By Daryl Kimball. Originally published by the Arms Control Association.
This month, Congress faces a pivotal foreign policy choice with far-reaching consequences. Should it approve the July 14 nuclear agreement between six world powers and Iran because the deal promises to verifiably block all of Iran’s potential pathways to nuclear weapons or reject the agreement because it falls short of expectations and in the hope of a “better deal” down the line?
The choice should be clear. The deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is a very strong, very thorough nonproliferation agreement that will reverse Iran’s progress and stop it well short of nuclear weapons for a generation or more. Rejection of the agreement would transform a historic diplomatic breakthrough into a geostrategic disaster.
The deal requires a very substantial reconfiguration of Iran’s program so that Tehran cannot amass enough bomb-grade uranium for one weapon in less than 12 months for a period of 13 years or more. The deal accomplishes this vital objective by reducing the number of installed centrifuges from nearly 20,000 to 6,104 first-generation machines, the IR-1, of which only 5,060 would be allowed to enrich uranium and to no more than 3.67 percent uranium-235.
The nuclear deal also repurposes the underground Fordow enrichment site into a medical isotope production facility where no uranium can be present for a period of 15 years.
Under the deal, Iran must also limit its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to 300 kilograms for 15 years and accept very tough limits on its advanced centrifuge research and development for 10 years. In years 11 through 13 of the agreement, Iran has agreed to limit the possible deployment of any advanced machines so that the overall enrichment capacity remains equivalent to 5,060 IR-1s. Thus, until year 15 of the deal and perhaps longer, Iran’s breakout time will remain lengthy due to the 300-kilogram stockpile limit and the restraints on centrifuge capacity.
The deal also eliminates Iran’s ability to produce and separate plutonium for a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years by committing Iran to permanently modify the Arak reactor, refrain from reprocessing spent fuel, and ship spent fuel out of the country.
The agreement is effectively verifiable. It will put in place a multilayered monitoring regime across Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain, including centrifuge manufacturing sites for 20 years and uranium mining and milling sites for 25 years, and continuous monitoring of a larger number of nuclear and nuclear-related sites.
The accord requires Iran to implement and ratify the additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement. This will give international inspectors timely access to any Iranian facility of proliferation concern, including military sites. For 15 years, the agreement will ensure Iran cannot stall the inspectors’ access for more than 24 days without risking serious consequences.
In addition, the deal provides valuable, long-term insight into Iran’s nuclear plans. It puts in place safeguards that require early notification of design changes or new nuclear projects by Iran. The additional protocol and early-notification requirements will remain in place permanently.
The deal also requires that Iran cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conclude the agency’s long-running investigation of past Iranian activities that have possible military dimensions and permanently prohibits certain dual-use activities that could contribute to the design and development of a nuclear explosive device. That IAEA probe may not definitively resolve every concern about Tehran’s alleged past weaponization work, but without the deal, there will be growing uncertainty about whether Iran will renew research and development on weapons design.
Together, these rigorous limits and transparency measures will make it very likely that any future effort by Iran to develop nuclear weapons would be detected promptly, providing world powers with the opportunity to stop the effort.
Implementation of the deal will help head off nuclear arms competition in the region. A limited, highly monitored Iranian nuclear program poses far less of a threat to the region than an unconstrained program. Without this agreement, Saudi Arabia would be more likely to hedge its nuclear bets.
The alternative to the effective deal that has been negotiated is no deal. After more than two years of talks and UN Security Council approval of the deal, Iranian leaders would certainly spurn any effort designed to extract further concessions from them.
Congressional rejection of the deal would undercut U.S. negotiating partners and severely undermine U.S. credibility and diplomatic leverage. The necessary international support for Iran-related sanctions would melt away. Iran would be free to rapidly and significantly expand its capacity to produce weapons-grade material. The international community would be deprived of the ability to use enhanced inspections to detect a clandestine Iranian weapons effort. Ultimately, without a deal, the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran and the risk of a war over Iran’s program would increase.
The facts are clear. The Iran nuclear deal is a strong, verifiable agreement that benefits U.S. security and the security of its allies.