The Iranian Nuclear Deal Is Working

That goal has now been effectively reached. The IAEA report last week confirms that Iran cut its stock of medium enriched uranium by three-quarters. It has completely diluted half its stock down to low enriched uranium, and it has converted half of the remaining amount into reactor fuel, all ahead of schedule. It would be extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming to reverse these processes.

In short, Netanyahu’s bomb has been drained. His red line has been implemented.  Even if Iran were to break the deal today, it would take it many months to make enough uranium for one bomb, and the world would see them doing it. Nor is there any indication that Iran is about to break off negotiations. In fact, the prospect that negotiators can work out a final agreement “now may be better than 50-50,” said David Petraeus, former CIA director and former U.S. Central Command commander, “which is not something we would have said even a few weeks ago, much less months ago.” According to Think Progress, Petraeus said at a talk at Harvard University, “I’m actually starting to believe that an agreement is possible and it could be that it’s possible before this particular six-month deadline expires,” referring to the target of concluding an agreement by July 20.

More potentially encouraging news came with comments on April 19 by a senior Iranian official that the negotiators had “virtually resolved” the issue of Iran’s production of plutonium, another material that can be used in a nuclear bomb. Iran appears ready to redesign its controversial Arak research reactor in such a way that it could still produce radioactive isotopes for medical and other purposes, but not significant quantities of plutonium. 

Scientists Frank von Hippel, Alexander Glaser, and Zia Mian just last month published alternative designs that could assure that Iran could not quickly make plutonium for a bomb from the reactor. It may be that Iran has now agreed to such plans. Details on this and other technical issues will be worked out when experts from the seven negotiating states meet in New York on May 5.

This progress, though, does not appear to satisfy some. Sen. Robert Menendez criticized Secretary of State John Kerry at a Senate hearing last week for seeking a final agreement that “only” ensured that it would take Iran at least six to 12 months to make the material for one bomb—even though that is much more that Netanyahu seemed to hope for two years ago. Some Israeli officials have moved their red line, too, now calling for the complete elimination of Iran’s nuclear program and not just its monitored confinement. Israeli Minister of Intelligence Yeval Steinitz called anything short of a razing of all Iranian nuclear facilities, “unacceptable” and “a surrender.”

In reality, it is hard to see any practical alternative to a negotiated deal. Failure of the talks, particularly if the U.S. was seen to be at fault, would lead to an unraveling of the sanctions. The U.S. and Israel would be faced with an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program that could lead to either an Iranian nuclear bomb or a major war in the Middle East.

For these reasons, consensus is growing among experts that, as a recent RAND conference framed it, U.S. policymakers must start preparing for “the days after a deal.” RAND analysts Dalia Dassa Kaye and Jeffrey Martini conclude in a new study, “While a final nuclear deal with Iran is not likely to be enthusiastically embraced by key U.S. partners such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, our analysis suggests that both countries are likely to adapt to the new reality of a deal rather than actively attempt to derail it.”

Sometimes, you just have to take “yes” for an answer.

Presented by

Joe Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund and the author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late.

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