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Iran nuclear deal: 3 crucial issues to watch for

US Secretary of State John Kerry at earlier Iran negotiations in Switzerland.
US Secretary of State John Kerry at earlier Iran negotiations in Switzerland.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty

The Iran nuclear deal seems to be imminent, based on the noises diplomats are making at the negotiations in Vienna. We do not yet know what is in the deal, though we have a rough sense based on the "framework" agreement, which outlines the broad strokes and was reached in April. The framework was surprisingly favorable to the United States and was considered a very good deal by most arms control experts, but that doesn't mean the final deal will be good.

Here are a few key things to watch for when the deal does come out. These will help give you a sense for a few things: whether the deal is going to be effective at preventing Iran from illegal nuclear development (that is the point of the deal, after all!), whether it is going to give Iran and world powers the right incentives to stick to the agreement, and whether it is politically viable enough to survive in Washington and Tehran.

1) How quickly do the sanctions come off Iran?

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in Tehran in 2004. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty)

This has been a major sticking point throughout negotiations: How and when would the United Nations lift its sanctions on Iran? What does Iran have to do to get relief from the sanctions crippling its economy? Someone has to go first. And each side has to trust, to some degree, that the other side will uphold its end of the deal. After decades of enmity, that's hard.

The Iranians demand that all sanctions be lifted right away; their country needs a functioning economy, they say, and if they're complying with all of the restrictions as of day one then they shouldn't have to endure crippling sanctions on day two.

But the US and others worry, with good reason, that if they lift all sanctions immediately then Iran will have far less incentive to follow through on its commitments, as it would be very difficult to reimpose those sanctions. And Iran has cheated on such agreements before.

This was always going to be one of the hardest issues, and the framework agreement that was so good on other topics punted on this one, which suggested the two sides were still far apart.

If sanctions come off too quickly — say, if they get lifted dramatically in the first few months, or if the UN lifts them before Iran dismantles the nuclear components it has to dismantle — that could create a lot of problems. First, it will make it harder to sell the deal politically in Washington. Second, it will make it harder to pressure Iran to stick to its terms; that matters for Tehran as well, as the leadership will surely come under pressure from hard-liners to resume illegal nuclear development. And, third, if Iran does cheat, it will make it a lot harder for the world to reimpose sanctions once they've already been lifted.

On the other hand, if sanctions come off too slowly, then that will make it harder to sell a deal in Tehran. As regular Iranians continue to suffer under a bad economy, the public support there for the nuclear deal will shrivel, and hard-liners will win favor once more. If Iran's moderate-led government can't deliver real sanctions relief, it will lose influence, and Iranian leaders might decide they're better off just defying the deal if the sanctions are going to stay anyway.

So what you want to see here is sanctions that come off gradually, over an extended period of time, and only after Iran verifiably takes the required steps to dismantle its nuclear program. At the same time, if you want the deal to actually work, you do want to see some sanctions relief on the near side of the timetable, but not too soon. Ideally, you also want some discussion of how sanctions could be reimposed, but the truth is that no matter what the agreement says, once they come off it will be really difficult to reimpose them.

If that sounds like an impossibly vague and contradictory set of requirements, then perhaps now you understand why the talks have blown past so many deadlines.

2) How invasive are nuclear inspections of Iran's facilities?

IAEA nuclear inspectors at Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz in 2014 (KAZEM GHANE/AFP/Getty)

IAEA nuclear inspectors at Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz in 2014. (KAZEM GHANE/AFP/Getty)

When I spoke in March to Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury's Monterey Institute of International Studies, he really emphasized how important the inspections regime is to making any deal a good deal.

The reason is this: If Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decides to cheat on the deal or even try to build an entire nuclear bomb, the way he would do it is not by using the facilities that the world knows about and would have under inspection. Rather, he'd do it by squirreling away enough uranium and equipment such as centrifuges to a secret facility somewhere, and doing it there.

The goal of the nuclear agreement, then, should be to get nuclear inspectors so up in Iran's business that Khamenei can't cheat on the agreement without us knowing, and he knows it, so he doesn't bother trying.

The framework deal was astonishingly favorable to the US on this issue. It would allow inspections not just of nuclear facilities, but of all sorts of related sites: centrifuge factories, uranium mines, uranium processing mills. The idea is that Iran wouldn't be able to peel away even a centrifuge or bit of uranium ore without the world knowing.

There are two things to watch for here: Did this super-invasive inspections regime make it intact to the final deal? And what does the deal say about the process of "managed" inspections for non-nuclear sites?

That latter question is a thorny but important one. Inspectors want to be able to visit any place in Iran if they think it's possibly being use for covert nuclear development. Iran, understandably, is not thrilled with the idea of inspectors — often from Western countries that Tehran sees as dangerously hostile — poking around in military sites that might not always be related to nuclear development. Khamenei has declared he forbids any inspections of military sites, but he's bent on "red line" issues so might bend on this one, as well — or might not.

The middle ground here is probably some kind of "managed access" for inspectors to sensitive sites such as military facilities. Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies explains what that means here. He sums it up as "anywhere, but not anytime"; in other words, inspectors can go wherever they want, but they can't always just show up unannounced. In practice that probably means, with certain sites, that Iran gets some say in how the inspections go down.

This is a really tricky balance: Iran would require enough of a say in "managed access" visits that it can prevent inspectors from seeing or disrupting sensitive non-nuclear equipment, but not so much of a say that it can stall inspectors while it potentially hides illegal nuclear equipment.

This is just not an issue with an answer that will satisfy everyone, which means any viable agreement will probably require both sides to bend a little on this one.

3) How long does it last?

Even if the terms are good, they're still only as good as they're in force. Once the conditions lift, as critics have pointed out, it will be difficult to reimpose them or to reimpose the sanctions. So it matters a great deal how much time this deal buys us.

The framework agreement assigned different lengths of time to different provisions. The most common figure seemed to be 15 years; that's how long, for example, Iran is only allowed to enrich its uranium a little bit. Some provisions were to last much longer, particularly inspections, which would last for 20 or in some cases 25 years. One or two were shorter: Iran will be severely limited in the nuclear R&D it can do for the next 10 years, and after that it faces milder R&D limits.

This was an issue that we got pretty detailed answers to in the framework deal, and generally the numbers looked solid. More is always better, but 15 years would carry us to 2030 — not bad. It's worth looking closely to see how these numbers held up and whether they slid in one direction or another.

4) What does Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu think of the deal?

Netanyahu AIPAC Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at AIPAC. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Just kidding, he's going to oppose it no matter what it says. His reasoning for that is more sophisticated than he lets on. And, to be fair, his opposition is based on some really valid concerns that any nuclear deal, no matter the terms, will legitimize Iran's government, make it harder to impose new sanctions if Iran cheats, and will distract global attention from Iran's nefarious and violent activities in the Middle East.

But were Iran to get a nuclear bomb, all of those problems would get much worse and much harder to solve. And a good nuclear deal is the best way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting a bomb.

So what's going on here? What Netanyahu's opposition ultimately comes down to is the belief that the only real solution would be to completely overpower and subdue Iran for good — and that negotiating with Iran is thus a distraction. It's telling that Iran hawks so often compare the nuclear talks to Neville Chamberlain's negotiations with Hitler at Munich: They see war as both inevitable and the only real answer, so better to get on with it.

But in today's political climate, you can't really come out and advocate just launching a war against Iran. That's why Iran hawks like Netanyahu oppose any nuclear deal, no matter what the terms say.

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