"For more on the deal and its implications, I spoke to Gary Samore, who served as White House Coördinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction during President Obama’s first term. Samore, who has worked on non-proliferation issues for the U.S. government for more than two decades, was extensively involved in negotiations with Iran and North Korea, as well as the New Start treaty with Russia. He now serves as the executive director for research at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and is president of United Against Nuclear Iran, an advocacy group that supports tougher sanctions against Iran to halt its development of nuclear weapons.
Can you lay out the basic terms of this deal? What are the restrictions that will be placed on Iranian nuclear enrichment? What degree of sanctions relief will be granted in exchange for these restrictions?
Basically, Iran has agreed, for six months, to suspend activities to expand its existing enrichment program and complete the Arak heavy water research reactor, to suspend production of twenty-per-cent-enriched uranium and dispose of its existing stockpile of twenty-per-cent-enriched uranium, and to accept additional monitoring of its nuclear program.
In exchange, the U.S. and its P5-plus-1 partners have agreed, also for six months, to suspend efforts to increase sanctions; they will ease sanctions in a number of areas, estimated by the White House to be worth seven billion dollars. The actions on both sides are limited and reversible. Iran will continue to produce low enriched uranium (less than five per cent) at its current rate of production and retain its current stockpile of low enriched uranium, while the P5-plus-1 will continue to enforce the remaining sanctions.
This is a temporary deal, which is meant to last for six months. What is the significance of that time frame? Why a temporary deal rather than a permanent one? What should we be looking for in the next six months to determine whether a more permanent agreement can be reached?
The reason for an interim deal rather than a permanent agreement is because Iran is not willing to accept the limits on its nuclear program demanded by the P5-plus-1 as a condition for permanently lifting nuclear-related sanctions. In particular, the U.S. wants Iran to accept physical limits on the scope and scale of its enrichment program so that Iran cannot produce significant quantities of highly enriched (weapons grade) uranium quickly and to halt construction of the heavy-water research reactor or replace it with a type that would produce less plutonium. In essence, these measures would require Iran to give up its nuclear-weapons program, at least for the time being. Unless Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, makes such a fundamental decision, a permanent agreement is unlikely.
You worked on these issues in the first term of the Obama Administration, and you’ve been following them for a much longer time. Can you describe the evolution of U.S. and Iranian thinking on this issue in the last several years? How did we get to this temporary deal?
The reason for the temporary deal is because Iran is seeking relief from the unprecedented sanctions that the U.S. and its allies have imposed over the past several years. For the U.S., the temporary deal is an opportunity to slow down and limit Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons capability, and hopefully create time and space to negotiate a comprehensive deal that rolls back Iran’s nuclear program. At this point, I think the fundamental dispute between the U.S. and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program has not been resolved, but it may be possible to have a series of interim agreements that reduces tension over time and creates opportunities for improved relations.
Does this mean that the sanctions worked?
Yes, the sanctions have worked to pressure Iran to accept temporary limits on its nuclear program, but whether the remaining sanctions and the threat of additional sanctions will be sufficient to force Iran to accept more extensive and permanent nuclear limits is unclear. For supporters of the interim deal, the limited sanctions relief will create incentives for Iran to make additional nuclear concessions in order to obtain further sanctions relief. For opponents of the deal, the limited sanctions relief will make it easier for Iran to live with the status quo and therefore resist further nuclear concessions. In six months, we’ll have a better idea which argument is correct.
What are the Administration’s options going forward in terms of further sanctions relief, or, if necessary, ramping sanctions up again?
According to the White House, the main oil and financial sanctions against Iran will remain in place during the interim deal. No doubt, the Iranians will try to exploit the limited sanctions relief to create loopholes to evade the remaining sanctions, and the U.S. will need to enforce the remaining sanctions to maintain leverage for negotiating a final deal or another interim deal. Our ability to rally international support to ramp up sanctions will depend heavily on being able to demonstrate that Iran has reneged or cheated on the agreement or is blocking diplomatic progress. Without a credible threat to increase sanctions, I doubt Iran will make additional nuclear concessions.
Did Iran’s involvement in Syria play a role in this deal?
Probably not a direct role. Indirectly, however, Iran views its involvement in Syria as a success—defending the Assad regime against opponents backed by the U.S. and Iran’s main regional enemies, such as Saudi Arabia—and that probably gives Tehran more confidence that it can resist pressure from Washington for additional nuclear concessions. In other words, Iran’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War probably makes a final nuclear deal less likely.
How would you describe the Obama Administration’s goals and priorities with regard to resolving the Iranian nuclear issue? To what extent does the deal reached this weekend fulfill the aims of the Administration? You participated in most of the P5-plus-1 meetings with Iran between 2009 and 2012. What were the terms under discussion in those meetings, and how have the dynamics shifted since then?
In my view, the Iranian nuclear issue has been the highest priority on President Obama’s nuclear agenda. Certainly it is the nuclear issue he has spent the most time on. In the first term, the Iranians repeatedly rejected overtures from the U.S. and refused to negotiate seriously in the various P5-plus-1 meetings between 2009 and 2012. We responded by mobilizing an international coalition that imposed unprecedented sanctions against Iran. The interim deal announced over the weekend is far more ambitious and complex—both in terms of nuclear constraints and sanctions relief—than any of the proposals made by the P5-plus-1 during the first term. Nonetheless, as President Obama said, the interim deal is only an 'important first step.'In a final deal, President Obama said, 'Iran must accept strict limitations on its nuclear program that make it impossible to develop a nuclear weapon.' This will be a much tougher negotiation than the negotiations that produced the interim deal.
We’re already hearing a wide range of opinions about the deal—from supporters and opponents. Let’s start with the supporters: What do they like about the deal?
The main argument in favor of the interim deal is that it has slowed or limited Iran’s nuclear program without sacrificing our main sanctions leverage.
I’ve seen a lot of commentary from critics suggesting the deal is a bad one because it allows the Iranians to continue enriching. Would it have been possible to get a deal without that agreement?
The main argument against the interim deal is that it gives Iran some sanctions relief without requiring it to significantly roll back or dismantle its nuclear capabilities.
A lot of commentary has focused on Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, and his eagerness to end Iran’s international isolation. But if the Supreme Leader, Khameini, is the one really calling the shots here, has he also taken a softer line than in the past? What might account for his change of position, if that’s the case?
I think Khamenei has given President Rouhani and Foreign Minster Zarif enough flexibility to make tactical concessions in hopes of obtaining sanctions relief without giving up Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Our job is to make sure that Khamenei doesn’t get comprehensive sanctions relief unless he accepts comprehensive limits on Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. and its P5-plus-1 partners have choosen to work toward this comprehensive trade on a step-by-step basis, which I think is the only practical approach, given the fundamental differences between Iran and the P5-plus-1. Of course, that doesn’t mean it will work, but it’s worth testing."