The Iran Nuclear Deal Explained -- Simply
International negotiators assembled in Austria have announced the final terms of the Iranian nuclear deal. The purpose of the deal is to limit Iran's nuclear program to something that is small, safe, and peaceful — and to impose lots of invasive inspections to make sure Iran is keeping to its end of the deal. In exchange, Iran gets relief from some of the economic sanctions that have crippled its economy. Both sides, the thinking goes, also get to avert a war.
You can really see how that plays out, how the deal works, and what it means when you look into its details. But those details can get awfully technical. So what follows are the most important provisions of the deal, along with a simple translation of each into plain English and a brief description of why it matters:
Term: Iran will be allowed about 6,000 centrifuges in all: 5,060 that can enrich uranium at its Natanz facility and another 1,000 at Fordow, where they can be used for non-fissile research. It can only use first-generation IR-1 centrifuges, and has to give up other models, although several years down the line will be allowed to develop slightly more advanced models.
Plain English: Centrifuges are pieces of equipment you use to enrich uranium, a natural ore, into nuclear fuel. If you enrich uranium long enough in centrifuges, it can be used to make a nuclear bomb. Iran currently has about 20,000 centrifuges, so it will have to give most of them up. It will also be allowed to use only its very old, first-generation centrifuges.
Why it matters: This means Iran will have a much smaller nuclear program, in terms of its ability to create nuclear fuel or, potentially, nuclear material for a bomb. It will also be restricted to its oldest, slowest, least capable centrifuges for a number of years. This means that Iran's nuclear program just does not have the capability to do very much, and if Iran decides to break the deal and build a nuclear bomb, it will take them much longer.
Term: Iran will be allowed to enrich uranium to only to 3.67 percent.
Plain English: Iran will be allowed to turn raw uranium into the kind of fuel that can be used for a nuclear power plant. But nothing more.
Why it matters: Iran can have nuclear fuel, and it can make nuclear fuel, but it has to stop way, way short of making or having anything that could be used for a nuclear bomb (about 90 percent enriched).
Term: Iran will be required to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium from 10,000 kilograms to 300 kilograms.
Plain English: Iran has to give up a stunning 97 percent of its nuclear stockpile.
Why it matters: This means that Iran will have a lot less nuclear material on hand, so that if it ever decides to break the agreement and build a bomb it will have very little capacity to do so. The upshot is that Iran's "breakout time" — the time it would take them to put together enough weapons-grade uranium for one bomb — has been extended from about 2-3 months to a full year. That's good because it is more than enough time for the world to catch Iran — and stop them, if necessary by force — before they get the bomb.
Term: Iran must fulfill its initial commitments by mid-October, after which the International Atomic Energy Agency will verify Iran's compliance by mid-December. Once it has verifiably fulfilled its commitments, the United States, European Union, and United Nations Security Council will begin to remove their nuclear-related sanctions on Iran.
Plain English: First there's a process for making sure Iran has done all the things that the deal requires them to do, and that will take a few months, but after that the sanctions start coming off pretty quickly. Iran's economy will probably start seeing the benefit in early 2016.
Why it matters: Sanctions relief is a huge issue for Iran — this is their reward for surrendering so much of their nuclear program and submitting to invasive inspections. If the verification process goes to plan, and it probably will, then they'll see the benefit quite quickly.
Term: If one of the parties to the deal believes Iran is violating the deal, they can submit a complaint to an eight-member panel (consisting of the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iran itself, as well as the EU) for review. The panel has at least 35 days to resolve the complaint, but its decisions aren't binding. If the party doesn't like the panel's decision, it can force the UN Security Council to actively approve the process of lifting sanctions. If the vote fails, or if the United States vetoes, then the sanctions will automatically "snap back" into place.
Plain English: If someone thinks Iran is cheating on the deal, they can send it to the UN Security Council. The sanctions will come back on unless a majority votes to keeping the sanctions — and none of the permanent members, including the US, vetoes. If the US or a majority of member-states think Iran is cheating, then at least in theory the sanctions will go back on.
Why it matters: The idea here is to make it very easy for the US to force the United Nations to re-impose sanctions on Iran if they think Iran is cheating — and really hard for China or Russia to keep sanctions off. This is all about enforcing the deal, and making it easy for the US to threaten re-imposing sanctions if Iran cheats, so that Iran won't risk cheating.
Term: Iran will be allowed to use its nuclear facility at Natanz for enrichment. It can also use its facility at Fordow for research as a nuclear physics lab, but no fissile material will be allowed there.
Plain English: Iran will be allowed to keep using its once-secret "hardened facilities" — big structures with heavy blast walls to protect from attack — at sites known as Natanz and Fordow. Iran can keep using the one at Natanz to make nuclear fuel. It can keep using the facility at Fordow for what sounds like fairly limited nuclear research.
Why it matters: Iran really wanted to keep access to these facilities, partly as a matter of national pride. International inspectors will have access, so they won't really function as covert nuclear facilities anymore. And the stuff Iran gets to do with them is pretty limited. Everybody wins.
Plutonium plant at Arak
Term: Iran will be required to rebuild its plutonium plant at Arak such that it will only make energy-grade plutonium, and will ship out its spent plutonium. It is barred from heavy-water reactor use.
Plain English: Iran had built a facility at Arak for making and storing potentially weapons-grade plutonium. Now, it will repurpose the facility to only make nuclear fuel.
Why it matters: You can make a nuclear bomb with one of two fuels: uranium or plutonium. The other parts of the deal limit and restrict what Iran can do with uranium. This part of the deal removes weapons-grade plutonium from the equation and only allows fuel-grade plutonium for powering a power plant.
Term: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors will have access to Iran's nuclear sites, the uranium mines and mills, centrifuge factories, and supply chains. It will monitor dual-use technologies. It can access "suspicious sites." One caveat is that certain military sites will be covered under "managed access," which means Iran gets some say in how those inspections occur.
Plain English: Inspectors will be regularly checking out all of the known places that Iran would use for any kind of nuclear work, and even many things only just sort of related to nuclear work. It can also investigate anything suspicious that pops up. Iran still has a degree of sovereignty over certain military sites, but does ultimately have to grant inspectors access.
Why it matters: Inspectors, by gaining access to not just the core nuclear sites but also secondary things like uranium mills and centrifuge plants, will be in a really good position to make sure Iran isn't cheating on a deal or trying to squirrel away nuclear material for a secret weapons program. If Iran does try to cheat, the world will be much more likely to know, and will know much more quickly. While "managed access" means there are certain facilities that inspectors can't just storm into whenever they want, these are the most invasive inspections we could possibly hope for without straight-up invading and conquering Iran, and inspectors will still be able to detect any over nuclear activity at the "managed access" sites.
Vox / Max Fisher / July 14, 2015