Obama's Unsatisfying Answer on Iran

Taking on the best arguments?

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Of all the arguments against this week's deal to restrict Iran's nuclear program, the strongest may be that it has an expiration date. U.S. President Barack Obama confronted this criticism in his press conference about the agreement: "That's a good one," he said, without apparent condescension.

So why doesn't he have a better answer for it?

QuickTake Iran's Nuclear Program

The president's basic answer is that, when the deal expires 15 years from now, his successor will be no worse off than he is. Yes, Iran will be able to pursue a nuclear-weapons program. But it will be starting from where it is today. And it will still be subject to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to inspections.

That's not a satisfying response. To understand why, it's helpful to recall the original goal and history of these negotiations.

When they began, a top priority of the administration was to reduce Iran's number of centrifuges that produce enriched uranium, as well as Iran's stockpiles of the fuel. These are the two elements that determine the speed at which a country can potentially reprocess fuel to weapons-grade and build a bomb: "breakout" time, in nuclear-speak.

If Iran abides by the terms of the agreement -- and its record of keeping promises is not exactly encouraging -- its breakout time will go from about two months to a year. For 15 years, Iran can ostensibly have only 300 kilograms of enriched uranium -- 2 percent of what it has now. Plus, it can run fewer than 6,000 centrifuges, a third of what the Iranians currently possess, let alone the 190,000 that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said last year that Iran needed.

In any case, once the deal expires, Iran will be able to conduct uranium enrichment on an unlimited scale. Khamenei won't need 190,000 centrifuges -- because the deal gives Iran the right to continue research and development on a new generation of centrifuges that are far more efficient. Industrial-scale production creates the possibility of amassing large stockpiles, and then feeding them into a system for quick processing and transfer to weapons.

Obama needs to address this looming threat -- or his insistence that this agreement was the best course available to him will count for nothing. What will that matter, if the deal ultimately fails to prevent a nuclear-armed Iranian theocracy and an arms race in the volatile Middle East?

These concerns lie beneath the sense of betrayal that Israel, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies are left with. Iran is a country, after all, that has sworn to destroy not only Israel and the Jewish people, but also its Sunni enemies.

These countries are rightly concerned, too, that with $150 billion of sanctions relief and (in five years) more freedom to buy and sell conventional weapons, Iran will become a greater threat to them than it is today. And the knowledge that Iran will relatively soon have a uranium enrichment industry could set off a regional arms race: Saudi Arabia will want (or buy) a bomb, and then Egypt, and Turkey, and so on. An already unstable corner of the world will become even more so.

Congress, and the American people, should enter this period of debate with no illusions: Under this deal, the need to keep a watchful eye on Iran's dangerous ambitions and hostile intentions will only grow.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.