Of all the details about the historic deal announced on Nov. 24 in Geneva limiting Iran’s nuclear program, the most salient one may be its scope: It’s intended to last for only six months. Iran agreed to take the essential steps required to freeze its progress, which include halting enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, just a short leap from weapons-grade, and converting its stockpile of the fuel to less dangerous forms. Iran also agreed to accept more intrusive inspections—in some cases daily—by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In exchange, the so-called P5+1—China, France, Russia, the U.K., the U.S, and Germany—have relaxed about $7 billion of the $100 billion sanctions.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is correct that the agreement clearly establishes any final pact will leave Iran with an enrichment capacity, albeit one that is limited and monitored. This is a departure from United Nations Security Council resolutions in place since 2006 and the zero-enrichment demands made by the U.S. and its European allies for the last 10 years. That strategy, however, failed. The tacit acceptance that Iran will be allowed to go on enriching uranium up to 5 percent merely recognizes this failure.
A permanent settlement needs to meet the legitimate concerns of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others in the Middle East—and it must enforce the repeated pledges of President Obama that Iran never become a nuclear-armed state. Critics of the interim agreement are right that Iran may use the negotiations to run out the clock, gradually wearing down sanctions but leaving the country with the freedom to develop nuclear arms. The best way to prevent this is to make clear to Iranian leaders that failure so late in the game would mean military action, while success could lead to other deals Iran craves on trade and regional security.
The real test of Iran’s intentions comes now, not just in whether it implements the terms of the interim deal, but also in how aggressively it pursues a final agreement. That’s what supporters and critics of this first-step accord should be watching.