The interim agreement with Iran recognizes that Tehran’s nuclear program is not going away, and that neither tougher sanctions nor the threat of military strikes can change that.

The best chance for the United States and its European and Middle Eastern allies to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons is — as the Joint Plan of Action, signed at 4 a.m. Sunday in Geneva, says — by converting this interim agreement into “a mutually agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful.”

Easier said than done.

Step one is to make sure Iran and the P5-plus-1 (U.S., Russia, United Kingdom, France and China — plus Germany) live up to the agreement. There are many elements that could be difficult, something all sides recognized by setting up a joint commission of the signatories to monitor implementation and other issues. The panel also will help work out past concerns that the International Atomic Energy Agency has had with Iran, including activities at Parchin, supposedly the site of research involving nuclear warheads.

The parties will meet in December to work out operational details so that the six-month clock can start in January.

Iran’s enrichment of uranium will continue — though critics of the agreement somehow believed that enrichment could be halted.

Forget the argument over whether Tehran has the “right” to enrich. Events have overtaken things. The agreement says the long-term solution will involve “a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.”

It’s worth noting the P5-plus-1 nations have enrichment facilities, as do other countries, including Argentina, Brazil, India, Japan, the Netherlands, North Korea, Pakistan and, probably, Israel.

Here are the issues: at what level Tehran enriches, and its capability to “break out” and go to weapons-grade uranium. The Geneva deal is meant to prevent Iran from moving forward while a more permanent solution is reached. As British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament on Monday, do not be surprised if the interim deal is extended if negotiations are not finished at the end of June.

Iran has pledged not to enrich uranium over 5 percent during the six-month period (weapons-grade is near 90 percent) and not to increase its enrichment capacity or its stockpile of 3.5 percent uranium, the level for reactors used for electric power. Iran also will dilute its stockpile of near-20-percent uranium — the level it said is needed for its small reactor that produces medical isotopes.

It also committed to limiting its centrifuge production, replacing older, damaged ones rather than using the next-generation versions it already has. In addition, Tehran said it will not build new locations for enrichment and will halt activities at Arak, its heavy-water reactor under construction. Tehran also said it won’t build a reprocessing facility that could derive weapons-grade plutonium from Arak’s used nuclear fuel. (That’s if the Arak facility is ultimately finished, of course.)

IAEA inspectors will be key to enforcing these provisions. Increased monitoring will include daily access to enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow; to centrifuge production, assembly and storage facilities; and to uranium mines and mills. Over the next three months, Iran is supposed to provide the IAEA with its plans for nuclear facilities, the buildings at each site, the scale of operations and information about the sources of its materials.

In return, the P5-plus-1 agreed to pause in efforts to reduce Iran’s oil sales for the next six months and suspend sanctions on oil insurance and transportation services. In addition, Iran will have about $4.2 billion in frozen oil earnings released on a timed schedule. Sanctions also will be suspended on gold and precious metals and on Iran’s auto and petrochemical exports so Tehran can earn about $1.5 billion.

There also will be no new U.N. Security Council or European Union nuclear-related sanctions. More important, the Obama administration is to “refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.”

It’s unclear whether Congress passing tougher sanctions that wouldn’t go into effect for six months would be a violation.

While sanctions were supposed to harm Iran’s nuclear program, their impact really was directed at the Iranian public.

And more hard-line U.S. proponents privately see them as a way to create regime change. But even with the tougher sanctions of the past few years, we’ve seen the 12,000 centrifuges installed in 2012 grow to 19,000 this year.

It was the sanctions’ impact on the Iranian economy and the public that brought the country’s leaders to the table — but only after the nuclear program matured.

The next six months will be a good time for the U.S. to have a serious debate over the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. National security expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote Sunday that Iran’s program makes “perfect sense from the viewpoint of a nation that both sees itself as under siege from the U.S. and many of its neighbors, and wants to greatly increase its influence in the region.”

He adds there’s little danger of “Iranian breakout capability or even a token weapon. … The real threat is an Iranian effort to develop enough effective weapons to arm its long-range missiles and air force and make it a serious nuclear power.”

Cordesman writes that “there is no way, however, that Iran could possibly conceal a major weapons production and deployment program under the terms of the interim agreement.” Therefore, he says, “the P5-plus-1 must make it clear to Iran that any failure to honor the agreement will lead to even more stringent sanctions and that the risk of preventive strikes … remains real.”

At the same time, the P5-plus-1 should show “Iran that a real opening to the U.S. and the world offers it security and significant new opportunities for economic development.”

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.