July 06, 2015

CNAS Press Note: Key Elements of a Successful Nuclear Agreement with Iran

By Ilan Goldenberg

Washington, July 6 – In advance of the anticipated deal between the P5+1 and Iran over that country’s nuclear program, Center for a New American Security Middle East Security Program Director Ilan Goldenberg has written an new Press Note, “Key Elements of a Successful Nuclear Agreement.”

The full Press Note is below: 

With negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 working around the clock in Vienna, we should expect to see an agreement as early as tomorrow, but possibly not for another few days or a week. While the Obama administration would prefer to beat the July 9th Congressional deadline, which would trigger a 60-day review, this deadline will not drive the timetable for a final agreement. Still, given how far the sides have come, it is unlikely that the negotiators will leave Vienna without a deal.

As we hit the homestretch of the negotiations, much gets lost in the debates over the technical details of an agreement. But there are four fundamental strategic questions that will lead to a successful agreement that deters Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. These are: 

  1. Will the agreement deter Iran from a nuclear breakout using existing facilities?
  2. Will the agreement deter Iran from covertly pursuing nuclear weapons?
  3. Will the agreement keep in place sufficient leverage to deter Iranian cheating?
  4. Will the agreement be implementable in the long-term?

1. Will the agreement deter Iran from pursuing an overt breakout using its existing facilities?

The limitations on the size of its enrichment program that Iran has reportedly agreed to should create a one-year breakout time for the first ten years of the agreement, and a shorter breakout time, perhaps six months, during years ten through fifteen. These timeframes are significantly longer than the two-to-three-month breakout time that Iran faces today, and  should create a sufficient window of vulnerability in which Iran is deterred from pursuing a nuclear weapon out of a fear that it would be quickly caught and stopped if it tried to “dash” to a bomb. It’s also important to note that these breakout times are based on worst case scenarios that assume Iran will dash to only one weapon, when in reality states typically start by dashing to a small nuclear weapons arsenal, which takes significantly longer.

2. Will the agreement deter Iran from covertly pursuing nuclear weapons?

The unprecedented cradle-to-grave inspections mechanisms on Iran’s nuclear program include: 25 years of access to Iranian uranium mining facilities; 20 years of access to centrifuge production facilities; the permanent ratification of the Additional Protocol; and a dedicated procurement channel that will make it exceedingly difficult for Iran to establish an entirely new secret production chain apart from its existing facilities. It is also important to note that when Iran cheated in the past under less stringent inspections, it was caught at both its Natanz and Fordow facilities long before either of those facilities became operational. Regarding Iran’s previous nuclear weapons research, it is not necessary to have a full and public confession of all its previous activity. What matters is that nuclear scientists and intelligence professionals monitoring Iran’s program have sufficient information about the past to be able to detect similar work in the future. After his last trip to Tehran, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano indicated that there is an agreement which could allow the IAEA to finish conducting its investigation by the end of the year, which is a positive sign, but the devil will be in the details.

3. Will the agreement keep in place sufficient leverage to deter Iranian cheating?

The agreement creates a structure whereby major sanctions relief is not granted until after Iran has taken significant steps that are very difficult to reverse. Perhaps the greater challenge will be the credibility of a long-term sanctions snap-back mechanism. The agreement will reportedly account for this challenge through a mechanism that does not allow Russia or China to block the re-imposition of sanctions in the UN Security Council. However, in the aftermath of an agreement, the Obama administration should work closely with Congress and international partners to form a clear understanding of what constitutes a violation of the agreement and develop mechanisms apart from the deal itself that would reimpose sanctions. Such an approach would create an additional layer of security and send a clear message to Tehran that there would be significant consequences for violating the deal.

4. Will the agreement be implementable in the long-term?

This is the greatest challenge, and one that is heavily dependent on the ability to build long-term bipartisan consensus in the United States for implementing the agreement. A future president is unlikely to abrogate the agreement, but if he or she is not truly committed to its implementation, and if insufficient senior-level attention and resources are dedicated to the effort, it could collapse over time, resulting in a fraying of the international consensus and Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. It is therefore vital in the aftermath of an agreement that supporters and opponents of the deal come together to pursue a series of steps, including legislation that would ensure robust implementation and allow even opponents of the agreement to say that while they oppose the deal, they support intensive congressional oversight. 

Mr. Goldenberg is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org or call 202-457-9409.

  • Ilan Goldenberg

    Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Ilan Goldenberg is Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is a foreign policy and defense expert with ext...