The Catch-22 That Could Blow Up the Nuclear Deal with Iran

Tehran is afraid of posing a nuclear threat now, but also afraid of declaring it will never be a nuclear power in the future. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty

After plenty of fits and starts, the interim deal reached between Iran, the United States, and four other nations creates hopes for ending decades of international saber rattling about Tehran's nuclear program. But now comes the really hard part: permanently limiting Iran's enrichment capabilities in the future, which the U.S. Congress insists on and Iran will almost certainly balk at.

First, the good news: The United States paid a fairly low price for the six-month agreement. The total value of the sanctions relief is about $6 billion; that only mitigates two months of oil revenue lost to Iran because of the trade restrictions that remain in place; Tehran also agreed to keep oil production at the level of 1 million barrels a day, compared with the pre-sanctions level of 2.5 million. In other words, Iran will keep feeling the pain from sanctions even under this deal.

That contributes to another benefit – as the Obama administration has noted, the system for imposing sanctions remains in place. If Iran drags its feet or otherwise fails to meet its obligations under the temporary deal, the United States can immediately put the full force of sanctions back in place. And immediate means immediate – if Obama decides at 1 p.m. that Iran has violated the terms of the agreement, full sanctions can be back in place by 1:01.

And the restrictions Iran has accepted are good. It agreed to halt all enrichment of uranium to below weapons grade (not hard for Tehran to accept – it had largely begun to do that already). It will stop the operation of cutting-edge centrifuges that can enrich more quickly, thus limiting the ability to rapidly reverse course should a final deal collapse. It will halt construction of a reactor in Arak, which, were it to become operational, could produce plutonium. It will allow daily inspections of its enrichment facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. And on and on.

The result, experts say, is that the deal should alleviate some of the international anxiety in the Middle East. "Although some countries have criticized the interim deal," wrote the Soufan Group, a private security intelligence group, in a brief to clients yesterday, "some regional tensions will be reduced as Iran's nuclear program remains largely frozen."

So, what's the problem? The negotiators have only six months to come up with a final deal before this temporary pact expires, and there remains an enormous make-or-break issue on which there are no signs of a possible compromise.

This comes down to the concept of requirements permanently limiting Iran's enrichment capabilities in the future. The United States – and particularly members of Congress – have argued that any final agreement must lock Iran into an extensively monitored, limited enrichment program that would prevent it from ever shifting its nuclear efforts toward building a bomb. And that is unlikely to sail in Tehran.

"Iran's Supreme Leader Khamanei,'' the Soufan briefing said, "is believed to insist that Iran's option to ultimately develop a nuclear weapon is not permanently precluded, and the Iranian side is likely to insist that its enrichment is not curbed much further than it is in the interim deal."

The Iranian rationale is understandable: The United States has repeatedly threatened war on the country for decades, and there is a strong faction within the leadership in Tehran that believes a complete capitulation on its future ability to develop weapons will be invitation to an American invasion. On the other hand, the government clearly understands that, should it use its energy program to manufacture nuclear weapons now, it will be inviting immediate war. This reality leaves Iran frozen in place – afraid of posing a nuclear threat now, but also afraid of declaring it will never be a nuclear power in the future.

That is the delicate issue that the United States faces, but given the decades of warnings that Iran was just years from developing nuclear weapons, Obama will likely have the same difficulty persuading hard-liners in the Senate that a permanent deal can avoid imposing a permanent prohibition against a nuclear weapons program as President Hassan Rouhani will have with the hard-liners in Tehran.

In other words, with the Iranian deal, the Obama administration has won the metaphorical opening game of the season. It's a long way from there to victory at the World Series.