• Clockwise from top left: Francis Gavin (photo: Dominick Reuter); Scott Kemp (photo: Justin Knight); Vipin Narang (photo: Stuart Darsch); Jim Walsh; and John Tirman.

    Clockwise from top left: Francis Gavin (photo: Dominick Reuter); Scott Kemp (photo: Justin Knight); Vipin Narang (photo: Stuart Darsch); Jim Walsh; and John Tirman.

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The U.S.-Iran nuclear deal: MIT’s experts size it up

Clockwise from top left: Francis Gavin (photo: Dominick Reuter); Scott Kemp (photo: Justin Knight); Vipin Narang (photo: Stuart Darsch); Jim Walsh; and John Tirman.

Faculty and specialists weigh in on potential pact and global implications.

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MIT has long been a leader in the scholarly study of nuclear security. With the announcement of a major new nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Iran this month — subject to government approval in each country — MIT News asked several of the Institute’s experts on this vital issue to evaluate the pact and its larger implications.

Francis Gavin is the Frank Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security Policy Studies in MIT’s Department of Political Science, and author of the book, “Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age,” published in 2012 by Cornell University Press.

I think the deal is a good one, both for the U.S. and the international community, and I have been puzzled by the concerns of the critics. Oftentimes, the sign of a good deal is when both sides are at least a little bit unhappy, which is certainly the case here. Good diplomacy is rarely a one-way street, and when assessing the deal, people should bear in mind that the alternatives to not having a deal were unappealing. 

It was unlikely the coalition supporting sanctions could have been kept together indefinitely to maintain pressure on Iran, and there was little appetite either domestically or internationally to use force to disable Iran’s nuclear program. This deal severely limits Iran’s nuclear activities and makes [Iran] building a weapon in over the next 15 years very unlikely. Counterfactuals are tricky, but it is far easier for me to imagine an Iran with nuclear weapons in the absence of this agreement. 

One of the things people commenting on this deal forget is that convincing a state to forego a weapon — especially one that can provide for its security — is very difficult. The U.S. has vigorously pursued nuclear nonproliferation since the start of the nuclear age, but has always understood that it is often a herculean task, requiring carrots (promises of protection, aid, alliances) and sticks (threats of coercion, even force). We have spent enormous effort convincing friends (Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Sweden), enemies, and countries in between to eschew nuclear weapons, because that is in our national interest. 

But we also know there is no 100 percent foolproof policy to convince insecure states to forego a powerful technology that provides them with both security and prestige. We must view the deal with Iran through a lens that understands the long and complicated history of nuclear proliferation and nonproliferation, the costs and tradeoffs required to successfully implement it, while recognizing the interests and views of other players, especially the potential proliferant. Viewing the deal through such a lens — and not through the polarized, politicized environment it is being debated in — reveals how impressive it is.

Scott Kemp is an assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering; he has published numerous scholarly articles about nuclear technology and nonproliferation policy, and has worked as a science advisor to the U.S. State Department.

While the Iran deal is imperfect, it is also full of opportunity. The technical provisions of the agreement constrain the nuclear program to such an extent that Iran could not plausibly use it to make a nuclear weapon at any time during the next decade without being stopped by the international community. This is an important outcome.

One could imagine a deal that did more, but it’s not clear that more could be had, and it is safe to say the deal on offer is better than any plausible no-deal alternative. The mere continuation of sanctions would not have reduced Iran’s technical ability or political motivations to acquire nuclear weapons. At the same time, the deal permits a large research program such that in 15 years, Iran’s nuclear ambitions will be essentially unstoppable.

In essence, the deal provides a window of opportunity to address the underlying political enmity. It is up to the United States, and especially the next administration, to take advantage of this opportunity. We must reshape security politics in the Middle East by creating relationships to ensure that neither Iran nor its neighbors have strong incentives to acquire nuclear weapons.

That is a tall order, and a decade is not long, but if we succeed the deal will mark the start of a new era for international security. If we fail, the deal will have done nothing more than delay the inevitable, potentially allowing the risk of nuclear war to reach new heights.

Vipin Narang is an associate professor of political science and author of the book “Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era,” published in 2014 by Princeton University Press.

The Iran nuclear deal effectively shuts Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons while preserving its legal right to civilian nuclear energy. The deal substantially lengthens the time Iran would need to enrich enough uranium for nuclear weapons, putting eyes on the program to detect any activity toward overt weaponization and drastically increasing the chance of detecting any so-called secret “sneakout.”

Obviously, future verification and strict implementation of the agreement is critical, but my view is that this nuclear deal with Iran is about as good as it gets in nonproliferation policy for three reasons.

First, this is probably the best deal that the P5+1 [the U.S. and its negotiating allies] could have gotten to block the various pathways Iran could take to develop nuclear weapons. Although critics bemoan the fact that the United States conceded too much on, for example, uranium enrichment capacity, the reality is that there is almost nothing else the P5+1 could have pressed for that Iran would have likely accepted … on redesigning the Arak reactor’s core, reconfiguring and relocating centrifuges, or permanent bans on weapons-related work.

Second, this deal is better than no deal. A more stringent sanctions regime would have been virtually impossible to construct and sustain. Another alternative, military action, may not even set back Iran’s nuclear infrastructure as much as this deal, would cause thousands of fatalities, and would likely spur Iran to sprint for nuclear weapons.

Third, more broadly, rollback is an unrealistic objective and this deal, which pushes Iran to an inactive nuclear “hedge,” is still a huge win for nonproliferation policy. Given the rights granted Iran under the [Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970], and Iran’s indigenous talent and capabilities, complete rollback is unrealistic. The goal of the deal should be more broadly viewed as a vehicle to keep Iran in this “hedging” category, providing mechanisms to detect moves toward active weaponization, and empowering the domestic constituencies that want to develop a moderate and engaged Iran that acts constructively in the region and globally. That is precisely what the deal does.

John Tirman is executive director and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for International Studies, and a co-editor of the book “U.S.-Iran Misperceptions: A Dialogue,” published by Bloomsbury Press in 2014.

The Iran nuclear accord has three legacies. The first is limiting Iran’s enrichment capacity. The second is bolstering moderates in Iran. The third is changing Iran’s relationship with the United States.

The last is most intriguing. It may be that other aspects of bilateral ties won’t change much; after all, most U.S. sanctions on Iran remain, and the history of enmity is strong. The American public, while approving the deal, abhors the Tehran regime.

The negotiations have established a new level of comity, however, and potential cooperation on other issues. Highest among those would be Syria, the vortex of violent instability in the region. It’s a bleeding sore for Iran, which supports Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. The civil war there promotes extremism of a kind — the Islamic State and others — which directly threatens Iran. As a result, the Kerry-Zarif talkfest might take up Syria, namely, the ouster of Assad but the preservation of the state, with inclusion of some from the opposition. Russia, Assad’s other patron, may also regard this favorably.

It would be doubly ironic if Iran helped douse the Middle East crisis ignited by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Obama’s 2011 provocation that Assad must “step aside.” But that’s one illustration of why the nuclear deal is seismic: It has disrupted old habits of grievance and blame. In its aftermath, the diplomatic landscape has been transformed. The most immediate beneficiaries are none of the powers at the table in Vienna, but the brutalized peoples of the Middle East.

Jim Walsh is a research associate at MIT’s Security Studies Program and an expert on international security issues; he has written about the Iranian nuclear issue in many publications, including the New York Review of Books.

I’ve read all 159 pages of the deal, and I think it is arguably the most robust, intrusive, multilateral nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated. It’s stronger than the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which turned out to be an incredible success, protecting us from the spread of nuclear weapons. It’s better than the agreement George W. Bush got with [Libya]. I was surprised.

Many of the features in this agreement are unprecedented. There is a dedicated procurement channel which would allow the U.S. and its partners to monitor the import of nuclear-related goods into Iran, which allows us a great vantage point to prevent any cheating. … Some of the provisions extend for 25 years, some for 15, and some are obligations Iran will have forever, for perpetuity. I think it’s an exceptionally strong agreement.

I think the supreme leader [Ali Khamenei] will see it’s in Iran’s self-interest to do this, if he wants to keep power. This is one of the ways for him to try to get Iran out of its international isolation. In the rest of the world, this agreement is not a controversial issue at all — Britain, France, Germany, our negotiating partners. It’s only in Tehran and Washington where you have hard-liners and lobbyists who are itching to try to kill the deal. … If Congress unilaterally kills this deal and therefore lets Iran off scot-free, it’s going to be hard to maintain any sanctions, and our ability to influence Iranian nuclear behavior dramatically plummets.

Topics: SHASS, Political science, Global, Iran


Five MIT experts and not one sentence discussing the material flaws in this agreement? Only superlatives applauding it? Is this what now passes for analysis at MIT?
Leonard H. Schrank, MIT '68 Course 6, CEO SWIFT 1992-2007, Member MIT Corporation (2011-2016)

Please send to every member of Congress. It is short enough for even them to read.

this is the best deal USA can get...cant get better period.

I have just finished a terrific book about Israel entitled MY Promised Land by Ari Shavit a writer for Haaretz. The book was written in 2013 and he analyzes the Iranian situation in some detail. So given his balanced point of view I was anxious to read his view on the recent agreement. The title of a recent essay in Haaretz: The Iran Deal: From Thriller to Horror Story - merits attention and reflection. Robert McKersie, Emeritus Professor, MIT Sloan School.

President Obama on his weekly address on the morning of July 18th, 2015 called some of the arguments against the recent Iran Nuclear agreement, overheated and dishonest. He has not heard all the arguments yet and he is already labeling them overheated and dishonest.

Obama said that it is a wrong criticism to say that Iranian Regime will eventually cheat and will build a nuclear bomb and we will monitor their key known nuclear facilities 24/7. In this agreement UN and IAEA have only listed the 8 known facilities that were exposed by the Iranian Resistance. What about the 7 other military and secret facilities like Parchin & Lavizan-3, SEPAND, etc., that Iranian Resistance
has exposed recently and they are not on this list and now we find out that
there is a secret agreement on them.

Isn’t it true that this agreement will give the biggest exporter of the international terrorism more than 24 days to clean up their secret nuclear site or this is another dishonest argument? Didn’t you agreed on Managed access with significant delays, which takes away the surprise element? Did you hear what Khamenei said today on the Iranian national TV that they will not allow any inspection of their major
military sites?

Is this a overheated argument that the agreement did not mentioned anything about the R&D on the advanced centrifuges including IR-4, IR-5, IR-6 and IR-8, which are significantly more efficient and only few hundreds of them can generate enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb.

President Obama said that this was a question of war or peace. do you think that giving the Ayatollahs more than $100 billion dollars in cash and removing all the sanction from their terrorist organizations will help stopping the genocides by the biggest terrorist in the middle east, Khamenei top general, Qasem Solaymani and his Quds terrorist (external portion of Revolutionary Guards of Regime), Assad’s
regime in Syria, Shia militias in Iraq, Houthis in Yemen, and Hezbollah in
Lebanon and bring Peace and stability to the Middle-East?

We don't want America to get involve in another war in middle-east or have an appeasement policy towards terrorist regime of Iran. There is a third option.

Support the Iranian opposition & the Iranian resistance forces. The majority of the Iranian people want freedom & regime change in Iran, a non-nuclear & secular
regime, freedom & democracy and a true referendum /election in Iran.

Iranian people can & will over-trough this biggest fascist dictator since Adolf Hitler. We should not negotiate from the position of weakness with the biggest financier &
exporter of international terrorism on earth and have an appeasement policy
toward such a murderous regime. We could and we should force a stronger
agreement down their throat.

Isn’t it true that they had to come to these negotiations on
their bloody knees because of the sanctions has destroyed their economy and
every day the unpaid workers were in the streets screaming that they want their
unpaid wages for the past eight months and then they scrim death to Dictator .
Did the $800 billion that the regime made during the Ahmadinejad regime, help
the Iranian people or Assad & Hezbollah & Quds terrorists? Why give them all the mentioned concessions and risk the safety of the entire world. Haven’t you learn that the ayatollahs only understand the language of force?

Harder & tougher Sanctions to bring them back to the
negotiation table on their knees and this time require supersize inspection
24/7 anywhere anytime. No R&D on new technology, IR4, 5, 6, & 8
centrifuges which 100 of them can produce a atomic bomb. The majority of
sanctions were from our government and we punished the European Governments, & banks Billions of dollars for washing the Iranian oil money through their banks.

Don't take the sanction off:

1-all the world wide known terrorist organizations and their leaders like Quds
& Qasem Solaymani.

2-their long range missile program

3-human right violations - mass execution of political prisoners

4- support the Iranian people uprising for Regime Change to a non-nuclear,
secular, true democratically elected by the Iranian people

5- come true with the agreement our military signed with the Iranian opposition
group and dissidents instead of Regime appeasement

i am Iranian-American & Human rights Activist . I have been fighting for Freedom and Democracy in Iran since 1975. I was one of the 3 students that hung their-self from the Statue of Liberty in NY in 1980 because of the massacre of the political prisoners and university students by the Khomeini's Regime.

I have been supporting the Iranian Resistance and National Council of Resistance of Iran(NCRI) who exposed the Iranian Nuclear Secret Sites in 2001. we constantly get inside information from the Iranian Dissidents that work in these secret sites and know exactly what is going on. Our information is not hearsay and all intelligent services & US & Foreign Government have mentioned that we were the 1st source of information that opened up this whole deal.

Masoud Dolati

most people don't even have a clue what kind of evil empire they are dealing with when it comes to ayatollah's Regime and their financing, training, and exporting Terrorism, torture, executions, women's & Human rights violation, creating Hezbollah & Basiege in the middle east, Africa, and South America, Shia Militia in Iraq, Hootheis in Yemen, and running the Assad's regime massacres in Syria.
Khomeini's theory on building a Muslim Empire under his complete control had to have nuclear bombs as an survival insurance and the Ayatollahs will do any deception to achieve this goal. they have swear on it and will not give up. when I wrote an OP-ED about this commitment in Atlanta Const. Journal, they sent me a message that I will be dead soon.
they have always had two parallel policy about Nuclear program. First to try to remove all the sanctions by any mean necessary and second continue developing the bomb in unknown secret sites. that is why everybody on earth agrees that they can't be trusted.

Congress is too weak to kill it. So time will tell.

Liars will promise whatever they feel they have to. The provisions don't matter at all if both compliance and enforcement are entrusted to demonstrated serial liars, as is the case here. Experts less beholden to the government would have noted that.

John Hudson writes in his column in Foreign Policy, “In Vienna, Iran agreed to deep concessions on an inspections regime,but monitors won't have access "anywhere, anytime."
“From an investigative point of view that is a little bit not good,” said Heinonen, a Finnish nuclear weapons expert who is currently at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “Before Iran grants you access it can take measures to change the environment in the place you are looking and destroy evidence.” The nuclear deal with Iran was met with a profound wariness in the Arab world, where concerns are widespread that the easing of its international isolation could tip the already bloody contest for power in the region toward Shiite-led Tehran.

Syrian rebels were alarmed, warning that now Iran will feel free to infuse even more cash and weapons to prop up Assad’s overstretched army.“This agreement translates into more barrel bombs, more massacres and more blood across Syria,” said a rebel with the Islamic al-Jabha al-Shamiya.“Deal or no deal, tension in the region is not going to go away,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at United Arab Emirates (UAE) University. “If Iran is bent on acting as a hegemon, as a regional power, I think we are in for some difficult times.”

There are also rumors that Obama's grand vision is to form a new alignment - an alliance between ISIS and Iran to establish a global caliphate which includes the U.S. and Europe. The attack on Paris cartoonists and the Tenessee shooting are solid proof of the presence of ISIS fifth columnists in Europe and the U.S. Italian prosecutors say two suspects arrested Wednesday who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group had among their targets an Italian military base near the northern city of Brescia that has a U.S. military presence.

Two men who wanted to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) have been charged with plotting an attack on American soldiers in the U.K. Junead Ahmed Khan, 24, and his uncle, Shazib Ahmed Khan, 22, are accused of planning to attack American military bases in Mildenhall and Lakenheath, which house a combined 10,000 American personnel, according to ABC’s Jon Williams. They were also planning to travel to Syria to join ISIS, Bloomberg reports. In the light of
these explosive situations, Obama’s Iran deal should be opposed by all
patriotic Americans.

I hate to pour cold water on the budding love fest between the US and Iran but Ayatollah Khamenie said publically and on more than one occasion that Iran would NEVER pursue close relations with the US. In private, Ayatollah Khameneni has said the same thing in reportedly a profanity laced tirade. That is just great. Iran is ruled by an obscurantist, profanity spouting, "religious" leader. The Iranian regimne's legitimacy is so weak that all he has is all that death to America drivel to base his regimne's existence on. Any concession at all on the part of Iran will be tactical in nature and disappear when the circumstances allow. So, to the point of the article, an analysis on the technical merits or demerits alone is not enough.

All of these "experts" assume that Iran wont just openly break the deal. All it has to do is make billions of dollars in long term deals before they do and ALL of them are exempt from reimposition of sanctions because any deal made before they are found to be in breach is exempt. How can anyone say that exception does not swallow the entire deal?

What concerns me are the lax inspection provisions. How are we supposed to trust a treaty that depends on secret deals between Iran and the IAEA? In these inspections, soil samples will be provided by Iran. How can verification be accomplished with unverified and possibly falsified information?

VERY INFORMATIVE TO ONE WHO DID NOT REALLY UNDERSTAND DEAL... i am sure there are other opinions, but learning is key..thank you my friend, B.M....

Do the US intelligensia not read their local news? Is no one aware of the recent US court case of James Sterling and James Risen, and leaking of CIA's planting of nuclear bomb blue-prints at Iran's IAEA mission in Vienna? The so called Iran bomb affair was a manufactured crisis for geopolitical reasons and in support of the neocon agenda. As it turned out, the only way Iran could get US to the negotiating table and have the sanctions lifted was to actually become a nuclear threshold state. I know it sounds far fetched but if you look at the timings of the sanctions and the rate of increase in the centrifuges and the increase in enrichment levels you will see what I mean.

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