World leaders are close to an historic agreement that would roll back and contain Iran's nuclear program. In order for the deal to succeed, however, it must deliver on three core issues.
First, the deal must block all of Iran's pathways to a bomb. It must shrink and constrain all aspects of Iran's nuclear program so that the Iranians cannot sprint from a small civilian program to a large military program.
Second, the deal must give us eyes on the program. It must create an inspection regime so intrusive that if Iran tries to break out, sneak out or creep out, we can detect it quickly.
Third, the deal must allow for a rapid response mechanism that can punish Iran should it cheat. This will be both a carrot and a stick. We now have Iran in a global sanctions vise. As Iran complies with the agreement, we relieve some sanctions. But if Iran cheats, we snap them back.
Honey, I Shrunk the Program
It is very likely that the deal can deliver on the first two essential conditions. If reports are correct, Iran has agreed to slash its inventory of centrifuges by over two-thirds. When the Bush Administration blew the chance to make a deal with Iran that would have limited it to a few hundred research centrifuges, the Iranians ramped up to 6,000 by the time President Bush left office. They now have about 20,000. This deal would push them all the way back to the Bush levels. And it would eliminate almost all of the uranium gas stored for those centrifuges.
This means that it would take Iran at least a year to make enough uranium for one bomb -- and then perhaps another year to turn that uranium into a real weapon. More than enough time to react.
Will we know if Iran is trying to sprint to a bomb? (Actually, with one to two years just to make one bomb, it's more like a leisurely stroll.) If the inspection procedures are as good as reported, we can detect cheating very quickly.
I was with International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano last week. He told an international gathering of non-proliferation experts that with the new inspection procedures, "If there is any abnormality, we can detect the change on the following day, on the very same day or in one week's time."
Of course, we also have the formidable intelligence assets the U.S., Israel and many other countries have trained on Iran that have helped us uncover every previous attempt to hide their nuclear research. Together, these intelligence and inspection tools should give us a very good chance of discovering covert facilities.
It's Not All About US
The third condition is actually the toughest to satisfy. It is the final issue negotiators are hammering out in Lausanne, Switzerland. It may be the key to the entire agreement.
Iran wants the sanctions lifted immediately. We want them lifted slowly. We have to keep the unity of the P5+1 (the U.S., UK, France, China, Russia and Germany) in order to convince Iran to accept our terms and to make sure the sanctions will be there to snap back when needed.
It is not just the U.S. sanctions, but more importantly the global coalition that the Obama Administration has assembled that gives the sanctions real bite. Break it and we lose everything.
This point is often lost on hardliners who propagate the "better deal" myth -- the myth that all Congress has to do is pass more sanctions and Iran will fold like a house of cards.
This is nonsense. But in a vain attempt to grab this bigger bone, Congress may pass more sanctions, may force a vote on the deal (allowing hardliners to kill it), or may try to prevent the deal from being implemented.
If the Congress takes any of these actions, the sanctions regime will unravel. We will be seen as the reason the deal failed. Global support for sanctions will wither. The pressures on Iran will get weaker, not stronger. We will be left with one of two choices: watch Iran vastly expand its nuclear program or go to war. This deal is our only alternative to those bad choices.
There's Something About Molybdenum
There are other issues that must be settled in the talks, but they are details to these larger conditions.
The issue of Iran's past research, for example. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Iran conducted research on nuclear weapon designs before 2003. Are we sure? No, but the circumstantial evidence is fairly strong. Why is Iran stonewalling the IAEA on these issues? Most likely because to tell the truth would be to admit something they have steadfastly denied for years.
It is an important issue, but not a deal killer. The agreement can set up a mechanism for getting the answers before all sanctions are lifted. It will be easier for Iran to admit to some "unauthorized" past work if its leaders know that there will be an amnesty for the admissions.
How about getting all the centrifuges out of Fordow? Most of Iran's centrifuges are at the Natanz facility. Several hundred are at Fordow -- a structure so deeply buried that Israeli bombs cannot penetrate. Israel really wants those centrifuges out. But Iran has invested a lot of money and a lot of national pride putting them in there.
Time for a creative solution. Iran might be allowed to keep the centrifuges there, but not use them to enrich any uranium gas. Instead they can use them to purify other gases needed for scientific purposes. And here is the really cool part: some of those gases, like zinc and molybdenum, will contaminate the centrifuges, making them very difficult to reuse for uranium enrichment. Expect Google searches of "molybdenum" to increase significantly over the next few days.
Defenders of Humanity
None of these solutions -- or even achievement of the three essential conditions for a solid deal -- will satisfy deal opponents. The closer we get to a real resolution of this crisis, the more shrill opponents' rhetoric will become. It is now at near-apocalyptic levels, with ads featuring human skulls, invocation of Nazi Germany and Neville Chamberlain, and cries that all of humanity is threatened by any deal with Iran.
These critics will never be satisfied. As the joke goes, if Barack Obama walked on the waters of the Potomac, Bill Kristol's headline in the Weekly Standard would be "Obama Can't Swim."
The key is not what the fringe shouts, but what sober national security professionals and the American public think. Even before the public has seen the deal, there is strong support for the diplomatic effort, with almost 70 percent in favor, according to a recent CNN poll.
If the deal can satisfy these three core issues, it is very likely that the center of America's security elite will add their endorsement. These will likely be accompanied by suggestions for additional policies and follow-on agreements, as they should. No one agreement solves a problem, but it can be a brick in the foundation of a long-term solution.
This agreement will not be the epic capitulation critics decry, nor be the solution to all the problems with Iran or the Middle East. But it will help resolve one of the most dangerous.