Why you should care

No one likes nukes or economic sanctions, and this agreement — if successful — would make a dent in both. 

The author, deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004, teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Historic as it is, this week’s nuclear agreement with Iran really marks the beginning of a very long journey of testing and negotiation, as the two sides work to give substance to its hundred pages of complicated text. As with every arms control agreement I’ve witnessed, the precise meaning of its language will frequently be in dispute. But the most critical factor will be how well the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can monitor Iran’s compliance and ensure the U.S. and others that it is not cheating.

If Iran lives up to the U.S. understanding of its commitments, the country would not be able to clandestinely produce a nuclear bomb for more than a decade: The agreement basically strips Iran’s uranium stockpile and sharply reduces the machinery that could produce weapons-grade nuclear material. Iran must also allow the IAEA to check whether it’s abiding by the agreement’s terms. In return, Iran would receive a gradual lifting of sanctions that have crippled its economy since 2005. And there is a complicated provision that could allow Iran in five to eight years to escape from international embargoes on its import of conventional weapons and missile components — provided inspectors can assure it is not violating other parts of the agreement.

First, of course, the agreement has to get final approval — from both sides. The Iranian parliament earlier insisted it would have to approve the agreement, but in reality, any such debate will be meaningless if Supreme Leader Khamenei continues to support the deal. By contrast, the U.S. Congress has some power over the agreement’s fate. Congress now has 60 days to debate and decide whether to approve it, and should Congress turn it down, President Obama would veto — and opponents probably would not be able to get a two-thirds majority to override it. The upshot: In all likelihood, the agreement will start entering into force sometime before the end of this year.

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A young Iranian celebrates in Tehran after negotiators took a significant step Thursday toward creating the framework for an agreement aimed at keeping Iran’s nuclear program peaceful.

Source Getty

That’s when the going will get tough. The knottiest issue — the one that carries the greatest risk of breakdown — concerns the inspection of suspected clandestine nuclear sites. Should Iran object to their inspection, the issue would go to a panel of IAEA countries to decide. That process can take up to 25 days, which critics correctly note would give Iran ample time to cover up its activities. The whole agreement could come apart if such disputes deadlock or turn nasty.

There is plenty of precedent for cheating. Iran concealed much of its program for years, including its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, discovered in 2002, and a giant underground enrichment facility at Fordow, which came to light only in 2009. North Korea is another example: It entered into a nuclear limitation agreement in 1994 but was discovered cheating in 2002.

Few people in the U.S. expect the agreement to lead to broader cooperation with Iran, even though Iranian leaders have dropped hints of that and do share a U.S. interest in defeating the Islamic State. Critics point out that Iran is currently seizing on Middle Eastern turmoil to preserve and extend its influence — supporting the Assad regime in Syria, stirring up trouble in Yemen and looking forward mightily to increased funds if it gets sanctions relief. And at the top, the clerical regime and powerful groups like the military’s Revolutionary Guards and Quds Force (Iran’s special operations) are implacably opposed to reform. Important for this agreement, they also control many military sites that inspectors will probably ask to visit.

But the Middle East has been producing one surprise after another recently, and there are pressures for change in Iran that could be nudged along if this agreement is successful. More than 60 percent of Iran’s population was born after the 1979 revolution, and these young people have been at the forefront of protests urging reform — the last wave of them was brutally suppressed by the regime in 2009. Moreover, President Rouhani’s election in 2013 to some degree represented a popular yearning for more engagement with the outside world. So in parliamentary elections set for February, candidates associated with Rouhani could do well if he can trumpet the easing of sanctions. And that outcome could inch Iran along the spectrum toward a more constructive posture.

If there is a bottom line here, though, it is probably the one Winston Churchill defined for a very different challenge in World War II when he said that it was “not the end” or “even the beginning of the end” but rather “the end of the beginning.” In short, hang on: This is scene one of act one — the play and the plot will have many twists.

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