Long Road Ahead For Permanent Iran Nuclear Deal To Be Reached

The Obama administration says one of the most important gains in the Iran nuclear deal is that it will buy time for negotiations on a more permanent agreement. If no such agreement is reached, sanctions that have been suspended could be re-imposed. But analysts say the obstacles to a final agreement are still huge, and it may not be easy to regain the leverage that sanctions have achieved so far.

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The news of a deal on Iran's nuclear program brought lots of celebration in Tehran and among Iran's allies. The Hezbollah organization in Lebanon called the agreement a major victory and a defeat for Iran's enemies. Whether anyone will be celebrating six months from now is another question. That's when this interim deal expires. Now, the focus shifts to negotiations on a longer-term agreement. And as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, the toughest issues are still unresolved.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: This deal has certainly provoked a lot of disagreement - whether it's worthwhile, whether it makes any less likely that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon. But there is one point that is beyond dispute - sanctions in this case worked. Gary Hufbauer has been studying sanctions for more than 30 years at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and he is impressed.

GARY HUFBAUER: What has been achieved by these sanctions is, you know, by historical experience, pretty remarkable. They have persuaded the Iranians to elect a new leader, and he's come to the table to negotiate. So that's pretty good.

GJELTEN: Hufbauer says these sanctions were effective, at least in this limited sense, because in contrast to past sanction's regimes, they were tremendously costly to the Iranian economy and with little way around them. This weekend's accord relieves some sanctions, most are left in place pending a final agreement six months to a year from now. At that point, there could be further relief, or if there's no agreement on the outstanding issues, the sanctions could be reimposed.

And those unresolved issues are tough ones. What nuclear program, if any, Iran can have? The future of a plutonium reactor that could give Iran another route to a bomb. And what kind of on-the-ground inspections in Iran will be possible? The U.S. and its allies say it made sense to tackle the negotiating challenge in these two stages but critics disagree even on that point. Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says his organization doesn't like the idea of a two-stage process.

MARK DUBOWITZ: The idea that you have a interim agreement and then a final agreement because we think that that gives significant and enhanced negotiating leverage to Iran.

GJELTEN: Administration officials argue that until now, Iran was getting closer to a nuclear weapons capability each week, with more uranium stockpiled and more centrifuges to enrich the uranium. So suspending that work at least provides some time to work on a bigger accord. Dubowitz says what the Iranians have suspended may be less important than what they have not suspended. Figuring out, for example, how to make a warhead.

DUBOWITZ: What the Iranians have done is that they've agreed to a pause on the very elements of the program that they've already perfected and which are reversible and which they can restart. And in six months time, they'll find themselves closer to a nuclear weapon because now they have six months to actually work on the weaponization side of the nuclear program while getting significant sanctions relief, which will put them in a much stronger negotiating position by May of 2014.

GJELTEN: Weaponization issues are not covered by this agreement. But some analysts take a more positive view.

OLLI HEINONEN: You know, I think that we have a deal here.

GJELTEN: Olli Heinonen was, for nearly 30 years, an inspector with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has the responsibility for monitoring Iran's nuclear program.

HEINONEN: I think that we should take advantage of this current interim agreement. Go ahead, see whether Iran is going to implement truthfully the obligations which are rising from this treaty.

GJELTEN: Heinonen, now teaching at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, has been a harsh skeptic of Iran's nuclear program. He said recently Iran had made so much progress toward a nuclear weapon that it could break out to that capability in as little as two weeks. The interim agreement, he says, extends that time to two months, which means the U.S. and its allies would, in theory, have time to detect Iran's move and take military action.

But for Iran to convince the world that its nuclear program is meant only for peaceful purposes, Heinonen says, it'll have to become as transparent as the other states that have signed on to the nonproliferation treaty.

HEINONEN: Many of the countries and the member states make what we call white papers where they describe what are they nuclear programs, what is the purpose they serve, what they are going to build now, what they are going to have 10 years, 20 years from now.

GJELTEN: Providing that complete and convincing rationale for its program is something that'll take years, Heinonen says, all the while with constant, international monitoring. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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