Pulling out of Iran deal would be a true American embarrassment
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Is the Iran deal an American embarrassment, as President Trump has labeled it? Absolutely not, and here’s why. 

Let’s begin with the obvious. No president in recent times has been his own wonk; each has relied on an internal debate to come to a conclusion on highly technical matters. President Trump is either relying on the wrong people or ignoring the advice he’s getting. Whichever it is, he’s taking the country in a dangerous direction by suggesting that he might refuse to certify Iran’s compliance with the terms of the deal, even though there is no evidence to support the claim.

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Pyongyang and Teheran, though 4,000 miles apart geographically, are tethered far more tightly in the policy world than President Trump seems to realize. Consider what would happen if we walk away from our nuclear bargain with Iran. We would send a clear message to North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un: When it comes to nukes, don’t believe anything we say or sign. 

Building a nuclear weapon is not the easiest thing in the world, but it’s also not the hardest. Edward Teller, who is often called “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” was fond of saying that keeping nuclear technology secret is virtually impossible because there are smart people everywhere. Eventually they will find the solution to the scientific puzzle and build their chosen bomb. Iran and North Korea prove his point, as do Israel, India and Pakistan.

You can’t control people’s nuclear knowledge. What you can do is restrict their access to the necessary technology and closely monitor their activities. That, in brief, is what the Iran deal accomplished. Now, a short primer on bomb making.

There are two basic types of nuclear fission bombs. One uses uranium; the other, plutonium. There are variants of each, but the fundamental task for people trying to make nuclear weapons is to get their hands on enough of the necessary material, either uranium or plutonium.

Seventy-two years ago, we dropped a uranium bomb on Hiroshima and a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki. Producing the necessary uranium or plutonium back then was a massive and hugely expensive undertaking. Today, unfortunately, that is no longer true.

Take the case of a uranium bomb. There, the challenge is to concentrate the form of the fissile material known as U-235 from its naturally occurring level of 0.7 percent to a required weapons level of about 90 percent. It’s not easy, but advanced centrifuges have simplified the process and made the task far cheaper.

In the case of a plutonium bomb, the challenge is different. Since plutonium does not occur naturally, it must be made artificially. Today, nuclear reactors operating with ordinary uranium and cooled by “heavy” water have made the job easier and less costly, allowing many players to pursue the goal. India and Israel, for example, used that technology in developing their bombs.

Iran’s program focused on both uranium and plutonium bombs. At the time the deal was struck, intelligence estimates indicated that the country was within half a year of producing enough highly enriched uranium at its Natanz and Fordow centrifuge facilities to build its first workable device. It was also rapidly developing the capability of building a plutonium weapon using the heavy water Arak reactor. Those were the realities in 2013, when the United States and its partners – Britain, France, China, Russia, Germany and the European Union – sat down at the Geneva negotiating table with Iran.

Iran’s aggressive sponsorship of Shiite fundamentalism and its decades-long support of militant entities across the Middle East was also a reality. Allowing Iran to back up its bellicose behavior with a nuclear weapon was seen as an unacceptable threat to stability in the region, one that could have global ramifications. That is how the United States and its allies viewed it. That is also how the United Nations viewed it when the Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in 2006 and strengthened them in 2007 and 2010

Dismantling the weapon’s program and preventing it from restarting was the overarching goal of the team of negotiators, which the U.S. led in 2013. The team included China and Russia as well as France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union. Easing U.N. sanctions was the carrot they put on the table. The final deal, while not eliminating its nuclear capability in perpetuity, makes it virtually impossible for Iran to achieve that goal for decade or more – assuming it doesn’t violate the terms of the deal.

Those terms include dismantling the vast majority of its centrifuges, shipping all but 300 kg of low-enriched uranium out of the country, transforming the Arak reactor into a scientific research facility not capable of producing plutonium and opening up the country to intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. There are several points worth noting.

First, hiding nuclear activities from IAEA inspectors is very difficult because of the agreement’s protocols; the world will know what’s going on should Iran violate its promise. Second, should Iran opt out of the agreement within a decade, the “breakout” time to produce one-bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium would be 12 to 18 months, long enough for the world to take coercive action. 

Yes, Iran benefited from lifting of the U.N. sanctions. But the rest of the world benefited from a 10-year hold on Iran’s nuclear capability. The agreement provides Iran with time to reengage with the world, as the majority of its citizens seem to want. And it provides the world with time to plan the next steps, including how to halt Iran’s export of state terrorism. 

President Trump’s accusation that the Iran deal was an embarrassment not only has no merit, but also indicates that either he lacks an understanding of the issue or is relying on ignorant advisors. Iranian hardliners can’t wait for Trump to give them an excuse to remove the agreement’s handcuffs and go nuclear as soon as possible. That would be a true American embarrassment.

Michael S. Lubell, a physics professor at City College of the City University of New York, is the author of the forthcoming book, “Science and Technology Policy: A Practical Guide to Navigating the Maze.” Burton Richter, an emeritus professor of physical sciences at Stanford, a Nobel Laureate and National Medal of Science winner, is the author of “Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century.”