Editorial: Iran deal better than expected
Cautious optimism is the appropriate response to the framework for a nuclear weapons deal worked out with Iran by the Obama administration and its international partners. The outline suggests a pact that will be stronger than expected, even as the details to be negotiated in coming months will be critical in determining its effectiveness.
The agreement falls short of achieving the goals initially spelled out by the White House. But it does place enough restrictions on Iran's nuclear program to offer at least some hope its ambitions to produce a weapon will be significantly delayed, if not completely deterred.
As outlined by the White House, the deal requires Iran to reduce its current centrifuges by two-thirds and its stockpile of enriched uranium fuel by 98 percent.
It also must eliminate the capacity of its heavy fuel reactor at Arak to make weapons-grade plutonium and stop the production of uranium fuel at an underground facility at Fordow.
United Nations inspectors will have access to all known Iranian nuclear facilities, with extra surveillance of suspicious sites. The economic sanctions that will be eased in return for Iranian cooperation will "snap-back" immediately if Iran is caught cheating.
And the restrictions are longer than expected — 10 to 25 years, instead of the decade previously on the table. But there remain serious concerns that must be addressed as the details are hammered out. For one thing, the framework is sketchy on a timetable for lifting the sanctions. Relief must be very firmly tied to verifiable progress in compliance by the Iranians.
Also, the pact as described does not indicate Iran's military sites will be included in inspections. This is a critical omission and should be addressed in the next round of negotiations. If Iran decides to secretly resume its weapons program, these military facilities will be the most likely homes if they are left outside the inspections regime.
The White House contends the deal moves Iran's break-out time for achieving a weapon to one year, from the current two to three months. But it does not cripple Iran's nuclear program, as Israel and many in Congress had demanded. Iran has the capability to resume its quest for a weapon without a great deal of reconstruction.
Success of the pact will depend on the tenacity of inspectors and the veracity of the Iranians. A deal that depends too heavily on trusting Iran to honor its word is a high risk endeavor. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the framework as being too weak. Israel has the most at stake in these talks, and was urging tougher sanctions to force Iran into a more restrictive pact. Understandably, Israel believes any agreement should require Iran to recognize Israel's right to exist.
After weeks of petulance and reckless hints of a break in U.S.-Israel relations by President Barack Obama, it was good to hear the president affirm America's longstanding commitment to the Jewish state's security. Israel should not have veto power over this agreement, but its concerns should be taken seriously. Likewise, Congress, which has always been asked to approve arms agreements, should have its traditional role honored. Obama must send the final deal to Congress before it is signed.
Obama described this as the best deal possible. That's likely true, given the Iranians understood an agreement was more urgent for the president than it was for them, and that there was no sense the United States would take tougher action if negotiations failed. But at an early look at the framework suggests it is not nearly as bad a deal as was feared.