3 huge questions about what's actually in the latest Iran nuclear agreement


Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif addresses during a joint statement with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in Lausanne April 2, 2015. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

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Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif addresses during a joint statement with EU foreign policy chief Mogherini in Lausanne

A US-led group of countries and Iran just signed a major political framework agreement on limiting Iran's nuclear program.

Under the basic parameters of the deal, Iran won't be forced to close any of its nuclear facilities and will be allowed to operate over 5,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges.

In return, Tehran must submit to an enhanced verification regime and adhere to certain other limits on its program for a decade or more.

What we know about this deal largely comes from two sources: a White House fact sheet, and a joint declaration by Iran and the European Union. The actual signed document hasn't been made public yet and perhaps never will be.

And as it stands, there may even be more than one document, with Iran and the US already evincing somewhat different understandings of exactly what the other side has committed to. (Note: The two still have until June 30th to smooth out any differences and sign a final agreement.)


Consequently, there are still a few big question-marks emerging about what the deal actually says:


According to the White House fact sheet, US and EU sanctions will be "suspended after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps" while "All past UN Security Council resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue will be lifted simultaneous with the completion, by Iran, of nuclear-related actions addressing all key concerns."

This language is more elastic than it may seems: When exactly has Iran definitively "addressed all key concerns." ? Who exactly gets to decide that? What happens if the sides disagree on what this really means?

Furthermore, compliance can be a moving target: Exactly how much time has to elapse before Iran can be considered to be in compliance with the agreement? That's left unaddressed, for now.

These are issues that have to be dealt within an a final deal, but already there are signs that Iran and the US are coming at the sanctions issue from very different directions. Here are the perspectives of US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif a few hours after the deal was announced: 




Basically, Iran may be under the impression it's getting more immediate sanctions relief than the US thinks it's granting. If the sides have different understandings of how and when and why sanctions will be lifted, they have a long way to go before a final, comprehensive agreement. 


The Additional Protocol

Every nuclear nation must sign an Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty that allows the International Atomic Energy Agency to formulate a regulatory regime specific to every country's unique circumstances. Iran signed on to the Protocol in 2003, only to violate it by building the Fordow nuclear facility, which was concealed from inspectors until 2009.

The White House fact sheet says that "Iran has agreed to implement the Additional Protocol of the IAEA." But the joint EU-Iran declaration says Tehran has agreed to "provisional application of the Additional Protocol." That could be a big difference.

"Provisional" suggests that Iran is agreeing to a verification regime that's weaker than the Additional Protocol. The White House fact sheet implies otherwise. Again, the sides have until June to work this one out - and to clarify the critical issue of what Iran's Additional Protocol obligations will be.

kerry iran

REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L), U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz (2nd L), the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi (2nd R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (R) wait with others for a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel March 28, 2015.

So, how many versions of the agreement are there? 

In an April 2nd conference call, Karim Sadjapour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that the agreement "looks very good from our end." But he cautioned that "we'll know tomorrow if the Iranians are working off of the same document."

As Sadjapour explained, April 3rd is a Friday, which means that top Iranian leaders will be making public statements that coincide with Friday prayers. Those statements may offer a glimpse into exactly the Iranian regime thinks it got out of today's agreement - which, as we've seen with the first two questions, could turn out to differ wildly with what the US thinks it got.


There's a lot of speculation here, but for the time being it's possible that the Iranians and Americans are working off of different documents.