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A deal has been reached between six world powers and Iran that calls on Tehran to limit its nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief. In this photo, from left, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, shake hands after Ashton read a statement to the media at the United Nations Palais, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Geneva, Switzerland. (Carolyn Kaster/AP, Pool)

After more than 30 years of mutual justifiable mistrust, the international community and Iran have come to an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

Critics of the agreement wasted no time pulling out their Munich and Hitler analogies, in some cases even attacking the deal before it had been agreed to.

My own reaction to the interim agreement was surprise. Other nonproliferation experts have had similar reactions. After having met with the Iranian team and American officials, I knew the rough outline of the proposals that both had going into the negotiations.

Rather than just spouting off my opinion, I thought I would walk you through the document, and then you can decide for yourself.

What surprised me was the strength of the nonproliferation commitments Iran is taking. Iran will allow daily IAEA access to sensitive facilities. For the first time, it grants access to centrifuge production facilities and more transparency for the heavy water reactor — something Iran preferred to address in the second phase of the deal until France kicked up a fuss.

And all of that is in addition to the core commitment: ending 20 percent enrichment. That issue was the number one proliferation concern for the U.S. and its negotiating partners, so that by itself is a significant win.

But I say, judge for yourself. The agreement, which you can read below, is only four pages long. Rather than just spouting off my opinion, I thought I would walk you through the document, and then you can decide for yourself.

The Preamble

It’s the first paragraph that is most important. Its second and last sentences lay down clear markers: Iran commits that “under no circumstances” will it “seek or develop” nuclear weapons, and the U.S. and its five partners promise a “comprehensive lifting” of sanctions.

The part in between those sentences deals with the thorny issue of Iran’s so-called “right to enrich.” Basically Iran wants recognition of this alleged right and the U.S. and others do not believe in the concept. This is a very sensitive, some might say emotional or psychological, issue for Iran. But here is where good diplomacy and practicality matter. Both sides agreed that once the deal is implemented, Iran can enjoy its full rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It’s the NPT that does the trick here. Iran can interpret its theoretical NPT rights the way it wants to, and the others are free to do the same. The result: a messy and needless philosophical fight about “rights” is avoided.

Elements of a First Step

This section is where each side says what it is going to do. The first six bulleted items on the Iranian list spell out limits on its enrichment program. The seventh item bans reprocessing — which might otherwise offer a second, separate path from enrichment to nuclear weapons material.

This is followed by a list of transparency measures or “enhanced monitoring.” That is the section that was so surprising to me.

Then the U.S. and its negotiating partners take their turn, listing what they will do, particularly on sanctions relief. There is nothing really jaw dropping here. As relief goes, it is fairly modest. Many of the commitments take the form of “we won’t do more than what we are already doing.”

The main sanctions relief is for petrochemicals and gold. Nothing is pledged on the banking and financial sanctions, which are Iran’s chief concerns. There are a couple of other items such as for autos and parts for civilian airplanes, but these are not likely to impress the Iranians. If fact, they can get annoyed about the civilian aircraft parts issue. They think that to purposely impose sanctions that might lead to civilian airplane accidents is illegitimate and can hardly be considered a “concession.”

Iran also gets to reclaim some of its money in foreign bank accounts, but as with airplane parts, that particular form of relief does not “wow” them. It is their money to begin with, earned legally but frozen in these bank accounts.

Looking Forward

The last page identifies the objectives of the second agreement that is to be negotiated over the next six months or so.

My Take

As a first step interim deal, one would have to say that the U.S. and its partners came out very well. Iran has taken on a series of new commitments and has agreed to stop enriching to 20 percent — the number one proliferation worry at the moment. In return, Iran gets limited relief.

If they can continue to demonstrate by their actions that they are serious, we may have just witnessed the beginning of a stunning diplomatic and nonproliferation achievement.

But this is not about tactical wins. It is not a football game that requires a winner and a loser at the end. Diplomacy and agreements work when all sides get what they need. If the result is lopsided, one of the parties will walk away.

Iran, the U.S., Britain, France and the others have some tough negotiating ahead. But if they can continue to demonstrate by their actions that they are serious, we may have just witnessed the beginning of a stunning diplomatic and nonproliferation achievement.

I will report back when and if there is a second agreement. In the meantime, keep you fingers crossed and let me know what you think in the comments.

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Tags: Middle East, Security

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Tom

    Thanks for this informative article. It’s hard for the lay person to understand what was agreed to when most articles doen’t go into much detail. This drawing aside the curtains was very helpful.

    • jim

      Thanks Tom.

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