How bad an agreement is it?

Photographer: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

The Best Bad Deal on Iran

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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The Iran deal published Tuesday has drawn the expected criticisms. Taken together they add up to something like: a "historic mistake" that ensures Iran will get a nuclear bomb and amounts to "declaring war" on Israel and the Gulf Arab states.

It's nowhere near that bad.

QuickTake Iran's Nuclear Program

Sure, this isn't the deal most people would want. It works for only 10 to 15 years. It doesn't eliminate Iran's nuclear fuel program. It doesn't end once and for all the problem of a radical regional power that wants to acquire a nuclear weapon and is well on its way to having the know-how and production capacity to get one. Nor does it ensure that Saudi Arabia won't feel the need to develop its own bomb. In fact, this deal is the worst possible outcome -- except for all the other ones.

Start with the most common criticism, that the deal ensures Iran will get a nuclear weapon. It doesn't. It will, however, make it much harder for Iran to acquire one in the next 10 to 15 years. Iran will be allowed to keep only 2 percent of the stockpile of enriched uranium it has today; its heavy water reactor will be redesigned so it doesn't produce fuel useful for nukes; and international inspectors will have much more access to suspect facilities than they have today.

After the deal expires, though, all bets are off. There is awful language in the agreement about what Iran "plans" or "intends" to do after binding constraints are lifted, rather than what it commits to do. The inspection regime will continue, but Iran will be able to produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale. New strategies will have to be found to prevent Iran from building a bomb.

But evaluating this deal requires comparing it with the actual alternatives.

Take those "anywhere, anytime" inspections of military sites that weren't included. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency can demand access to suspect military sites, but have to give 14 days' notice, with a potential 10-day arbitration period. Yet because it's so hard to eradicate traces of radioactivity, that's far from useless, and it's important that inspectors will have the right to examine military sites. Of course, in Iraq between the two Gulf wars, inspectors had the right to go anywhere, anytime, and that would have been better. But Iraq had been invaded and defeated. Iran has not. It was never going to submit to those terms.

The biggest source of anger over the deal stems from its concessions in lifting international sanctions. The most effective of these were imposed in 2010 to force the Iranians back to the negotiating table. A deal has now been struck, strongly supported by the Europeans -- who imposed some of the most effective sanctions -- and the Russians and Chinese -- who at least didn't undermine them. This kind of international unity is rare.

Had the U.S. walked away from the talks because they couldn't eliminate Iran's nuclear fuel program, a strategy not backed by its negotiating partners, the sanctions could not have been expected to hold for long.

Yes, a richer Iran will have more money to spare for military aggression in the region. And those who think the regime will suddenly become more peaceful and cooperative are deluding themselves. (Did financial success make Russian President Vladimir Putin less aggressive?) But it isn't feasible to maintain the nuclear sanctions indefinitely.

President Barack Obama and the negotiators for the so-called P5+1 countries -- China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. -- have just bought some time. In the decade that elapsed from the time Iran's covert nuclear program was exposed until the start of the current talks, the country went from having 100 unassembled centrifuges to 19,000 and a stockpile of enriched uranium big enough to reprocess for use in 10 nuclear weapons.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Tuesday's agreement a "historic mistake," the same phrase he used to describe the temporary agreement struck in November 2013. He was wrong about that one: It froze or reversed Iran's nuclear progress for more than 18 months. This deal promises to deepen those gains and extend them for 10 years. When that time has passed, maybe U.S. and Israeli airstrikes will have to follow -- or maybe not. But why rush to war now?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net