Now for the hard part

Early Sunday morning in Geneva, the P5+1 and Iran announced that they had reached an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Many are heralding the agreement as an historic breakthrough, and the deal does indeed buy us time, but it is much too early to declare victory. Indeed, the Iranian nuclear crisis might still very well end in President Obama making a fateful choice between Iran with the bomb or bombing Iran.

To be sure, the interim pact is a step in the right direction. It put strict ceilings on all aspects of Iran’s program, including: centrifuge production, number and types of operating centrifuges, stockpiles of low- and medium-enriched uranium, numbers of enrichment facilities, and the start-up of the Arak reactor. In addition, these measures are to be verified by more intrusive inspections. In exchange, the United States offered relatively modest sanctions relief to the tune of roughly $7 billion. The deal will leave the most important aspects of the sanctions regime in place, buy us time, and, if Tehran honors its end of the bargain, prevent Tehran from inching ever closer to a nuclear weapons breakout capability while negotiations continue. But we are not out of the woods yet.

The interim deal is, as Secretary of State John Kerry has said, only a “first step.” It is to remain in place for six months until a “comprehensive” accord can be reached. In other words, now comes the hard part.

There remains a chasm between the two sides on fundamental issues, including: Iran’s erroneous claim to a “right to enrich,” Tehran’s unwillingness to come clean on its past nuclear weaponization activities, whether Iran will be allowed to continue to enrich at the deeply-buried Fordow facility (or to enrich at all), the final status of the Arak reactor, and many other matters.

For the next six months, therefore, we will replay the tape we have been watching since President Rouhani assumed power in August. The Iranians and the P5+1 will attempt to negotiate an accord while a worldwide chorus chimes in on the contours of an acceptable deal and otherwise seeks to influence the outcome.

So, where will this leave us six months from now?

There are three possible outcomes. First, the two sides might successfully negotiate a comprehensive deal that succeeds in dismantling the Iranian nuclear threat. This would be the best possible outcome, but, for the reasons mentioned above, it is also the least likely.

The second possibility is that the six-month interim deal expires without an accord and the two sides agree to extend the terms of the interim deal. Over time, therefore, there is the danger that the interim deal becomes permanent. (Also in this category would be the possibility that we reach a weak “comprehensive” pact that does not go much beyond the interim arrangement). This outcome should be avoided. As long as such an arrangement is strictly enforced, it would at least prevent Iran from making the final dash to a nuclear weapon, but it would leave far too much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in place for comfort, amount to a de facto recognition of Iran’s right to enrich, and set a dangerous precedent for nonproliferation policy. Moreover, the tough sanctions regime we now have in place cannot hold forever and over time the pressure on Iran to uphold its end of the bargain will dissipate.

Finally, and at least as likely as the others, is that the interim deal begins to unravel after six months, or perhaps even before, and Iran resumes its steady march toward nuclear weapons. In this event, Congress must pass the tough sanctions bill it is currently marking up, and the international community must prepare to take military action.

Because nothing in this recent flurry of diplomatic activity changes the basic fact that, as President Obama has stated many times, a nuclear-armed Iran is “unacceptable” and the United States must do “everything that’s required to prevent it.”

Matthew Kroenig is Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He is the author of the forthcoming book, A Time to Attack: The Looming Threat of Iran’s Nuclear Program.

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Image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits sits with his fellow P5+1 foreign ministers -- as well as European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, far right -- at the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, after the group concluded negotiations about Iran's nuclear capabilities on November 24, 2013 (Photo: State Department/Public Domain)