President Barack Obama, addressing Americans at the unusually early hour of 7 a.m., said the deal “meets every single one of the bottom lines we established” to block four pathways to an Iranian nuclear weapon. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, speaking to his nation shortly afterward, declared the agreement a “win-win situation for both parties” that preserves Iranian honor and scientific achievements while ending crippling economic sanctions.
What follows is a complicated process of implementation that will certainly be challenged by opponents in several countries but that could be viewed as an achievement as historic as the U.S. opening to China and U.S.-Soviet détente in the 1970s.
Obama alluded to an earlier era of arms talks when he quoted President John F. Kennedy, saying, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
The essence of the agreement has been known since April 2, when negotiators accepted parameters for a final accord. Their arduous task since then has been to flesh out those parameters, expanding a one-page Iran–European Union statement into a 30,000-word tome that includes five technical annexes.
The heart of the trade-off is an Iranian promise to substantially restrict its nuclear program for more than a decade in return for relief from European and United Nations sanctions and a waiver of U.S. secondary sanctions that impede other countries from doing business with Iran.
Among the surprises is relief of U.S. sanctions on selling commercial airplanes to Iran — a provision that should delight both U.S. companies such as Boeing and beleaguered Iranians who risk their lives by flying on antiquated jets.
According to U.S. officials, the deal will restrict four potential paths to nuclear weapons:
First, it will reduce by two-thirds the number of centrifuges Iran currently has installed — from 19,000 to 6,000 — of which only 5,060 will be allowed to enrich uranium for the next decade at a facility at Natanz that is vulnerable to military attack.
Of the remaining centrifuges, a few hundred will be allowed to operate at an underground plant at Fordow but will not be allowed to enrich uranium. Excess centrifuges will be dismantled and stored under constant electronic surveillance.
Second, Iran will cap enrichment at Natanz at 3.67 percent of the isotope U-235 (far below weapons grade) for 15 years and reduce its stockpile of 10,000 to 12,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium by 98 percent, to 300 kilograms — a quarter of what would be required for a single nuclear weapon if it were further refined to weapons grade.
Third, a heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak will be modified so that it will produce only a tiny amount of plutonium, another potential fuel for weapons. Iran will not build a facility to reprocess the spent fuel, which will be exported.
These steps are intended to extend the amount of time it would take Iran to enrich sufficient material for a nuclear weapon from three months at present to 12 to 14 months for the next decade. Other restrictions on research and development of more advanced centrifuges are meant to keep Iran from rapidly ramping up uranium enrichment capacity from 2026 to 2030.
The fourth pathway to a bomb — the so-called sneakout — is addressed by intensified monitoring and verification, including the resolution of questions about past military dimensions of the Iranian program. According to an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, Iran will allow the agency to visit sites where military-related nuclear activity is believed to have taken place, including Parchin, a military base that Iran has paved over three times to elude detection of suspected prior weapons research.