The agreement reached Thursday to limit Iran’s nuclear program is more restrictive and more specific than analysts expected. It remains to be seen how negotiators fill out many important details, whether the US Congress will move to undermine the deal, and whether Iran will stick to it. But as these issues play out in the weeks and months ahead, it is important to keep in mind just how extraordinary this deal is.
There are three reasons why this accord was unlikely: the record of US intelligence, the state of US policy when President Obama took office, and the innovative safeguards applied.
Behind President Obama’s declaration that the Iran deal “cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb” is a vast, complex, and largely successful intelligence effort. Gaining technical information about a highly secretive program in a foreign country is an extremely difficult task for intelligence agencies that sometimes have limited personnel to devote to the problem. Moreover, US presidents have not always been as invested in preventing nuclear proliferation as Obama; at times, a lack of presidential attention has allowed the intelligence effort to slacken.
Historically, US intelligence on foreign nuclear weapons programs has not been very good. Out of the 17 major nuclear programs, intelligence agencies provided the president with accurate estimates only twice, in Brazil and Pakistan. In nine cases, they overestimated the program; in five, they underestimated the proliferator’s capabilities. In the case of China, intelligence agencies gave accurate warning of its first test in 1964 but couldn’t tell where the fissile material for the test was coming from.
We won’t know the exact level of knowledge that US intelligence agencies possess about the Iranian program for many years, but several signs suggest that they have outdone themselves. For instance, intelligence has been good enough that agencies could, in 2007, judge with high confidence that Iran halted the military aspects of its program in 2003. Moreover, Western intelligence agencies repeatedly detected and exposed hidden nuclear facilities and identified and tracked specific shipments of prohibited equipment. Though these steps are the absolute firmament of good nonproliferation policy, US presidents have rarely had access to this quality of information.
Second, it is important to remember how far the Obama administration has come on Iran. When Senator Obama was running for president in 2007, the Bush administration refused to begin talks with Iran to limit its nuclear program until Iran suspended uranium enrichment. As a result, Iran was free to make steady progress toward a nuclear weapon. Senator Obama made it a centerpiece of his campaign to offer to meet with leaders of adversarial countries like Iran and Cuba without precondition, a stance that at times cost him political points. In the summer of 2007, Senator Hillary Clinton called the proposal “irresponsible and frankly naïve” (though she also advocated negotiations with Iran).
Since the election, US diplomats have gradually expanded the scope of their meetings with Iranian officials. The opening meetings came in the summer of 2012, when then-Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan met with Iranian officials to determine whether serious talks would be possible. The following year, talks began in earnest, and Secretary of State John Kerry has invested enormous amounts of personal attention in the process.
Third, the terms of the deal are unprecedented in historical perspective. In acceding to the parameters released Thursday, Iran will accept the most intrusive inspections regime ever placed on a nuclear program. The parameters for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in many ways exceed expectations. Not even a week ago, the best analysis of a prospective agreement assumed that Iran would be allowed to maintain 6,500 centrifuges. Instead, the negotiators managed to cut that number to just over 5,000 primitive centrifuges. More advanced centrifuges will be removed and monitored.
Yet, numbers of centrifuges are not the most important or the most interesting part of the deal. The proposed final deal has promised IAEA inspectors access to Iranian uranium mines and mills for 25 years, as well as to facilities where Iran produces and stores centrifuge rotors. Moreover, the parties have agreed to establish a unique procurement channel to “monitor and approve, on a case by case basis,” Iranian purchases of sensitive technology. In short, the agreement not only safeguards Iran’s troubling activities at existing facilities: It will sharply limit Iran’s ability to sneak out of IAEA safeguards.
There is much that needs to be worked out in the following three months. Negotiators will have to conclude a package of specific safeguards, on the terms of the IAEA’s access, on the modifications to the Arak reactor, on a plan on phased sanctions relief, and on measures to address weaponization of nuclear material. At any point, the deal could collapse.
But in accepting the deal and communicating it to their domestic audience, Iranian leaders have already taken a major step. They have agreed that Iran can be strong, secure, and prosperous under a deal and now have a stake in the negotiations. Much had to go right to get the world to this point, but the agreement serves as strong evidence that persistence and tough diplomacy can create opportunities that mere obstinacy will never see.