What You Need to Know About the Iranian Nuclear ‘Framework’

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Guy Benson | The deal is not done — as the Iranians are eager to remind everyone — because various particulars must still be hammered out between now and the end of June. The devil still lurks in crucial details, and potential sticking points abound. That said, the framework announced earlier today is more specific that many had expected. It contains elements that both sides will point to as meaningful wins, though Iran appears to have gotten the better of the agreement on the whole. Based on a State Department “fact sheet” summary — worded, unsurprisingly, to reassure skeptical Americans — and other reporting, here’s what we know:

What Iran Gets:
(1) An active nuclear program with international legitimacy: The Obama administration’s original goal at the outset of these talks was to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program; the Washington Post’s editors write that the White House’s stance has since “evolved into a plan to tolerate and temporarily restrict [Iran’s nuclear] capability.” Their infrastructure stays intact. They don’t have to shut down any existing nuclear sites, including the ones they illegally developed in secret.

(2) Thousands of operational centrifuges: Despite agreeing to effectively uninstall (but not destroy) roughly two-thirds of their centrifuges (although that statistic is actually inflated), Iran is permitted to keep 6,100 on line, with just over 5,000 actively enriching low-grade uranium. The US’ reported initial aim was to reduce this number to between 500 and 1,500. Hundreds of centrifuges (sans uranium) will continue to spin in Iran’s once-covert, difficult-to-penetrate Fordow mountain facility, which was discovered by Western intelligence agencies in 2009.  Iran says it will convert the facility into a nuclear “research” center, used for purely peaceful purposes.

(3) Expiration dates on restrictions: Virtually all of the major Western-imposed restrictions on Iran’s program “sunset” after a period of 10 to 15 years.  Iran’s chief negotiator described these limitations as temporary, lasting only “for a period of time.”  These are gigantic, consequential concessions. President Obama confirmed these points in his Rose Garden statement this afternoon, but Sec. Kerry later told reporters that there was “no sunset” in the deal.  Kerry may have been referring to the IAEA inspections regime, which does not appear to have any expiration date, meaning that Iran has, in theory, agreed to perpetual inspections over an unlimited time horizon.

(4) Major sanctions relief: Crucially, all American and international nuclear-based sanctions against Iran are to be lifted immediately upon an initial IAEA (the UN’s nuclear watchdog) affirmation that Tehran has so far lived up to its end of the bargain.  Kerry stated that the exact timing of this major event is still under discussion, but if it goes through, Iran will receive immense sanctions relief in exchange for going along with the program at its earliest stages.  There does not appear to be any phase-in of sanctions reductions over time, contingent on continued Iranian compliance.  This would be an enormous boon to Iran’s economy (freeing up cash for the regime to fund its continued malfeasance around the world), with Western “strings attached” getting severed very early on.  In addition to the sanctions, existing anti-Iran UN resolutions will be ripped up.  They would be extremely challenging to re-impose, for reasons discussed below.

(5) No action on other abuses and rogue programs: The regime’s sponsorship and direct facilitation of terrorism, malignant meddling in the region, egregious human rights abuses, and rogue missile program are all untouched by this agreement.  Obama acknowledged all of these ongoing sins in his statement, noting that US sanctions attached to the regime’s other bad behavior will remain in place.  America is cutting a deal with a regime that it admits is still engaging in international lawlessness and terrorism on a massive scale.

What America and the West Get:
(1) A relatively robust-sounding inspections/verification regime: Again, this might have been what Kerry meant when he was boasting about the deal’s lack of a “sunset.”  In fact, really important parts of the agreement would expire after just ten years, but it seems as though the inspections aren’t among them.  We’ll see if indefinite, unlimited inspections makes the final cut of this still-unwritten “deal.”  It appears for now that by accepting the IAEA’s so-called “additional protocol,” Iran has effectively agreed in principle to allow “snap,” or unannounced, inspections.  They’ve also granted international inspectors access to known and suspected nuclear sites.

(2) Limiting Iran’s enrichment to low levels, with rudimentary technology: For now, that is.  These limitations start to go away after 10 years, with others following five years on.  The discussed restrictions would apply to the number of centrifuges enriching uranium, the important enrichment levels (which determine whether nuclear materials can be used in a bomb), and the sophistication of centrifuges being used and developed by Tehran.

(3) A lengthened Iranian nuclear “breakout” period: At present, Iran is estimated to be two-to-three months away from achieving “breakout” (the process of enriching enough nuclear material to the necessary level of purity to make the bomb).  The terms of this framework would extend Tehran’s breakout period to one year.  That’s an improvement that would theoretically allow the world community extra time to identify and punish any Iranian subterfuge.  Why “theoretically”? Stay tuned.

(4) Iran reduces its current stockpile of nuclear materials:  In addition to cutting its number of operational centrifuges, Iran agrees to scale back its stockpile of existing low-enriched uranium from 10,000 kg to 300 kg.  The West insisted upon removing that stockpile from the country, but the Iranians started resisting that course of action as a deal-breaker in the last few days.  The State Department’s summary doesn’t make clear what happens to the nuclear material in question.  Does it get shipped out of Iran?  Does it get diluted by international monitors?  Unclear.

Outstanding Problems and Concerns:
Well, let’s start with Iranian officials’ various triumphant pronouncements, including throwing serious shade at the State Department’s “fact sheet,” which is dismissed as “spin.”  Which of its elements does Tehran view as illegitimate or misleading? One supposes that Kerry and company will find out in the next few months, as the nuclear clock ticks away, of course:
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Beyond that, the agreement appears to punt on the important question of how Iran will address concerns about previous alleged military applications of their nuclear program, which the IAEA has been insisting they do for some time.  “Coming clean” about past activities a developments is an important step in ensuring that the international community can effectively monitor Iran’s nuclear progress, or lack thereof.  How this gets resolved is another TBD component of the “understanding.”  Also, let’s say Iran were to violate the terms of a finalized deal (as they did with the interim deal, which was dismissed as a “mistake” by the Obama administration).  Then what?  Then, in theory, the international community could quickly reimpose “snap back” sanctions, and consider other options — including even harsher sanctions, or military action.  But this would require a difficult-to-achieve consensus at the UN Security Council, with always-looming vetoes resting in the hands of the Chinese, and…Putin’s Russia, which rarely misses a chance to frustrate American designs and embarrass our leaders.  And this all assumes the vaunted international community would even be able to agree that Iran was cheating at all.  These disputes could drag out for long periods of time, experts warn, presenting logistical and geopolitical delays of which Tehran would no doubt take full advantage.   In other words, reinstating lapsed sanctions and taking corrective action against will be a laborious, improbable undertaking.  Iran also knows that it doesn’t necessarily need to push its luck with dramatic breaches; the regime can cheat at the margins, and wait out certain restrictions in the deal, after which they’d be legally free to move ahead with an extensive nuclear program, the existence of which had been effectively blessed by the West.  The Israelis, who have the most to lose at the hands of an intensely anti-Semitic nuclear-armed Mullahocracy, are, shall we say, alarmed

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Finally, a few notes on President Obama’s Rose Garden remarks, after which he took no questions: He gave a short history lesson about recent US-Iranian relations, correctly stating that stepped-up sanctions hurt Iran’s economy and forced them to the negotiating table.  He didn’t mentioned that he’d strenuously resisted those very sanctions.  This is a reflection on his judgment.  Obama went on to claim that the current interim agreement has worked flawlessly, despite cynics’ complaints when it was unveiled. This brag ignores an inconvenient little “mishap” that we oughtn’t worry about.  Let’s also recall that a major reason that additional sanctions were slapped on Iran in the first place is that they were caught cheating on another international nuclear treaty — because that’s what they do.  They cheat.  The State Department’s fact sheet assures us that even when various provisions of the new would-be deal expire, Iran would still be bound by that same treaty (NPT) it has already breached.  In an attempt to fortify the mullah’s good intentions on the nuclear front, Obama cited a religious order, or “fatwa,” issued by Ayatollah Khamenei that forbids nuclear weapons. Two problems: The fatwa doesn’t actually exist, and Iran has a history of ignoring their own fatwas in order to achieve their military goals.  Obama’s reference to this nonexistence edict is misleading and naive.

Obama also stated his administration’s intention of “fully briefing” Congress on any eventual deal, and to seek out a “constructive role” for them to play.  Will the president deign to “allow” a coequal branch of the United States government to vote on what amounts to a foreign treaty, as required by the Constitution?  He didn’t say.  Perhaps encouragingly, he warned Congress not to kill the deal (which may signal that a vote will be held, as key leaders on the Hill are pushing hard), lest the failure of international diplomacy be “blamed” on America.  He, of course, resurrected his straw man that opposition to a very flawed deal is tantamount to adopting a pro-war stance.  He basically said straight-up that only a negotiated agreement, not harsh sanctions or military action, can solve the Iranian nuclear problem — which at the very least undermines is own leverage moving forward.  Last but not least, Obama is asking the country to trust him that this “good deal” is “by far” our best option.  This is a man who repeatedly made false assertions to Americans about his healthcare overhaul, was humiliated and routed by adversaries in the Syrian ‘red line’ debacle, and green-lit and (attempted to whitewash) an unpopular (and unlawful) deal trading five top-level terrorists back to the Taliban in exchange for an accused American deserter.  His credibility on foreign policy is quite low, as is the American public’s overall opinion of Iran’s trustworthiness and intentions.