Experts Debate Iran Nuclear Deal

Leading experts on negotiation and nuclear proliferation at the Kennedy School of Government discussed the benefits and risks of the nuclear deal reached between Iran and the P5+1 at the Institute of Politics on Thursday.

The international agreement—also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—would significantly restrict Iran’s nuclear capability for the next 10 to 15 years, limiting plutonium production and uranium enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief. The agreement has faced significant controversy and criticism in the United States, and both houses of Congress will vote on a resolution of approval or disapproval regarding the deal by Sept. 17.

The John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum event, moderated by New York Times reporter David E. Sanger ’82, came just hours after news that the Obama administration had secured the 42 Democratic pledges that needed in the Senate to block a resolution of disapproval. No Republicans—in either the House or the Senate—have announced that they will support the deal.

The three participants in the discussion—Kennedy School professor and lead Iran negotiator for the George W. Bush administration R. Nicholas Burns; former Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration William H. Tobey; and Kennedy School professor and former Office of Science and Technology Policy adviser Matthew Bunn—all agreed that the framework of the deal included significant risks but differed in how they weighed the concessions made by the United States and its partners in the deal against the at least temporary deceleration of Iran’s nuclear program.

“In 10 to 15 years, many of the central restrictions on numbers of centrifuges and amounts of material will peel off,” Tobey, a critic of the deal, said. “Secretary Kerry I think appropriately said that it’s not really acceptable for Iran to be two months away from a nuclear weapon today, so my question is why is it acceptable in 10 to 15 years?”


Tobey also characterized the deal as possibly already “eroding,” with many top Iranian officials denying that the International Atomic Energy Agency will have access to military sites, what he said would create a “huge gap” in the inspection and verification process.

Burns, who has been a vocal proponent of the deal, said a significant risk would be a covert revamping of the Iran nuclear weapons program under the guise of a civil nuclear program by the fifteenth year of the deal, when most of the restrictions have expired. He repeatedly emphasized, however, that he viewed the deal as the best way to contain Iran’s nuclear capability through diplomacy as opposed to war, and hoped the Obama administration would place the deal at the center of a larger, “tough-minded containment” policy.

Sanger and Bunn noted that no major arms deal in recent American history has passed without significant bipartisan support, a startling contrast to this deal, which Sanger predicted would receive no Republican votes in both the House and Senate. Tobey, for his part, said it would be “bad for the deal and bad for the country if the deal is essentially the product of a vote of disapproval in both houses of Congress.”

“The Iran agreement and the vote that will have to take place in Congress in the next week and a half is probably one of the most consequential votes that you will see Congress take over the past three years and the Obama administration,” Sanger said. “But this is, in Washington parlance, ‘winning ugly.’”

—Staff writer Luca F. Schroeder can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @lucaschroeder.


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