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The 6 biggest myths about the Iran nuclear deal

The Iran deal mythmaking predates the Iran deal itself. When the actual agreement was still but a glint in the negotiating team's eye, it had already been declared to be both savior and downfall of nations. While there were kernels of truth in many of those arguments, they were often composed of spin, exaggeration, or even straight-up nonsense.

It can be easy to get lost in all of those myths, and hard to separate them out from what this deal actually does. Here, then, are a few of the most common myths about the Iran deal — debunked.

Myth #1: The Iran deal is abject surrender and will make it easier for Iran to get a nuclear bomb

This is probably the most common talking point about the Iran deal, and certainly the most common one against it: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been making it for months, as have some Republicans.

This is total nonsense and is, in fact, the exact opposite of what is happening. Iran has accepted enormous cuts to its nuclear program, not to mention invasive and politically humiliating inspections.


Iran gets to keep some stuff, sure. But the US won on every major issue that was really important, and the upshot is that Iran is surrendering most of its nuclear program. Here are the bullet points:

  • Iran will give up about 14,000 of its 20,000 centrifuges.
  • Iran will give up 97 percent of its enriched uranium; it will hold on to only 300 kilograms' worth.
  • Iran will be forbidden from enriching uranium beyond energy-grade fuel, or 3.67 percent enrichment. (Weapons-grade uranium is 90 percent enriched.)
  • Iran will destroy or export the core of its plutonium plant at Arak, and replace it with a new core that cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium. It will ship out all spent nuclear fuel.

It's worth looking at what actual arms control experts say: that the deal is very good at limiting Iran's nuclear program and is favorable to the United States. Given that many of those analysts were initially pessimistic, that they took this as a welcome surprise tells you something.

One nuclear weapons expert, Aaron Stein, told us the that deal "makes the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon in the next 25 years extremely remote."

In short, the terms of this agreement will make it far, far, far more difficult for Iran to get a nuclear bomb. It is exactly what the United States sought out of this deal, and it got it.

Myth #2: The Iran deal will pave Iran's way to regional and/or global domination

This is the second major component of the Iran deal criticism. It's on much more solid ground — but it's still ultimately false.

The argument goes like this: Iran is bent on hegemonic expansion of power in the Middle East (true), it uses violence and terrorism and sponsors terrible groups to achieve this aim (very true), and every penny it gets from economic sanctions relief will go to furthering this violent agenda (sort of true). Sometimes, as with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, critics take this much further:

It seems likely that Iran will in fact spend some of its new cash on its cold war with Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, which means funding dictators and terrorist groups. That will indeed increase human suffering in the region, and could turn up the temperature on some of the proxy conflicts Iran is already involved in.

But it's simply not the case that Iran will devote every penny of its economic windfall to sowing regional havoc. At the moment, most of the country's budget goes toward routine governance expenses, like salaries for government employees and the costs of social services. There's no reason to believe those priorities will suddenly change now.

Don't take it from me: The CIA itself predicts that Iran will probably put most of the money from sanctions relief toward its domestic economy. Iranian civilians are human beings, too, and they've been suffering real humanitarian hardship due to sanctions. This won't solve that problem, but it will ease it.

The CIA prediction is just that, and could be wrong. But even the pessimistic view, that Iran will put its money toward nefarious activities, concedes that this would happen even without the Iran deal. As Brookings scholar Tamara Wittes wrote, "Iranian meddling across the region will get worse in the wake of an Iran deal — but it was going to get worse anyway."

It's worth remembering that this problem would be infinitely worse if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, which would grant it far more power and military cover than any amount of sanctions relief. That's one of the main reasons the nuclear deal was so important in the first place.

Myth #3: The Iran deal will usher in a kinder, gentler, friendlier Iran

This myth is the bizarro twin of #2: the idea that now that sanctions have been removed and Iran will be more economically connected with the rest of the world, it will inevitably lead to a less hostile, friendlier Iranian government. This theory tends to rely on a lot of reasoning from counterfactuals: Its proponents point out that embargoes on Cuba and North Korea haven't caused the end of hostile regimes in those countries, and that therefore closing off a country from the rest of the world must make it more extreme, and more openness must make it more friendly.

But while there may be some truth to that theory in general, there's a lot that it misses about Iran specifically. This nuclear deal isn't going to end Iran's struggle for regional dominance, which means that it isn't going stop Iran from backing brutal dictators like Syria's Bashar al-Assad or violent militant groups across the Middle East. There is simply no reason to believe that Iran has changed its ambitions in the Middle East or its willingness to sponsor bad actors.

Nor is hostility to the West something that can be solved so easily. As Steve Coll pointed out recently, Iran's regime sees hostility to America as a core value and an essential pillar to maintaining its power. The nuclear deal isn't going to change that.

Myth #4: The Iran deal will ring in a new era of prosperity and openness for Iran

This is a myth heard not in Washington, but in Iran. Many Iranians flooded into the streets when the deal was announced, reflecting a widespread — and dangerously false — belief that the nuclear deal will bring a swift end to the years of economic suffering they experienced under sanctions.

A recent poll found that a majority of Iranians said they expected an improvement in living standards and better access to foreign investment within a year. But the reality is that the Iranian economy will likely continue to struggle for a long time. Iran's economy is plagued by problems such as corruption, a middle-income trap, and a heavy reliance on oil and natural gas exports. Those are hard problems to solve, and if they get solved at all it will take years.

And the sanctions regime will only be suspended, not gone completely, for years to come. During that time, sanctions can "snap back" if Iran violates the terms of the nuclear deal. That means Iran will still be a risky place to invest: Foreign companies that sink money into infrastructure or long-term investments run the risk of losing that cash if sanctions return. They will behave accordingly.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani talks about the nuclear deal at a press conference in Tehran in April 2015. President Trump has just undercut Rouhani. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani talks about the nuclear deal at a press conference in Tehran on April 3, 2015. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

Even if foreign investment does turn out to be available, Iran's economy will take time to increase its productivity. In the meantime, Iranian businesses will face competition from foreign firms that will have access to its markets. That's arguably great for Iranian consumers, but it could be difficult for local businesses.

This myth risks more than just disappointing Iranians who believe it. One reason the nuclear deal went through at all, with all of the painful and humiliating concessions it required Iran to make, was the overwhelming popular demand for it. That gave Iran's moderates the political mandate they needed to overcome hard-liners who oppose the deal. When regular Iranians start to realize that they're not headed for overnight economic relief, they may lose enthusiasm for the deal or even turn against it. They could put more hard-liners into Iran's elected parliament, who might be tempted to cheat on the deal or defy it outright.

Myth #5: Iran will be able to block enforcement of the deal

Since the deal was announced, a number of critics have claimed that it will be ineffective because Iran will be able to evade the monitoring regime, or because it will be able to block the reimposition of sanctions, or both. Under that theory, Iran has basically just gotten something for nothing: The current sanctions will be lifted, but with a little luck and sneaking around, the Iranians will be able to get a bomb anyway.

When you look at how this deal is structured, it becomes clear that this is just not the case. Arms control experts say the inspections regime is the strongest element of the deal. Inspectors will be monitoring the only two mines where Iran can get uranium ore, the fuel for a bomb, and the mills where it's processed. They will keep tabs on every single centrifuge in the country, as well as the centrifuge factories, the machines that could be used to make a centrifuge, even on imports of technology that could be used to build a machine that could be used to build a centrifuge.

According to Stein, if Iran tried to cheat on the deal, "the likelihood of getting caught is near 100 percent."

And if it does get caught, the deal is set up to make punishment swift and almost totally certain. If one of the parties to the deal believes Iran is cheating, it can first go to the joint committee that's in charge of deal enforcement. But if it's not happy with that committee's decision, it can go to the Security Council, at which point sanctions will "snap back" into place after 30 days unless a new resolution is passed — and the US can veto any resolution, effectively allowing it to force the UN to reimpose new sanctions.

This also applies if, say, Iran tried to block inspectors. Sure, they could lock out inspectors, but that would blow up the deal — it would effectively prove that Iran was cheating without the world even having to catch them red-handed. This was something that so infuriated the world when Iraq's Saddam Hussein tried it in 1998 that it ended with his country getting bombed shortly thereafter.

Even if Iran decided to cheat anyway, it will have surrendered so much of its program that it would take it a full year of cheating, with every centrifuge spinning at full capacity, to get enough material for a single bomb. That's more than enough time for the world to see it coming and respond.

Myth #6: The deal makes it physically impossible for Iran to build a bomb

From the White House fact sheet on the Iran nuclear deal.

This is the Obama administration's favorite myth. The White House fact sheet on the Iran deal says that the agreement "will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," and that it will "block" "all of Iran's potential pathways to a bomb."

It's definitely true that this deal makes it much, much harder for Iran to acquire a bomb. The country will give up most of its centrifuges and most of its stockpile of nuclear material, and it will put all of that under the watchful eyes of inspectors. But it will keep small amounts of each, and Iran is still a sovereign country.

By the White House's own estimate, Iran's "breakout time" — the time it would take Iran, if it kicked out inspectors one day, to assemble the material for one nuclear bomb — will be extended by the terms of this deal from three months to about a year. That's great news if you want to prevent Iran from having a nuclear bomb. That year is more than enough time for the world to discover what Iran is doing and respond however necessary.

But while a year is more than three months, it is also less than forever. Iran's pathway to a bomb is considerably longer, better monitored, and more dangerous for it to tread — all of which is meant to deter the country from walking it. But it is not correct to say that the pathway is entirely "blocked." And preventing Iran from testing its limits, from the temptation of cheating, will be a constant responsibility for the international community.

Even if you were to grant the White House's language massaging when it conflates a 12-month breakout time with "all pathways are blocked," it's still not entirely accurate. The provisions in the deal will last between 10 and 25 years. Arms control experts tend to see the 25-year provisions — the inspections — as the most important, which is why Stein told us "this will take us into 2040. So it's not the next president's issue."

But even that most optimistic assessment of 25 years is not forever. It is more than 10 years, and certainly more than the two-year delay that bombing Iranian nuclear facilities would impose on the program. This deal is certainly still meaningful. But it doesn't block all pathways to Iran ever getting a bomb. We shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that this problem is solved forever.


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