The framework nuclear agreement announced by US, Iranian, and international negotiators in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 2 has been hailed by President Obama as a promising step toward peace in the Middle East, and condemned by some as a flawed and inadequate barrier to Iranian nuclear ambitions. Many supporters of Israel—and their allies on Capitol Hill—complain that the agreement will not prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb; some on the left worry about its attendant consequences, such as increased US military aid to Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Yet if the negotiators succeed in concluding a final deal by the June 30 deadline, Iran’s nuclear-weapons potential will be severely constrained for a minimum of 10 years, and the stage could be set for further progress in reducing regional violence. The failure of negotiations, on the other hand, will almost certainly result in heightened tensions and a very real risk of war. Given these stakes, it is essential for progressives to understand the agreement and affirm its potential benefits.
Let’s begin by examining the agreement itself. No common text was issued by US and Iranian negotiators; rather, each side had its own interpretation of the outcome. The US version consists of detailed steps to be undertaken by all sides. Iran, under this version, is obliged to reduce by nearly three-quarters (from about 19,000 to 5,060) the number of centrifuges it can use to enrich uranium; to downsize its existing stockpile of approximately 10,000 kilos of enriched uranium to just 300; to cease enrichment at its underground facility at Fordo for 15 years; and to replace a reactor now under construction at Arak with one that cannot be used to produce plutonium. Other provisions include a ban on the use of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium and an intrusive system of inspections. Once these steps have been implemented, the United States and the European Union are required to lift all nuclear-related sanctions (those related to terrorism and missile proliferation are not included), though both retain the right to restore sanctions if Iran is found to be in violation of the accord.
This plan of action, if implemented in accordance with the terms specified in the US document, will not stop Iran from enriching uranium altogether; it would still be allowed to enrich up to 3.67 percent of fissionable U-235—enough for civilian reactors, but far too low for weapons use. The plan would also establish a vigorous inspection regime that would make any Iranian violation of the accord immediately evident.
There are ambiguities in the framework agreement (and in the differing US and Iranian interpretations) that require clarification before a final agreement can be signed. For example, the US text doesn’t say what will happen to the 9,700 kilos of enriched uranium that Iran has agreed to surrender; many skeptics of the accord insist that it be removed from the country altogether, while the Iranians wish to retain it in some nonthreatening form. Similarly, the Iranians insist that all sanctions must be lifted immediately upon signing of the agreement, while US officials say they will be phased out over time, in accordance with Iran’s progress in implementing its commitments. If, however, these and other such disagreements can be resolved, the deal would close all potential pathways to an Iranian bomb and expose the country to what Obama describes as “more inspections than any other country in the world.”
What is our stake, as progressives, in the successful completion of the accord, and what is the downside if it fails? At the very least, successful implementation would eliminate the danger of Iran’s acquiring a nuclear weapon during the next 10 to 15 years, which would go a long way toward avoiding a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.