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Be wary, but give Iran nuclear deal a chance

By Dale R. Herspring

At last we have an agreement with Iran that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry consider a positive step in limiting Iran’s march toward a nuclear bomb. Others, convinced that Iran will cheat, are not so optimistic.

I am somewhere in the middle. I don’t trust Iran, but the agreement, which was negotiated in Geneva by the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, has some good points. Much will depend on how serious Iran thinks Obama is in warning that if Iran doesn’t comply, “everything remains on the table,” including military force.

This agreement is a first step toward a more comprehensive nuclear pact to be negotiated in the coming months. It reverses progress at all of Iran’s nuclear facilities. In addition, Iran has agreed to the presence of international nuclear inspectors, most likely from the Inter-national Atomic Energy Agency. 

The agreement also limits the installation of new centrifuges, which are critical to the enrichment of uranium. Tehran will not use the thousands of centrifuges it has installed but has not yet put to work enriching uranium.  This means half of the 18,000 centrifuges it already has installed.

Iran also would agree to halt the production of 20-percent enriched uranium, which can be converted to the kind of highly enriched uranium that can be put in bombs. Western ex-perts estimate that Iran now has 450 pounds of weapon-ized uranium that will have to be neutralized. The bottom line is that Iran should limit production to 5-percent enriched uranium — the type that is normally used in civilian production.

One of sticking points was Iran’s progress on a heavy water reactor near the town of Arak.  If this reactor is finished, it could produce plutonium. That matters because highly enriched plutonium can also be used to build nuclear weapons. Iran also would have to stop working on building fuel rods or other components for the reactor.

Iran will be given modest economic incentives with the promise of more relief in the spring from the severe sanctions that now are crippling the economy. The relief package over the next six months is believed to be worth about $7 billion. In addition, Iran would have access to about $4.2 billion of its foreign currency holdings. These have been frozen in banks overseas.  Also, some of the restrictions on Iran’s trade in petrochemical products, precious metals and airplane and automobile parts will be eased.

The economic benefits over the next six months will not, however, offset sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors. Those will remain until the comprehensive agreement is reached in six months.

One pertinent aspect of the negotiations is that Iran insisted on language that recognizes its right to refine uranium. There are two possible reasons for this. First, it could be a subterfuge, a way for Iran to secretly keep refining uranium at higher levels.  Second, Iran could just be making a point, standing up for its sovereignty. 

Reactions to the interim deal vary widely. Obama has urged Congress to put off applying further sanctions.  As he put it, “The new sanctions would be most effective as a consequence if Iran refused to accept the deal now on the table” or then failed to comply.

Kerry deserves most of the credit for this agreement, which has its critics. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly opposes it, calling it “a historic mistake.” Israel, he said, has “the right and obligation” to defend itself and won’t allow Iran to develop a nuclear bomb. It is no exaggeration to say that U.S.-Israeli relations are at their lowest level in many years.

Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner said “the interim deal has been and will continue to be to be met with healthy skepticism and hard questions, not just of the Iranians, but of ourselves and our allies involved in the negotiations. Iran has a history of obfuscation that demands verification of its activities and places the burden on the regime to prove it is upholding its obligations in good faith while a final deal is prepared.” 

I do not trust the Iranians and don’t think our government should either. Boehner’s comments are right on. It is worth giving the accord a chance.  The question to me (and I suspect to Iran’s leaders) is what Obama will do if Iran violates it. My fear is that the Iranians attach little credibility in his threats. He has made many of them and seldom has followed through.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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