Obama Makes a Deal with Iran
By Nayyer Ali MD
After two years of negotiations with six parties at the table, the US and its other partners came to a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program. For the last decade Iran has built the infrastructure to develop nuclear weapons, with many of the key facilities deep underground to protect them from possible bombardment.
The two key steps in developing uranium-based atomic bombs is mining the uranium, which Iran has domestic sources of, and then separating out the very small fraction of uranium-235, the type of uranium that can be used in power plants and in bombs, into a large pure quantity. This process, called enrichment, is technically difficult and relies on high speed centrifuges that represent very complex engineering. If the uranium ore is enriched to 5% level, it can be used in power plants, but a bomb needs 95% U-235. Iran has thousands of pounds of enriched uranium at the low level, but has not enriched to high level as of yet.
Iran has always insisted its nuclear program was peaceful, meant to fuel its lone nuclear reactor built by Russia, and that there has never been any intention to build a weapon. The late Ayatollah Khomeini even once issued a ruling that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic because by their very nature they kill mostly innocent people. However, these protestations have been unconvincing to Israel, America, and the Europeans. Iran has been caught doing various secret activities that certainly suggest their goal is more than nuclear power, and their stockpile of enriched uranium far exceeds their needs for peaceful purposes. In response to Iran’s actions, the UN Security Council put in place harsh sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy, its ability to trade with the outside world, and even forced it to cut back its oil exports. This has caused much hardship for average Iranians.
The deal that has been negotiated requires Iran to close down most of its centrifuges, and to dispose of most of its enriched uranium. It also imposes a very strict verification regime, where nuclear activity from mining to enrichment will be closely monitored by inspectors, and even the whereabouts and activities of Iran’s nuclear scientists will be accounted for. With such a system it will be impossible for Iran to secretly build an arsenal.
Iran could at some stage decide that it will withdraw from the deal and build a bomb as quickly as possible. The agreement though is so tight that it would take Iran at least 12 months to build a bomb once it reneged on the treaty, and this would give the outside world time to react, including re-imposing sanctions.
The deal is to last for 10 years. What happens after that? It is impossible to know. Ten years is a long time, and Iran may change in many ways over the next decade. If the lifting of sanctions leads to a major integration of Iran into the world economy, it could change the calculus of Iran’s government. To return to a path of isolation may then be too costly to consider, and Iran would not restart its nuclear program in ten years.
There are many critics of Obama’s deal, both in the US and in Israel. There are also some Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, who probably are not too happy to see this change. Israel is opposed to this deal, but Israel would be opposed to any deal between the US and Iran that would in any way be acceptable to Iran. The American critics of Obama are mostly the same crowd that brought America the Iraq War disaster. They have no credibility. They offer no alternative that makes any sense. If the US were to walk away from this, the sanctions regime would collapse. It is only effective because the British, French, Germans, Russians, and Chinese were willing to go along with it. But if they see the US being completely unwilling to accept a reasonable deal, they will not support maintaining the sanctions, and what leverage the US has will collapse entirely. These critics really want another war in the Middle East, which any sane person knows would be a catastrophe for the US. It would also be a catastrophe for anyone hoping that the rising young generation in Iran, that wants Iran to be a normal country, will be able to effect real change in the next ten years. An attack on Iran would close that path off completely, even if it was just air raids.
The really interesting question going forward is not just Iran’s nuclear program, but the entire relationship between Iran and the US. Will there be a rapproachment of some sort? The US and Iran do share certain goals, such as the defeat of ISIS, while they are on opposite sides of the Syrian Civil War. Could the US and Iran create a diplomatic route to settle some of these issues in a way that creates stability and peace in the region to the benefit of both parties? Will there be full diplomatic recognition and a reopening of the US Embassy in Teheran in the next ten years? These possibilities will bear watching.