Fix the Iran nuclear deal, don't kill it with sanctions

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

The following editorial appears on Bloomberg View:

The adjournment of talks on a preliminary deal to end Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program is neither triumph nor tragedy. Now, at least, the text can be improved.

Most details of the proposed agreement (and it is all about the details) remain hazy, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has made one thing clear: It would not have required Iran to halt work on the heavy water reactor it is building at Arak. Stopping construction is essential and should be taken up again when the negotiators return to the table Nov. 20.

In other respects, the talks are said to have "momentum," as British Foreign Minister William Hague put it, and that was in evidence when Iran agreed to accept more International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. Hague appealed to all concerned not to let the chance of a settlement "slip away in the next few weeks."

The chief danger now is that members of Congress will go through with threats to force U.S. negotiators to hold an unrealistically hard line. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey, for one, has said he wants to bring forward a set of new sanctions, which would be lifted only if Iran comes to an "acceptable" deal. Sen. Bob Corker is championing a bill that would prevent the United States from suspending any existing sanctions until Iran completely stops its enrichment program.

Critics in Congress complain that the U.S. seems ready to lift sanctions before Iran makes permanent concessions. Yet no one has suggested that the interim deal would remove the core restrictions on Iran's oil exports and financial system. The agreement as reported would suspend bans on trade in gold, some petrochemicals and cars, and it would release frozen Iranian assets in stages. If Secretary of State John Kerry couldn't lift any meaningful sanctions, it's hard to see how the two sides could reach any deal at all, good or bad.

A further complaint is that the agreement won't stop all of Iran's uranium enrichment activities, as a United Nations Security Council resolution demanded in 2006. Yet the current talks are making progress, after 10 years of false starts, only because everyone involved now understands a final agreement will have to allow Iran to continue enriching to the 3.5 percent level that's needed to fuel power plants.

The short-term deal in Geneva should be strong enough to halt Iran's progress toward building a bomb while the talks on a final settlement begin. That means, at a minimum, stopping production of 20 percent enriched uranium, which is too close to weapons grade for comfort; stopping construction of new centrifuges and the Arak reactor; and ensuring sufficient access for IAEA inspectors to verify the deal.

Fabius was right to focus on Arak, which is about a year from completion and could eventually be used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Although that would take some years, once the reactor is loaded with fuel it would be unimaginable to destroy, because of the radioactive fallout that would follow. At the same time, choking off the diplomatic path with a hard line on sanctions would leave coercion and airstrikes alone to rein in Iran's nuclear program — both paths fraught with risk.