He surmised that federal officials opposed to the deal will work through the Senate and Congress to present legislation that will deny the administration the right to renew the interim deal, will approve further sanctions that will be executed when the six months is up or that will call for additional sanctions not tied to Iranian nuclear proliferation but other offenses, such as human rights violations.

At the time of this writing, some officials, including Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) had already started that process.

In the meantime, said Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent and analyst for The Jerusalem Post, Israel will make noise. The last thing Obama — or any of the heads of the P5+1 want — is for Netanyahu to be able to say, “I told you so.”

“They would look bad to their own constituents if Israeli intelligence publicly revealed that Iran is violating the deal and the world didn’t realize it,” Hoffman said.

Now, we wait.

All analysts seem to feel that Israel will not strike Iran within the next six months because attacking Iran during ongoing negotiations would anger the United State and could shutter the international alliance against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. However, Netanyahu and other Israeli officials made clear that Israel will defend itself.

Said Netanyahu: “Iran is committed to Israel’s destruction, and Israel has the right and the obligation to defend itself by itself against any threat.”

Maayan Jaffe is editor-in-chief of Washington Jewish Week’s sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times.

JTA News and Features contributed to this article.

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