What You Need to Know About the Coming Deal With Iran

A deal to roll back and constrain Iran's nuclear program may come this week. Here is what you need to know about this historic agreement and its global implications.

On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of going on NPR's Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, who had some very important questions to ask about the Iran negotiations currently underway in Vienna. This Q&A is a modified version of our conversation.

At some point is this deadline going to actually mean something?

The negotiators are getting a little tired of Vienna. They are hoping that they can wrap the talks up by the end of the week; Friday morning is what many of us are expecting. We are very, very close to a deal. The negotiating teams have already solved most of the difficult problems. The ones remaining are tough, but easier than the enormously important issues they have already resolved.

Iran is demanding that the U.S. lift all its sanctions, including on the sale of arms and on the ballistic missile program. Is that on the table?

It is on the Iranian side of the table, but it's not going to happen. It would be completely unseemly to reach an agreement that will slash and freeze Iran's nuclear program -- and in return give them access to about $100 billion of their frozen funds -- and then immediately drop all restraints on their ability to buy arms and parts for missiles. It just won't fly, no pun intended.

The U.S. negotiators have let them know that. And the U.S. has gotten the other partners in the coalition negotiating with Iran -- the P5+1 -- to agree. There's been some disagreement over this. China and Russia have been more willing to lift the embargo now, but to keep the unity of the group they seem to have blocked against it, so I think Iran will back down from that demand and some gradual process may be worked out.

How much access will inspectors have to various sites. The word that has been added is "managed" access. How do you interpret that word?

All indications are that this will be the most intrusive regime ever negotiated. We are going to have eyes and ears everywhere, and that includes being able to go to some sensitive sites, including military sites where we suspect they have done work on nuclear weapons research in the past.

The Supreme Leader gave a speech a couple of weeks ago where he said that he would never allow inspections on these military facilities. But he added an adjective; "unconventional" inspections. And this is the art of diplomacy, defining what is conventional, what is "unconventional." We believe this problem actually has been solved.

As nonproliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick recently wrote:

The safeguards Additional Protocol, which Iran has agreed to implement, allows for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to take environmental samples anywhere in the country where there is reasonable suspicion of nuclear material- or nuclear fuel cycle-related activity taking place.

Military sites are not excluded from the sweeping provision of 'anywhere'. The Additional Protocol provides for what is called 'complementary access' by inspectors to sites in order to resolve questions relating to the correctness and completeness of a state's nuclear declaration.

IAEA access rights were amplified in the framework struck by the parties in Lausanne on 2 April. As the U.S. 'parameters' document puts it: 'Iran will be required to grant access to the IAEA to investigate suspicious sites or allegations of a covert enrichment facility, conversion facility, centrifuge production facility, or yellowcake production facility anywhere in the country.'

This is pretty standard operating procedure. As Mark points out, the procedure of "managed access" also comes from the Additional Protocol. Any inspected state can ask for arrangements for managed access for various reasons, including in order to protect proprietary or commercially sensitive information.

We understand that countries are a little sensitive to some sites. We are too. We don't allow inspectors to just waltz into our military facilities. In the end, inspectors will be able to go where they need to go, when they need to go.

That's not unfettered, which means you can go anywhere at any time, whenever you want?

It's not unfettered, but the only way you get unfettered inspections is when you occupy a country. After the Iraq war, for example, when that nation was forced to do this. Iran says it is willing to be transparent. They have actually been giving a lot on this front, but they want to maintain normal procedures. They don't want to do anything that other countries aren't required to do. This arrangement allows them to do that. It will be inspections agreed to under the standard protocols. I think we'll be hearing a lot more about that after the deal.

IAEA inspectors were quoted in The New York Times as saying the the job was so daunting that the inspectors frequently describe themselves as overwhelmed, monitoring a modern nuclear infrastructure with Betamax era equipment. Is that what we're dealing with?

This is what is going to change. The new agreement will rev everything up to twenty-first century technology. As Tim Mak wrote in a recent piece for The Daily Beast:

The International Atomic Energy Agency can field a sophisticated array of gadgetry to detect if Iran is departing from its obligations: fiber-optic seals on equipment that can signal the IAEA if they are cut; infrared satellite imagery that can track down hidden reactors; environmental sensors that can detect minute signs of nuclear particles; hardened cameras built to withstand tampering and radiation.

These aren't Game of Thrones wax seals on parchment paper. These are fiber optic seals where, if they're tampered with, they send a signal back to headquarters immediately, instantaneously. You no longer require, as these inspectors were talking about, old technology where there'd be sensors or cameras, and they'd have to inspect it weeks later to see if they had been tampered with.

As Andreas Persbo, a verification and compliance expert, has said, "with the present technologies that will be applied, you introduce an extremely fine level of monitoring into Iranian facilities. You could be very assured that the IAEA will detect even marginal, inconsequential breaches or movements from what the Iranians declare that they will do."

The inspections right now are extensive, but still somewhat limited. This new agreement will basically take the limits off. We're gonna be tracking Iran's uranium from the time it comes out of the mine all the way through the process until it ends up as a gas in cylinders in warehouses. And if the end product weighs less than the uranium that came out of the mine, well then where did it go? That's why you're doing these inspections, to make sure that none of the materials are being diverted to secret facilities.

Iran has said that its nuclear program is for civilian/peaceful purposes. Can we believe them, is that true?

I don't think so. I believe it may be true now, but the publicly available evidence, though largely circumstantial, is pretty overwhelming that throughout the eighties and nineties and up until 2003 Iran was conducting research on nuclear weapons.

This is a program that began under the Shah, our ally. He started doing the work on this, he built the first facilities. It ended when the Iranian revolution came in 1979, but the Supreme Leader then started it up during the Iran-Iraq War. Iran was being attacked by Iraq with chemical munitions, thousands were being killed, and the world wasn't doing anything about it. That's when he started up the nuclear program again, according to the best intelligence we have.

It looks like they ended it around 2003, when some of the facilities were discovered and a spotlight was shone on it. We want to get at the history, we want to understand exactly what they did, who did it, who was involved, and that's why you need these inspections. That's why you have to be able to go to some of these military facilities, you have to be able to interview the scientists, get the history to make sure that all that nuclear weapons work has ended and that what you have left is purely the peaceful program that Iran claims it is.

Can Iran be trusted on this issue?

No, I don't think so. I don't trust Iran.

Trust but verify?

I think it's mistrust and verify, and that's the whole point here. I don't trust the Iranians. They have a history of hiding their facilities from us. We have a history of discovering their facilities. There are plenty of Iranians who don't trust other Iranians. So this is not about what we think their intentions are or whether we have a good relationship with their foreign minister or president. It's about being able to strike a very detailed deal and verify it.

This agreement is going to be dozens of pages long, eighty pages or so but with incredible precision built in, more than almost any other agreement I've seen. A big part of it will be setting up a verification and monitoring system so if Iran tries to sneak out or creep out or break out, we'll catch them.

Is it important then to keep the P5+1 together and on the same page, to ensure that there is not just an agreement but that they abide by it?

This is a key point. Even at the same time as we're having big differences with Russia over Ukraine, for example, Russia has been cooperating on this. China has been cooperating also,and that has made a big difference.

The sanctions that helped bring Iran to the table, are not just U.S. sanctions, not just our ban on trade with Iran. We don't really trade with Iran. It's been the Europeans and the Asian allies and the rest of the world that has tightened this sanctions net, that has made it very, very difficult for Iran to do business.

Their oil exports, for example, dropped in half, the value of their currency dropped by sixty percent, things like that. They want out of that, that's why they're negotiating. In order to keep that pressure on and in order to keep that sanctions regime in place so that if Iran does cheat you can punish them, you can snap back the inspections, you've got to keep the unity. You've got to keep the Russians, the Europeans, the Chinese all together. So far we've been very successful in doing that.

Who do you think needs this agreement more? Iran, the U.S., P5+1? It seems like there are a lot of reputations on the line here.

Iran desperately needs this deal. The sanctions regime put in place by the U.S., U.N. and EU has devastated the Iranian economy. Sanctions have been essential in pressuring the Iranians to come to the table and negotiate away key parts of their nuclear infrastructure. As a CRS report by Kenneth Katzman demonstrates:

  • Sanctions caused Iran to suffer its first gross domestic product (GDP) contraction in two decades -- about 5% contraction in 2013... Iran's economy is 15%-20% smaller than it would have been had sanctions not been imposed. Many Iranian businesses have failed, the number of nonperforming loans held by Iranian banks increased to about 15%-30%, and many employees in the private sector have gone unpaid or underpaid. The unemployment rate is about 20%.
  • Sanctions drove Iran's crude oil sales down about 60% from the 2.5 mbd of sales in 2011, reducing Iran's crude oil sales revenue from100 billion in 2011 to about35 billion in 2013 and even less in 2014... The JPA caps Iran's crude oil exports at about 1.1 mbd.
  • Sanctions caused the value of the rial on unofficial markets to decline about 56% from January 2012 until January 2014. The unofficial rate is currently about 37,000 to the dollar, and the government has repeatedly adjusted the official rate (currently about 27,000 to the dollar) to reduce the spread between it and the unofficial rate.
  • The drop in value of the currency caused inflation to accelerate during 2011-2013. The Iranian Central Bank acknowledged an inflation rate of 45% in July 2013, but many economists asserted that the actual inflation rate was between 50% and 70%. The sanctions relief of the JPA has helped reduce the inflation rate to about 30% currently.

Mr. Rouhani, the president of Iran, was elected on an economic reform package. But in order to do that, he has to end the sanctions, and in order to do that, he has to make a deal. He's up for reelection in two years; there are important elections next year in the parliament and their government bodies. He needs this deal in order to kick start the economy, in order to aid his political faction in the complex Byzantine Iranian political system.

But there's another reason. The Middle East is in a chaotic situation. We don't live there. Iran does. They're in the middle of this. They feel besieged by the chaos around them, and they are intervening in many of these conflicts; they say to protect their interests, while we look at it as stoking the conflicts. They need to break out of the diplomatic isolation they're in and reengage the West, the U.S. in particular, to try to find some solutions for the instability in their region.

Those are two strong motivators for getting this deal done.

Does President Obama need this deal for his legacy?

This would undoubtedly be a major achievement for the president. It will be, most likely, his major foreign policy accomplishment. But the president's on a roll lately. He's racked up some big legacy items just in the past couple of weeks. Would this help with his legacy? Yes. Does he need it? No.

How many votes needed in Congress to approve an Iran agreement?

Congress passed a legislation called the Corker-Cardin Bill, after the two Senate authors, that established an oversight process. This executive agreement is not a treaty, so it doesn't need a two-thirds majority to be approved.

But Congress can still kill the deal by suspending the President's ability to lift the sanctions. Remember, part of this deal is that Iran agrees to stop its program, dismantle most of its equipment, open up for inspections, and in return, we lift the sanctions on them. There is a major campaign underway to convince Congress to block the President from lifting the sanctions, thus killing the deal.

Congress may vote this summer on a resolution of disapproval. The President will certainly veto that. Congressional leaders will need two-thirds of the members to vote to overturn his veto. If this deal is as strong as most think it will be, it is unlikely they will cross that threshold.

Is there a timetable for lifting the sanctions depending on what Iran does?

Yes, but we don't know what that timetable is yet. That's one of the sticking points, the four or five points now being resolved in the last few days. The actual sequencing of how that is going to work involves a diplomatic dance. We don't want to lift sanctions until we're sure Iran is implementing the deal, actually taking apart the equipment, and they don't want to take apart the equipment until they know they're going to get sanctions relief. So, you have to time this thing very delicately.

What about Iran's support for terrorism, human rights record, it's recognition of Israel? Is that in any way part of these negotiations?

These are deeply troubling aspects of Iran's regional behavior. This is not a pleasant regime. Iran executes about a thousand people a year, more than any other country in the world. They support Hamas and Hezbollah, who are foes of our ally, Israel. We disapprove of a lot of Iran's behavior in the region, but that's not what this negotiation is about.

As I wrote earlier this year, "Iran's deplorable record is not a reason to walk away. It is the very reason we must hammer out an iron-clad agreement to ensure Iran cannot get its hands on a nuclear bomb."

We negotiate with untrustworthy or "evil" governments all of the time. One of the greatest achievements of the 20th century was our ability to work with the Soviet Union, a country that Reagan called an "evil empire," to avoid nuclear annihilation. That moniker was well deserved. Stalin's purges murdered millions of Russians. Political opponents were rounded up, given show trials and executed. They were sent to gulags where they were worked to death or simply disappeared. His successors supported scores of groups fighting against America and our allies.

But cooperation with the Soviets not only prevented a nuclear war, it also led to a series of security, economic and political agreements that helped stabilize the world and led to the gradual demise of the Soviet empire.

When Nixon toasted Mao in Beijing in 1972, the Chinese Communist Party was arming the North Vietnamese, who had killed over 2,000 American soldiers in Vietnam the previous year. But the relationship they brokered shifted global relations and resulted in dramatic changes in China that have made better lives for hundreds of millions of Chinese.

Negotiating with corrupt, brutal and often despicable governments is necessary to prevent even greater evils. This time, we are doing it to make sure that a dangerous regime does not get the bomb. Certainly that is an endeavor that is worth our effort.

If we try to load every single one of our concerns into this negotiation, we will break the table. You can't possibly resolve all those issues at once, so we are taking care of the most threatening, which is the nuclear program. As bad as Iran's behavior is, it might be worse if they actually got a nuclear weapon. And then we'll see if this opens up new channels of communication, and avenues for addressing these other issues.

If there is a good deal, or a good enough deal, over time that will have some kind of moderating influence on the Iranian government, on its behavior in its neighborhood and also on domestic issues as well?

I do think that, and I'm informed by human rights activists and civic activists inside Iran.

Research conducted by experts from the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, has shown that Iranians themselves believe that a nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers will lead to internal political and cultural reforms in Iran. A recent report shows that "sixty-one percent [of Iranians] believe a deal would enable political and cultural reforms, as a politically strengthened Rouhani administration could now turn its focus to such issues."

The Executive Director of the Campaign, Hadi Ghaemi, believes that the nuclear agreement will "will have the potential to validate voices of moderation and embolden those who have called for a loosening of the political and cultural environment in Iran." Indeed, the Campaign asserts that, "every poll undertaken has confirmed Iranian society's strong support for the nuclear negotiations, and the resounding electoral win of the centrist Hassan Rouhani reflects society's desire for greater political and social freedoms."

Activists inside Iran see it as a beginning. As a way to empower Rouhani, who campaigned not just on economic stimulation, but on opening up freedoms for the Iranian people, and establishing a more moderate government. They think this will empower him and could be the opening that they're looking for.

That's why you saw these massive crowds greet even the interim agreement in April. Foreign Minister Zarif was mobbed on the way home from the airport not because they reached some complicated agreement on inspections and the nuclear program, but because they see this as a ray of hope, the beginning of change in the regime. Whether that will happen, we don't know. That will require a lot of struggle. But yes, I think this deal could be the beginning of big change inside Iran, and in Iran's relationship with us and its neighbors, including Israel.

Are the U.S. and its negotiating partners hypocrites in these negotiations? In that all of them possess nuclear weapons, and no one has called Israel on their nuclear arsenal?

This is a point the Iranians make quite often. The five permanent members of the Security Council all have nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Russia have thousands of nuclear weapons, about ninety six percent of all the weapons in the world. So this is a point.

Israel has somewhere around one hundred weapons in an undeclared arsenal. This is also a point.

But there are other means of addressing these arsenals, in the United Nations and in the Nonproliferation Treaty process, but we're not talking about those now, we're talking about the Iranian program. The Iranians swore when they signed the Nonproliferation Treaty, that they would not undertake nuclear weapons research. We caught them building secret facilities, in violation of the treaty. That's why sanctions were imposed, that's why we are talking about it now.

Is it an hypocrisy problem? Do we have a problem, as long as we are maintaining thousands of weapons and telling Iran they can't have one? Yes, but the legal and diplomatic arguments outweigh that at this point, and they're on our side. We are going to stop this program -- and that may create the diplomatic and political space for us to further reduce our own obsolete nuclear arsenal.

If Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon and the deal doesn't happen, is there any way to stop them? Does anyone really expect the U.S. to start a war with Iran by bombing their nuclear installations?

That's why this diplomatic deal is so promising. It's not without risk, and there are going to be problems with it, but it is far better than all the alternatives.

If the deal falls apart, especially if the U.S. is seen as the reason it falls apart - if Congress kills this deal - the sanctions regime will more or less collapse. Other countries aren't going to follow our lead. It doesn't matter if the Senate passes new sanctions. The other negotiating powers aren't going to go along with it.

This does not just mean Russia and China. It is also Japan and South Korea and Europe; the people who buy Iran's oil. And that means that Iran's economy will start to recover. The inspections regimes that are in place will end. The restraints on Iran's program will end. They will start installing thousands more centrifuges, enriching thousands of pounds of uranium and getting closer and closer to a bomb.

Whether they cross that line or not, they will clearly have the ability to build a weapon in a very short amount of time. That increases the risk of military action.

If Israel attacks Iran, if we strike Iran, it won't be a neat, little overnight strike, or two or three days of strikes. This will be weeks of bombardment against their hardened nuclear facilities, their air defenses, their ports and airfields. It will kill thousands of Iranians. It will be the beginning of a major war with Iran.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says that "if you think the war in Iraq was hard, an attack on Iran would, in my opinion, be a catastrophe." That is what we would be looking at; a major new war in the Middle East. That would be a disaster for the U.S., for Israel, and for the entire region.

How do you respond to critics like Charles Krauthammer?

Charles Krauthammer has made a lot of hay over the fact that President Obama is "giving away the store" to the Iranians. That the president is conceding too much and all but ensuring that this agreement "would provide a predictable path to an Iranian bomb."

He is one of the most widely read columnists in the country, and he is absolutely wrong. Just like he was wrong about his rosy predictions of what would happen when we invaded Iraq. He was a cheerleader for going to war with Iraq. He has not been upset by the disaster that war turned out to be, but by the fact that we left.

This agreement with Iran really brings to the forefront a clash of worldviews. What is the U.S. role in the world? How should we be conducting our foreign relations? Should we be negotiating with countries like Iran?

Krauthammer says absolutely not. His touchstone is still WWII. For him, every negotiation is Munich. Every compromise is appeasement. The only victory he wants were if Iran were to unconditionally surrender the way Japan did on the deck of the battleship Missouri. So he doesn't want us to leave Iraq or Afghanistan, and he wants us to go to war with Iran. He's argued for this, that there's a military solution here. He's joined by neoconservative figures such as Bill Crystal at the Weekly Standard.

They make the charge that somehow this will pave the way for Iran to get a nuclear weapon, which couldn't be further from the truth. This agreement will block every way for Iran to get a nuclear weapon. If they cheat we'll know it, we'll catch them, and we'll punish them.

How much do you think the U.S.'s relationship with other Middle East entities affects the negotiations?

There are many people, like me, who do look at this bigger picture and argue that U.S. national security would be served if we had more options in the region. We want to have relations with Iran, we want to have a working relationship that would help us in the battle against our common enemies, like ISIS. ISIS is a sworn enemy of Iran's. Iranian forces are in Iraq right now, on the ground, battling ISIS, in some of the same battles where we're doing airstrikes. So you can see that there's an overlap of strategic objectives in the region, in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.

But that is not what is guiding the negotiations. Every indication is that those considerations are walled off from these negotiations. The administration isn't counting on this deal benefitting smoother relations with Iran. If it does, that's a plus, as long as it's on our terms, but that's not the reason we're doing this. We're doing this because if it works, it will stop the number one proliferation threat in the world, and that is the possibility of Iran getting a nuclear weapon and what that would mean for our ally, Israel, and for the region.

This could be a landmark agreement. It deserves our serious consideration. We should not let partisan politics or the agendas of special interest group block a major advance for the national security of our nation, our allies and the world.