It's fortuitous that a nuclear agreement with Iran was announced just days before Thanksgiving, a time when football crowds out foreign policy. Summarized in a single, simple bottom line, the interim deal announced on Sunday will roll back Iran’s nuclear drive from our red zone to the 30-yard line. As Chart 1 illustrates, over the past four years, without any constraints on its nuclear program, Iran has marched relentlessly toward our goal line.
As Chart 2 shows, the agreement, if implemented, will push Iran back from our 10-yard line, out of our red zone, to the 30-yard line. Having an opponent 30 yards away from one’s goal line is not comfortable, but it is nonetheless a lot better than having that opponent be just several yards shy of the end zone.
The terms of the interim deal call for Iran to stop all enrichment of uranium to the 20-percent level. Moreover, they require Iran to eliminate its stockpile of almost a bomb’s worth of 20 percent-enriched material accumulated since 2010. For many observers, this may seem like a technical distinction without a difference, since Iran will continue operating centrifuges that produce 3.5 percent-enriched uranium, adding to a stockpile that is already sufficient, after further enrichment, for nearly seven bombs.
But the difference really matters. When a state has enriched uranium to 3.5 percent (the level used to fuel a civilian nuclear power plant), it has done seven-tenths of the work to produce bomb-usable material (which is 90-percent enriched). When that material is enriched further to 20 percent, nine-tenths of the work required to make bomb-usable material has been completed.