Lawrence Korb and Katherine Blakeley, Center for American Progress

April 2, 2015

As President Kennedy once said, “The United States should never negotiate out of fear, but should never fear to negotiate.” In laying the groundwork for a historic deal that will not only limit Iran's ability to become the world's ninth nuclear power, but prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, President Obama and his team have followed that sound advice. 

While the deal announced today is a pathway to a final agreement, and significant hurdles remain, it is a major accomplishment and thorough framework to build a final deal on.

This preliminary deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is more restrictive than any of the arms control agreements negotiated with the former Soviet Union, but it follows the same tenets of “trust, but verify” that President Reagan used.

Overall, Iran’s timeline to a nuclear weapon—now just 2 or 3 months—would be lengthened to around a year. As outlined, this deal would close down Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon through both highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium.

Iran would no longer produce or stockpile highly enriched uranium, a key prerequisite for a nuclear weapon, for at least the next 15 years. Under the terms of the deal, Iran will not enrich its uranium stocks to contain more than 3.67 percent of the fissile isotope uranium 235 (the level used in many commercial nuclear power reactors) and will reduce its current uranium stockpile by 97 percent, so it holds no more than 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent. To prevent Iran from starting to produce highly enriched uranium again, Iran has agreed to cut its number of centrifuges by two-thirds for the next 10 years, and to use exclusively first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1, rather than more efficient, newer models. Iran will also convert its facility at Fordow so that it can no longer be used to enrich uranium for at least 15 years. 

This deal also addresses the problematic heavy-water reactor at Arak, which could potentially be used to make weapons-grade plutonium. Under this framework, the original core of the heavy-water reactor at Arak will be removed and either destroyed or moved out of the country, and the reactor will be re-designed to that it will not be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Spent fuel from the re-designed reactor will also be shipped out of the country, and Iran will not build any additional heavy water reactors for 15 years.

An intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring regime—one that, in fact, appears to be unprecedented in its stringency—would ensure Iran’s compliance with the agreement. For the next 25 years, Iran will allow the IAEA to have access not only to its nuclear facilities, but also to its nuclear supply chain, from the uranium mines on up. 

In return for taking these steps, Iran will receive full sanctions relief, but only if it upholds its end of the bargain first. The US and EU sanctions will be suspended only after the IAEA has verified that Iran has implemented the steps discussed above. Most important, the architecture allowing the current sanctions will be maintained. If Iran violates the deal, the current level of sanctions would snap back into place immediately. 

Like any possible agreement, this one does not permanently eliminate the risk that Iran could eventually develop a nuclear weapon, but it is much better than the dismal alternatives. Any military approach, like bombing the Nantanz enrichment site, would only harden Iranian commitment to developing a weapon.The bad behavior of the Soviet Union didn’t stop President Reagan from pursuing comprehensive arms control negotiations with Secretary Gorbachev. Iran’s bad actions in the Middle East should not be an excuse to avoid this opportunity to freeze their nuclear weapons breakout capability. Letting this good deal pass would just leave Iran’s nuclear program unfettered, unmonitored, and unverified.