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Editorials Iran nuclear deal: Not perfect, but better than the alternatives

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the framework agreement on Iran's nuclear program announced by negotiators in Switzerland during a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington April 2, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

© Mike Theiler / Reuters/REUTERS

So is the deal on Iran's nuclear program a good one? As the old saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit.

The stated goal of the negotiations was to limit Iran's "nuclear program." In plain English, that means delaying or denying Iran's path to the bomb. Taken on those terms, the agreement in principle goes a long way to achieving its objectives. Negotiators for Iran and the P5+1 – the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany – have until June 30 to hammer out final details, but what has been agreed appears to put big obstacles in the middle of Iran's road to a nuclear weapon.

Iran has agreed to reduce by approximately two-thirds its number of centrifuges, which are used to enrich the uranium that can form the basis for a nuclear weapon. It has also agreed not to enrich any uranium beyond 3.67 per cent for at least 15 years; that level is too low for weapons use. Iran currently has a stockpile of 10,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, which will be reduced by 97 per cent. Iran has agreed to not build any new facilities for enriching uranium for 15 years. The nuclear facility at Fordow will not be allowed to conduct any research or development associated with uranium enrichment for 15 years. And the heavy water research reactor at Arak will be redesigned and rebuilt, including by removing its original reactor core, so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium.

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These steps and many others, along with Iran's ongoing compliance, are to be monitored by the international nuclear agency, the IAEA.

As U.S. President Barack Obama has stressed since last Thursday, this agreement delivers something substantial and real. It's not realistic to argue that the alternative of abandoning negotiations and imposing more sanctions, or even going to war, could achieve more. Iran has made concessions, and its nuclear program has been set back.

And now, the caveats. The deal temporarily halts Tehran's ambition to produce a nuclear weapon, but it doesn't prevent Iran from restarting the program at some point in the future. Iran would likely face severe consequences if it did so, and in any case, Iran didn't spend years negotiating this agreement in order to immediately turn around and break it. But depending on who is in charge in Tehran a few years from now, depending on the state of the Middle East, and depending on whether an international coalition willing to reimpose crippling sanctions on Iran is still holding, Iran could eventually decide to return to its original course.

If you think of Iran's nuclear program like a train, then this agreement halts the locomotive in its tracks, and removes some fuel and key engine parts, but leaves it on the rails. The train is disabled, but it could be repaired and restarted. With time and effort, the Iranians could resume the journey. They're not likely to do so anytime soon, and they may not ever. But they retain the ability, if they are willing to bear the cost.

Even the White House acknowledges this. "Iran's breakout timeline – the time it would take for Iran to acquire enough fissile material for one weapon – is currently assessed to be two to three months," says the Obama administration explainer of the deal. "That timeline will be extended to at least one year, for a duration of at least 10 years, under this framework."

That is not a fatal flaw. Again, this deal is better than no deal, and better than the weak deal many feared. If everyone signs off after June 30, and Iran sticks to its promises, it guarantees that the Middle East will not see a nuclear-armed Iran for many years to come, if ever. That is no small thing.

But the agreement leaves Iran as a nuclear-threshold state. Iran will still have nuclear facilities, diminished and under international monitoring, and nuclear know-how. That is, however, far better than a future in which Iran is a nuclear weapons state. And it is probably as much as negotiations could have achieved.

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The West negotiated with Iran not because the Tehran regime has suddenly become our friend and ally, but because it is, and will for the foreseeable future remain, a frequent antagonist, hostile to Western interests. That hasn't magically changed. For example, Tehran remains the main backer of the Assad regime in Syria, and of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

As a result of its nuclear program, Iran was several years ago subjected to crushing economic sanctions. Iran already faced sanctions because of its support of terrorism, but the nuclear punishments took things to a new level. Iran's oil industry was largely cut off from export markets and the global banking system. The economy went into recession, the currency collapsed and prices spiked. That is what brought Iran to the negotiating table.

The news of a future without nuclear sanctions – they will come down, once Iran follows through on its nuclear committments – was cheered by Iranians in the streets. It was also welcomed by the regime. It remains to be seen which will benefit most.

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