Despite the irate responses from the Prime Minister’s Office to the agreement signed in Geneva early Sunday between Iran and six world powers, the deal is not really a bad one. Even from an Israeli perspective, it is actually a reasonable deal. Maybe even a good one.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues that the Iranians are holding onto all their centrifuges, are not dismantling the heavy water reactor in Arak and can continue to enrich uranium. In exchange, he says, the sanctions on Iran will be considerably lessened. Netanyahu says a “good deal” could have been reached with Iran if only the world powers had continued pressuring it a bit more.
But the reality is a little different. It’s true that the deal with Iran doesn’t require it to physically dismantle a single centrifuge, but it does restrict its nuclear program and makes it difficult for Iran to "break out" to a nuclear bomb within a short time and without the knowledge of the international community. The Iranian nuclear program has been frozen and will not be able to make real progress in the next six months, meaning that the time needed for Iran to go nuclear will now be extended by another few months. The significance of this agreement is that Iran is further away from a nuclear bomb since the deal was reached than it was beforehand.
The agreement with Iran places serious restrictions on the central component of its nuclear program: uranium enrichment. Under the agreement, Iran won’t be allowed to operate 60 percent of its 18,000 centrifuges, including 1,000 advanced models that can enrich uranium at five times the rate of its other centrifuges. Iran will also be banned from installing any new centrifuges in the coming six months.
Iran has also committed to halt all enrichment to nearly 20 percent and neutralize its entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium – which Netanyahu himself defined as the most critical element of Iran's nuclear program – and based on which he announced his "red line," or the point at which Iran will have accumulated enough uranium to fuel one nuclear bomb.
Netanyahu has said that Iran isn’t being required to dismantle its reactor in Arak. But the reactor is at least a year away from being operative, and the deal with Iran will push that off by an additional six months. This would block any Iranian attempt to develop nuclear weapons on a second, plutonium path.
But the most important part of this agreement is the inspection regime. Under the deal, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency will be given daily access to the Natanz and Fordo facilities, permitting inspectors to review surveillance camera footage. At the moment, inspectors visit just once every two weeks. This increased monitoring will reduce the risk of a nuclear breakout without the knowledge of the UN watchdog.
The Geneva agreement will also give the international community valuable information about the Iranian nuclear program that it did not have before. Iran has committed to give IAEA inspectors access to centrifuge assembly lines and uranium mines and mills, and to provide design information about the Arak reactor, after years of refusing to do so. Inspectors will also be given more frequent access to the reactor.
Netanyahu said Iran would receive a “significant easing” of sanctions, but the reality is quite different. All told, the relief will amount to $7 billion over six months, while the main sanctions – the painful ones that are crippling the Iranian economy, namely the oil embargo and the banking restrictions – will remain in place. Iran will continue to lose about $5 billion a month as a result of those sanctions, and despite the deal, the Iranian deficit will continue to grow over the next six months.
Netanyahu says the deal he has criticized so much indicates the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany are deluding themselves, but he is doing the same thing. The prime minister’s comments about the Iran deal are a mix of spin, partial information and assessments based on nothing but wishful thinking. The “good deal” Netanyahu is talking about is one in which Iran gives in on more. But the most likely place for that to happen is in Netanyahu’s imagination. The idea that with a little bit more pressure Iran would wake up one morning and announce it was dismantling the last of its centrifuges is not realistic.
After world powers finish celebrating having reached an interim agreement with Iran, the criticism from Jerusalem dies down and the dust settles, a far more important phase will begin: six months of strenuous negotiations over the final agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. If reaching an interim agreement was tough, reaching a comprehensive deal that will bring an end to the issue of a nuclear Iran will be a nearly impossible task.
The Israeli government’s conduct over the past two months that the interim deal was being hashed out was, to say the least, not wise, sophisticated or effective. But it’s not too late to change direction. Six months is a lot of time in which to do so.
If Israel gives up the naysaying policy it has recently adopted, it will be able to influence the final agreement. With some quiet diplomacy, Israel still has a chance to rebuild its relationship with the Obama Administration and have this country’s interests taken into account when a final agreement is reached with Iran.