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A Year Later, Iran Nuclear Deal OK, But Road Ahead Could Be Rocky


We're going to talk about the future of the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran. A year ago, the deal, which was made with a coalition of countries from around the world, began being implemented. And today, a report from the nonprofit International Crisis Group says the deal has lived up to most of its promises. But President-elect Donald Trump has called the deal horrible and, quote, "the worst deal ever negotiated." So it's unclear what could happen once he takes office.

With us now is Ali Vaez. He's a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. Welcome.

ALI VAEZ: Thank you. Great to be with you.

MCEVERS: Before we get into the findings in your report, I want you to remind us just what exactly is in the deal.

VAEZ: Look. The core compromise in the deal is very simple. Iran will roll back its nuclear program, and in return, the sanctions that were imposed on Iran because of its nuclear activities will be relaxed.


VAEZ: And this is precisely what has happened over the past year.

MCEVERS: So because of that, you say that the Iran deal should be considered a success. How do we know that each thing has been implemented?

VAEZ: On the nuclear side, there is the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has inspectors on the ground every single day and has cutting-edge technology that monitors Iran's nuclear program, almost every aspect of it, every gram of uranium from cradle to grave and has reported six times that Iran has fully committed to its obligations under the deal.

So there is evidence on both sides that the deal is working, but this doesn't mean that there hasn't been problems during the implementation or the deal is secure and sustainable in the long run.

MCEVERS: Right. And some of these roadblocks have gotten a lot of attention. And so is that what leads people to call this a horrible deal?

VAEZ: Yeah, because the deal has remained very controversial, very polarizing both in Tehran and Washington, every single problem has turned into a political storm. For example, Iran twice during the past year surpassed the level of heavy water that it was allowed to have under a deal by very minute amount - 0.1 percent of the 130-ton threshold that was allowed under the deal.

But this turned into a huge political firestorm despite the fact that it was quickly detected and also quickly remedied. Iran shipped out the excess material to Oman, and the IAEA verified this.

MCEVERS: Just quickly for laypeople, what is heavy water?

VAEZ: Heavy water is water that has deuterium instead of hydrogen in its formulation. So it's a bit heavier in terms of weight than natural water, and it's used to cool down reactors that generates plutonium.

MCEVERS: I mean as I said, President-elect Donald Trump has called it the worst deal ever negotiated. Do you think the United States could actually pull out of this deal unilaterally?

VAEZ: Look. The deal is designed in a way that although it's a multilateral agreement, it is a political agreement. It's not a treaty. It was not confirmed by the Senate. It is not binding on any party.

So yes, the U.S. can unilaterally pull out. It can re-impose its own sanctions, and it can even go to the Security Council and contend that Iran has violated the agreement one way or another. And even if other members of the P5+1, the group that negotiated the deal...


VAEZ: ...Do not agree, the U.S. can even snap back the U.N. sanctions on Iran.

MCEVERS: What kind of effect would that have if the U.S. did that?

VAEZ: Well, the Iranians will have several options if the U.S. withdraws from the deal. They can play victim and try to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its partners, or they can retaliate either by reviving their nuclear program or by retaliating against U.S. interests in the region.

Let's remember that U.S. forces and Iranian forces are not that far apart in battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria. We will get back to the previous vicious cycle of escalation on both sides, that the U.S. would ratchet up its sanctions against Iran, and in return, the Iranians would ratchet up their nuclear program. And this could spiral out of control.

MCEVERS: That's Ali Vaez, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. Thank you so much.

VAEZ: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.