The Iran Nuclear Deal: Myths and Misconceptions Busted

In the first Republican debate of the 2016 election, Carly Fiorina told the American public that her second phone call from the Oval Office would be to the Supreme Leader of Iran, to whom her message would be “crystal clear: new deal, new deal.” Later, Donald Trump, on Good Morning America, in usual bombastic fashion, stated that the Iran nuclear deal was negotiated by “stupid, incompetent people”, and that there was “something wrong with them.” Ben Carson warned the United States that the deal put the “whole country in jeopardy,” and Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey scorned a deal he thought was “based on hope.”
Throughout all of the debate and back and forth, the specifics of the deal have gotten lost. While opponents have painted the adoption of the deal as a catalyst for disaster, many of their assumptions do not hold up when the deal is examined more closely.
Myth: The United States could have acquired a harsher deal if they had negotiated more.
There has been a lot of talk about how a better agreement with Iran could have been reached had Secretary of State John Kerry just continued pushing for more concessions. However, it is clear when looking at the actual provisions of the deal that this was probably the best for which the United States could have hoped. To understand the deal’s details, it helps to break it up into four primary provisions: stockpile, enrichment, centrifuges, and inspections.
Under the deal, the Iranian nuclear stockpile would be vastly lowered. The deal specifies that Iran must lower its enriched uranium stock by 98 percent for 10 to 15 years, thereby preventing Iran from building a bomb for at least a year even if they were to break their agreement.
In addition to lowering the amount of nuclear material Iran is allowed to stockpile, the deal also ensures that what remains is less volatile. Under the agreement, Iran would be able to enrich uranium at a level no higher than 3.67 percent. To put that in context, that is enough for nuclear power generation, but not anywhere near the 90 percent needed to make weapons-grade uranium.
Centrifuges, the machines that work at enriching gas with the fissile uranium 235, are just as drastically limited by the deal. Provisions state that Iran’s centrifuges must be reduced from 19,000 to 6,104, of which only about 5,000 would be enriching uranium. In addition, the centrifuges the country will keep will be older models from the 1950’s, which are less effective than more modern prototypes.
Finally, inspections of Iran’s nuclear plants and sites would be ramped up to an unprecedented level with implementation the new deal. International Atomic Energy Association inspectors would have full access to Iranian plants, both declared and undeclared, and access to better technology than that used in the past for inspections. This provision is a huge step for further policing of undeclared, hidden Iranian nuclear plants due to continuous surveillance of Iran’s nuclear supply chain. This constant surveillance would make it extremely difficult for the country to pursue undetected programs, as the IAEA would be much better equipped to discover and thus shut down hidden Iranian nuclear facilities.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has perhaps been one of the most intense critics of the Iran nuclear deal’s “sunset provision,” which states that after Iran has complied with the provisions of the deal for long enough (about 10 years) the restrictions will be gradually lifted. Those against the Iran nuclear deal say that a sunset provision is far too dangerous and gives Iran too much leeway. But what they fail to realize is that the sunset provision does not even touch the IAEA inspections. Thus, although Iran would technically be able to build up their nuclear stockpile after 10 years, IAEA inspections would be continue being just as stringent as before, thereby allowing the world community to know exactly when and how Iran is changing their nuclear program. Furthermore, it was almost a given that there would be a sunset clause for this deal, seeing as how they are widely used in international arms deals and were necessary to get Iran to agree to any kind of deal. Although there are surely risks associated with the sunset provision, they far from completely cancel out the gains of the agreement.
The nuclear deal has gone further than any other previous initiative in curbing Iran’s nuclear program. Yet, critics still say the possibility for a complete dismantling of Iran’s program would have been attainable if stricter negotiations had been carried out. However, Dr. Matthew Bunn, professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and expert on nuclear proliferation and security issues, told the HPR that Iran is “a sovereign state pursuing its interests: there were certain things that were never going to be negotiable, such as a complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program.” Ultimately, an imperfect deal is better than no deal.
Myth: The Iran Deal will lead to further nuclear proliferation.
Various critics of the Iran nuclear deal have said that instead of actually curbing Iranian nuclear proliferation, the agreement will bolster Iran’s nuclear program by allowing them to have some levels of uranium enrichment and some stockpiles. Although the deal doesn’t completely eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, the presence of much more stringent regulations vastly decreases the possibility for Iran to develop a bomb. Additionally, the possibility of Iran continuing to develop nuclear weapons is virtually nonexistent, due to the widespread view that nuclear weapons are unIslamic, as decreed by the Ayatollah Khomeini in a fatwa (a religious decree or decisions). Furthermore, the provisions on IAEA inspections, according to Bunn, make “[it] more difficult to convince the Supreme Leader that Iran could get across the finish line without the effort being revealed and military action stopping it.”
The lifting of sanctions that would come with the passage of the deal would provide a huge economic boost for prominent figures in Iran, due to the combination of no sanctions and no asset freezes thereby reducing their pressure on continuing nuclear proliferation and increasing general support of nonproliferation. Ultimately, the Iran nuclear deal would decrease the possibility of further nuclear growth in Iran.
Besides the benefits of reducing Iran’s uranium enrichment and increasing the United States’ inspection presence in the country, the deal also presents potential advantages regarding nuclear security cooperation. A widely debated provision in the deal could actually increase the United States’ ability to help prevent security breaches in Iran’s nuclear program. Bunn explained that despite what various political figures have said, the deal and the security provision do not grant Iran any ability to defend itself against American or Israeli cyber attacks against nuclear facilities or fortify its nuclear weapon technology. All it does is add the ability for the United States to increase cybersecurity in Iranian nuclear programs, preventing third parties, like terrorists from stealing nuclear materials. When compared with sanctions, which have garnered little to no positive response from Iran, the new deal has huge potential to benefit the country.
Myth: The deal is less effective at curbing Iranian nuclear proliferation than sanctions were.
The misconception that the most recent Iran nuclear deal is an insufficient alternative to the multilateral sanctions to which Iran has been subjected is another common misperception promoted by news organizations and politicians. In order to understand just how effective the nuclear deal will be compared to previous sanctions, it is essential to know the goals of the sanctions and how well those were met. One of the scenarios that the United States and its allied countries had in mind when instituting sanctions against Iran was essentially to bleed the country dry and prevent any further nuclear proliferation by cutting off funds. If sanctions were in place long enough, there would be no choice but for Iranian leaders, seeing the destitute state of their people, to halt their nuclear progress. But even if this scenario did not play out, proponents still thought the sanctions could work. They believed that if the Iranian government did not give in to U.S. demands, the general public would. Driven to horrible poverty by the sanctions, Iranian citizens would revolt against their unyielding government and nuclear proliferation would be halted.
Neither of these situations panned out; Iranian leaders continued with nuclear proliferation, despite the country’s increasing poverty, and the Iranian people saw the United States as the one to blame—not their government. However, sanctions did have success in their primary goal, one separate from these two scenarios: bringing Iran to the negotiating table. But it’s crucial to recognize that if continued, sanctions would augment Iranian nuclear proliferation more than the new nuclear deal ever could by making leaders double down in their efforts to gain a bargaining chip against the United States.
This new deal makes a concrete step towards a restriction of Iranian nuclear proliferation. It directly targets fears associated with Iran’s program and attempts to lower them. A clear example of what Iran’s nuclear program could become under extended sanctions can be found in North Korea. By refusing to move away from sanctions and towards other, more comprehensive policies, American officials failed to stop the North Korean nuclear program from growing to its current strength.
Myth:  The Iran Deal will alienate the United States from its long time ally, Israel.
Due to the immense strength of the Israel lobby in the United States, along with the historical alliance between the United States and Israel, many politicians have voiced disapproval of the deal not because of its provisions, but because of its supposed effects on the United States-Israel partnership. It is impossible to say that the Iran nuclear deal will not have any negative effect on American-Israeli relations, especially since they have already been strained by the pact. But Israel will not end its alliance with or even distance itself from the United States because the real disapproval for the deal has been overstated and because of the underlying strength of the American-Israeli partnership.

By focusing on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s vehement criticisms of the deal, American politicians have grossly exaggerated Israel’s disapproval for the Iran nuclear deal. The Israeli government is made up of others who realize that although not preferable, the Iran nuclear deal is not enough for the country to sever its relationship with the United States. Various former Israeli security heads voiced their support for the nuclear deal, despite their less than positive views of Iran. The viewpoint supported by many in Israel was articulated perfectly by Major-General Israel Ziv, former head of the Israeli army’s Operations Directorate Branch. He stated that, “this agreement is the best among all other alternatives, and any military strike—as successful as it may be—would not have delayed even 20 percent of what the agreement will delay, not to mention the risk of another flare-up with Hezbollah, which an operation against Iran would have generated. The agreement is an established fact, and it’s not particularly bad as far as Israel is concerned.”
Even amongst Israeli disapproval, the American-Israeli relationship is astonishingly strong, presenting little chance of it crumbling under the pressure of strained relations because of the deal. Both countries are so interdependent in security and foreign policy matters that there is no way the United States could lose its strategic alliance with Israel.
Forging the Path Forward
The Iran nuclear deal is the best solution to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. In reality, the deal has various flaws, some of which have raised rightful concern in the international community. However, the majority of opposition to the deal has been overstated and is based on false premises. With these myths and misconceptions cleared up, the task of deciding what to do next in Iran and how to make sure the Iran nuclear deal will accomplish as much as it is equipped to becomes much easier.
Image Credits: U.S. Department of State/Wikimedia Commons, U.S. Department of State/Wikimedia Commons

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