Now that the President Barack Obama and his administration are selling the Iran nuclear deal, they say U.S. negotiators held a firm line against Iran's last-minute push for even more concessions. But if you compare the deal today with what was described in a White House fact sheet on the "framework" reached in April it shows that the West ceded a lot of ground to Iran in those final days in Vienna.
In a few cases, the White House line is partially true. Iran's leaders had publicly insisted that they would forbid international inspectors any access to military sites, and its negotiators tried to get an immediate lifting of a U.N. arms embargo on conventional weapons. In both cases, Iran compromised for the final deal. But more often it was the West that backed down, and in more significant ways.
For example, in April the White House touted that, "Iran has committed indefinitely to not conduct reprocessing or reprocessing research and development on spent nuclear fuel." Yet the new pact will allow Iran to reprocess such fuel after 15 years.EditorialEditorial: Give Iran deal hard look, serious debate
The final agreement says Iran can begin production of efficient advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium in eight years. The April fact sheet strongly implied research into advanced centrifuges would be delayed for 10 years.
Senior administration officials in April said the nuclear agreement would allow inspectors "anytime, anywhere" access to suspected nuclear sites, but the new deal will give Iran 24 days' notice of any inspections, as well as a say in whether inspectors will be able to visit certain sites at all. The U.S. also agreed in the final days of talks to lift a U.N. conventional weapons embargo on Iran in five years, and to end sanctions on Iran's ballistic missile program in eight, both issues on which the framework deal is silent.
More concerns arise from the "road map" that the International Atomic Energy Agency released Tuesday, on how it will resolve longstanding questions about the history of Iran's efforts to build a nuclear weapon. First, the description of how it plans to do so is dangerously vague. Equally important: Until May, the U.S. position was that Iran had to come clean about that history before there would be any sanctions relief. Now that issue has been shunted aside in terms of lifting sanctions.
While it's true that the April deal was only a framework, and that some changes should have been expected, all these concessions taken together represent a retreat by the U.S. team since the spring. "The fact sheet allowed just enough wiggle room to give the impression that nothing had been conceded in Lausanne," Valerie Lincy, the executive director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, told me. "But when I read the agreement, it's clear there are things that have been conceded in terms of the details on advanced centrifuges, reprocessing of plutonium and the inspections." The concessions involving Iran's development of advanced centrifuges starting in year eight are particularly alarming. Blaise Misztal, the director of the national security program for the Bipartisan Policy Center, told me this constituted a "step back." Such advanced centrifuges can enrich a greater amount of uranium more rapidly than Iran's antiquated IR-1 model centrifuges by orders of magnitude.
David Albright, a former weapons inspector who is now president of the Institute for Science & International Security, also told me the centrifuge concession was a surprise: "It seems to open a way for Iran to expand their advanced centrifuges earlier than I expected or wanted." He predicted that the advanced IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges Iran would be allowed to install by year 13, "would allow Iran to lower its break-out times down to days or a few weeks." Albright was also concerned about the concession allowing Iran to eventually reprocess spent fuel. "There are strong limits on Iran's nuclear program for 10 years, then they unravel," he said. "This deal is a temporary limitation on Iran's nuclear abilities." Some experts are more optimistic about the agreement. Darryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said that while he would have liked to have seen the full ban on reprocessing spent fuel remain in the final agreement, he pointed out that the agreement also includes a statement that Iran intends not to reprocess that spent fuel. "It's very important we don't miss the forest for the trees," Kimball said. "Like any agreement, it's not going to have everything we would have liked, it could always be better. But on balance this is a very strong agreement that is effectively verifiable." As for the provision giving Iran 24 days' advance notice before inspectors can visit a suspected site, Obama on Wednesday insisted that this was not enough time to hide a major industrial nuclear facility. "It's not something you hide in a closet or put on a dolly and cart off somewhere," he told reporters.
This may be true of large-scale facilities such as the one at Natanz, where there are thousands of centrifuges in cascades. But when Natanz and the Iranians' underground facility at Fordo, which was discovered by U.S. intelligence in 2009, were being built, they didn't have this kind of large equipment, or any nuclear material that would be hard to conceal in 24 days. "Think of Fordo and Natanz," Albright said. "When it was detected and people wanted to go there, there were not any centrifuges at those sites, let alone any material ... if you had 24 days, you could clean the site out." Albright conceded that U.S. satellites could observe trucks going in and out of suspicious sites, but he added that this kind of intelligence is never certain.
The problem of the 24-day notice is even greater if the suspected site is much smaller. "If it is a large plant, it would be very hard to hide the traces of enriched material," Albright said. "But if it's very small, they could regut it, repaint it, replace the tiles, it would be very hard to detect this." In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, former CIA Director Michael Hayden made a similar point when he said technical monitoring alone without intrusive inspections of suspected sites wouldn't be able to detect Iranian cheating.
Kimball argues that such concerns overlook the strong incentive Iran will have not to cheat on the agreement, because the U.S. and its negotiating partners could re-impose sanctions in case of a violation. Not all experts agree, including one of Obama's top former Middle East advisers, Dennis Ross. "Given Iran's track record, it will likely cheat along the margins to test the means of verification and see how it might be able to change the baseline," he predicted.
All of this will be debated over the summer, as Congress considers a vote whether to approve or disapprove Obama's deal. But as this debate begins, it's worth noting that Secretary of State John Kerry and his team made concessions right up to the end to preserve a pact that already represented a diminishment of America's negotiating position in 2013. Back then, Obama said he would trade the dismantlement of sanctions for the dismantlement of Iran's nuclear program. Under the deal agreed this week, Iran's nuclear infrastructure largely survives. The same cannot be said for the sanctions Obama hoped would pressure Iran to abandon the means to produce a nuclear bomb.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about politics and foreign affairs.