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Does the Iran deal create adequate temporary constraints or is it a ‘disaster’?

November 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Does the interim agreement reached in Geneva do enough to temporarily contain Iran's nuclear program as negotiators attempt a final agreement? Judy Woodruff gets views from Jeffrey Lewis of the Monterey Institute of International Studies and Greg Jones of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: So, does this deal do enough to contain Iran’s nuclear program as negotiators attempt a final agreement?

We have two views. Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. And Gregory Jones is a senior researcher at The Nonproliferation Education Center.

Welcome to you both.

Jeffrey Lewis, to you first. You believe this is a good deal. Explain why you think it stops or begins to stop Iran from enriching uranium to a weapons grade, a place where it can use it for weapons?

JEFFREY LEWIS, Monterey Institute of International Studies: Well, the first thing to note is, it is an interim deal. And so the question is, is this deal good enough to keep talking, or is it worth blowing up and just going our separate ways?

By definition, the deal prevents Iran from enriching above 5 percent, and it caps the size of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium. The reason that you need an interim deal is because, if we are going to be talking to the Iranians, we didn’t want to be talking to them while they were continuing to enrich uranium and expand their nuclear program. That’s stopped.

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And in exchange, there is a temporary, but reversible reduction of sanctions, so that the Iranian side comes home with something, because although I think, in the United States, we seem to have forgotten this — usually, when you make deals internationally, both sides get something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Gregory Jones, how do you see this question of enriching — Iran’s capability of enriching uranium?

GREGORY JONES, The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center: Well, first of all, we are still permitting Iran to enrich uranium. Its stockpile of enriched uranium is continuing to grow.

The number of nuclear weapons they will be able to produce for this is also continuing to grow during the six months. And though President Obama says that we have cut off Iran’s path to nuclear weapons, in fact, we haven’t. It’s still there and virtually everyone agrees that the time it would require Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons is virtually unchanged by this agreement.

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY JONES: Furthermore, this agreement is, in fact, something of a disaster, because it actually does validate Iran’s right to enrich, even though Secretary Kerry says it doesn’t. It seems to plainly do so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well…

GREGORY JONES: And this is a disaster not only with regard to Iran, but with regard to nonproliferation worldwide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, before we get to that broader question of the right to enrich, what about what Mr. Jones just said.

Let me come back to you, Jeffrey Lewis. I mean, basically, he’s saying that Iran can still make, can still enrich, can still, in essence, make a weapon.

JEFFREY LEWIS: Yes.

If the United States had agreed to the deal that Greg is suggesting that we agreed to, it would be a bad deal. But it’s not the deal we agreed to. In terms of enrichment, Iran is allowed to continue running the centrifuges and enriching uranium, but the size of the stockpile can’t increase. So it has to take whatever it produces and convert it into a form that’s not weapons-usable.

He mentioned the fact that there would be no increase in the length of time that it would take Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. Again, it’s just — it’s not true. One of the provisions is that for daily access of the IAEA to Iran’s nuclear facility. So it would be much harder for the Iranians if they decided to make a break for a nuclear weapon.

So I think one of the biggest problems the president is going to have in selling this deal is dealing with what really amounts to a tremendous amount of disinformation about its terms.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gregory Jones, you want to respond to those two points?

GREGORY JONES: I’m afraid he’s incorrect.

One cannot convert the enriched uranium into a form where it can’t be converted into weapons. I mean, they talk about converting the low-enriched uranium to oxide, but it’s easy enough to convert that back. For the 20 percent, that was a problem because of criticality issues. It isn’t for the 3.5 percent. So they can certainly do that.

They can continue to enrich. The safeguards only do us any good if we think the U.S. will take action on it. And given the president’s choking when Syria used chemical weapons back in August, I don’t know what we think is going to happen, even if the IAEA were to detect something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey Lewis, it sounds like you are talking about two different agreements.

JEFFREY LEWIS: Well, I mean, I think a lot of this is just sort of partisan sour grapes. You heard the reference to the president’s choking.

I mean, the fact is that the terms of the deal are pretty plain to see. And if you were to look at them, you would see there are plenty of safeguards and measures. We’re not going to resolve it on TV. But I think it basically boils down to this, which is, there was no meaningful constraint on Iran’s nuclear weapons program before we had this deal.

And so the argument amounts to, we should blow up what we have and let Iran go back to enriching uranium on an unconstrained basis, on the belief that there is somehow some better, amazing deal out there. And the reality is, you know, a lot of people making that argument had eight years in the Bush administration to get a better deal, and they didn’t.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So — so, Gregory Jones, you hear what he’s saying. I mean, he’s saying this at least begins to put the brakes on what — on where Iran was headed.

GREGORY JONES: Well, and that would be a useful thing. And there are some useful things in the agreement, in particular our getting to inspect their centrifuge production facility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m sorry. It looks like we have lost one of our guests — or both of our guests?

All right, let me come back to you.

JEFFREY LEWIS: I’m here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: My apologies.

Jeffrey Lewis, I mean, or do I — maybe I have you both back. But, Jeffrey Lewis, let me come to you now. This question of inspectors, will the — how confident are you that the international inspectors are going to be able to get in there and verify that Iran is doing what it says it’s doing?

JEFFREY LEWIS: Well, look, there’s an easy problem in Iran and a hard problem.

The easy problem is verifying the declared facilities. And so having daily access to those facilities I think gives one a very high level of assurance. The hard problem in Iran is always going to be the possibility of a covert facility, a facility one can’t see.

And so the way that one needs to address that is by having a much broader and more comprehensive access to the Iranian program. So, for example, what Greg mentioned was access to the workshops where the Iranians build the centrifuges. Right now, the Iranians can build as many centrifuges as they want and if they show up at Natanz, the inspectors see them.

If they show up in a mountain somewhere, in a tunnel, we don’t see them. So being able to get inside those workshops and see how many centrifuges they’re making — and, in fact, the deal contains a constraint on how many centrifuges they can make — helps deal with that second harder problem of sites we don’t yet know about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gregory Jones, we have you back. Sorry about that, but what about the points that we just heard from Jeffrey Lewis?

GREGORY JONES: As I said, the — the deal has some useful features. But it’s given up this major point that it is agreed that Iran can have enrichment.

And once you have done that, we are looking at a very long-term problem, not only with Iran, but with nonproliferation worldwide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey Lewis, final word.

JEFFREY LEWIS: Well, it’s the reason the deal is a good idea.

I don’t know if anybody had noticed, but Iran does have enrichment and they do have centrifuges. And we have told them for about 10 years that they can’t, and they don’t stop. If we want them to stop, we have to have a deal. This is the deal on the table. We should take it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, gentlemen, we will leave it there.

Jeffrey Lewis and Gregory Jones, we appreciate it.