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A year in: Iran is still bad, the Iran deal is still good

This time last year the US and the Jewish community were locked in ferocious debate over the nuclear deal between Iran and the major world powers.
[additional-authors]
July 25, 2016

This time last year the US and the Jewish community were locked in ferocious debate over the nuclear deal between Iran and the major world powers. Pundits cautioned that the deal would be violated, that sanction relief would enrich Hezbollah and Hamas, that we would be facing a regional nuclear arms race, and that Israel’s security would be sorely harmed. A year has passed since the deal was cut, and not one of these predictions has come to pass. Instead, the much-maligned Iran deal has increased the security of Israel and its Western allies, most importantly by providing the time to collaborate on creative ways to stop Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons. 

A year ago, Iran had enough enriched uranium to build nine nuclear devices and would have been able to enrich enough material to create its first nuclear device within roughly six weeks. It was enriching uranium in the fortified Fordow facility in the heart of a mountain, and had installed 19,000 centrifuges, 9,000 of which were active. Furthermore, Iran was introducing advanced centrifuges that would multiply the rate at which it enriched uranium, and in Arak it was putting the finishing touches on a reactor that would enable production of weapons-grade plutonium.

[OPPOSING VIEW: One year on, the Iran deal is still bad]

Thanks to the deal, the Iranian nuclear program has been rolled back and is now at least a year away from obtaining a nuclear device. Indeed, the deal ensures Iran will be kept a year away from the bomb for another ten years. Its stockpile of enriched uranium is now capped at 300 kilograms — less than a third the amount required for a bomb. Most of Iran’s centrifuges have been dismantled. No uranium is allowed in Fordow and advanced centrifuge R&D is and will remain severely limited for nearly a decade. Moreover, Iran must allow inspectors access to suspected undeclared sites within a limited timeframe. The core of the Arak reactor has been removed and filled with concrete. 

In short, Iran is considerably farther from military nuclear capability and under stricter oversight and verification than it would have been without the deal, as it will remain for years to come. This is a much better outcome than those offered by the alternatives, including the use of military force.

In return for curtailing its nuclear aspirations, Iran saw a removal of sanctions, including its frozen assets abroad. Though the deal’s detractors claimed that these assets amounted to 150 billion USD, the actual figure is closer to 50, little of which has been released thus far. Not only have Hezbollah and Hamas not benefited from the deal, but US sanctions and geo-political realities have combined to pressure them even more than before. In the wake of the deal, relative moderates in Iran have made some gains in elections, and a nuclear arms race is nowhere to be seen. No wonder Israeli political and military leaders have either fallen silent on the nuclear threat or expressed cautious optimism.

One would imagine that given these achievements, the conversation would shift to the opportunities at hand. Many of the deal’s opponents, however, continue to argue that it is bad. Take for instance a recent column by Bret Stephens in the WSJ who argued that Iran has already violated the deal. Stephens points to reports by German intelligence regarding Iranian attempts to acquire nuclear technology after the deal was signed. He also cites the US administration’s complacence regarding evidence uncovered in an IAEA report of traces of nuclear materials found in Parchin, where Iran was suspected to have researched military nuclear technologies in the beginning of the last decade, and Iran’s continued surface-to-surface missile (SSM) testing. Despite these infractions, Stephens claims, the Obama administration is set on promoting normalization with Iran. 

However damning these accusations may sound, they amount to a poor argument. The German reports relate to 2015, whereas the deal’s implementation day was January 16, 2016. The US and Germany both stated explicitly that there is no evidence of Iranian infringements after implementation day.

As for Parchin, we should be reassured by the fact that international inspectors could find traces of decade old nuclear material, despite extensive Iranian concealment attempts. Why didn't we hear more about this? Because an informed decision was made last year to end the investigation since the details of those experiments were known to the West, and the ongoing investigation only served to embarrass Iran. This decision can be criticized, but the discoveries in Parchin came as no surprise to experts.

Surface-to-surface missile R&D is bad news. However, SSM research is a violation of the UN Security Council Resolution affirming the deal, not of the deal itself. It's a technicality, but technicalities are the soul of such agreements. Also, since Iran violated the resolution, it is suffering from resulting sanctions.

But what of Iranian support of Assad’s regime in Syria, of the Houthis in Yemen, and of terrorist organizations worldwide? What of their cyber attacks on the US? To this I respond that I’d rather a rogue state be limited to conventional means. No one is naïve about Iran’s ambitions, nor did anyone expect Iran to turn into an ally of the West overnight. Without the deal, Iran would not only still be doing all of the above, it would be doing so in reach of nuclear capabilities.

In light of all of this, my assessment is that although Iran is still a very negative actor, the deal has had an overall positive effect on Israeli and US security. Moving forward, we should turn to ensuring that the deal continues to benefit us. For that we need to stop looking for ways to derail it. We need to get together and demand that our leaders focus on preventing Iran from dashing for a bomb at the deal’s end, and on better ideas on leveraging the deal’s advantages to counter negative Iranian action and influence. 

Progress has been made; let us not squander the opportunities ahead.

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