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    opinion | Jeffrey Lewis

    Heading off an even bigger problem in Iran

    Iranian technicians lifted a barrel of “yellowcake” uranium to feed it into the processing line at a facility in Iran in 2005.
    Iranian technicians lifted a barrel of “yellowcake” uranium to feed it into the processing line at a facility in Iran in 2005.

    A lot of us would have liked Iran to abandon its enrichment program entirely and accept inspections that would make the Supreme Leader’s last colonoscopy seem pleasant. Also, I want a pony.

    In the real world, one takes what one can get. Ten years ago, I argued that the US should be willing to let Iran keep all its centrifuges, provided it did not feed them with uranium. I was accused of giving away the store. Iran had a grand total of 164 centrifuges at the time, in case you were wondering.

    Since that time, Iran has installed nearly 20,000 centrifuges at two sites, including one under a mountain, and is developing much more advanced models. The Bush administration had more than six years to end Iran’s nuclear program; the Obama administration has had more than seven. All that has happened until now is that Iran has continued to build more and more centrifuges.


    The deal struck in Vienna limits Iran to 5,060 centrifuges enriching uranium at only one location. It also limits the levels to which Iran can enrich uranium, the amount of enriched uranium Iran can stockpile, the development of more advanced centrifuges, and many other nuclear activities. In all, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action runs more than 150 pages.

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    The purpose of these restrictions is to create a verifiable gap between Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon and their actually having such a weapon. If Iran were to attempt to build a nuclear weapon — either by using facilities we know about or constructing some in secret — the agreement is designed to make sure that Iran would be detected in time for the West to reimpose sanctions and, if necessary, use force to stop the process.

    The agreement does this through a series of intrusive inspections that will be carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The inspections go beyond the normal visits that most countries must accept. In addition to accepting safeguards on all its known nuclear facilities, Iran must address questions from the IAEA for its past work on what look like nuclear weapons designs, as well as provide access to uranium mines, centrifuge workshops, and even military sites.

    What Iran gets in exchange is relief from the sanctions that the United Nations Security Council has imposed since its secret nuclear programs were revealed in 2002. And the majority of the provisions are for only a set period of time, mostly between 10 and 15 years. Opponents argue that sanctions relief will improve the Iranian economy, making it more able to do bad things in the Middle East.

    It’s true that Iran will benefit from this agreement. And Iran’s foreign policies leave a lot to be desired from the perspective of the United States and its allies and partners in the Middle East. But a nuclear-armed Iran would be an even bigger problem than one with a decent economy. Besides, if this deal were to collapse, there is no guarantee that the sanctions regime will remain in place forever.


    You might have forgotten, but one of the Bush administration’s arguments for invading Iraq to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction that did not exist was that the UN sanctions would eventually fall apart. This deal might not be ideal, or as good as the one we could have achieved a decade ago, but compared with the invasion of Iraq, a nuclear-armed Iran, or even a deal we might be able to negotiate a few years down the road, it is incredibly strong.

    Jeffrey Lewis is a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.