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Iran nuclear deal: 3 Questions with Ambassador Nick Burns

Iran has agreed to halt its nuke program. Big deal. Or is it? Here's what GlobalPost's senior foreign affairs columnist has to say.

John kerry iran nuke dealEnlarge
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press conference at the CICG (Centre International de Conferences Geneve) after a deal over Iran's nuclear program was reached in Geneva on Nov. 24, 2013. (Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON —Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program on Sunday in exchange for initial sanctions relief.

Sounds like good news to many, who say the detente between Tehran and the West could help avoid war in the Middle East.

But of course nothing is that easy, and already Israel has called the step a "historic mistake."

Which is it? And what's going to happen next?

To find out, we turned to GlobalPost's senior foreign affairs columnist Nicholas Burns, as part of a regular feature we call "3 Questions with Ambassador Burns."

The man ought to know. He's a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Prior to that Burns held just about every important diplomatic job in the US government — including NATO ambassador, US ambassador to Greece and State Department spokesman, among others.

Is the Geneva deal good for the US or a strategic mistake?

On balance, this deal is smart, sensible and the right step to take by the Obama administration.

It will give us the time and flexibility to negotiate the much more difficult and complex final agreement to dismantle much of Iran’s nuclear program.

Here are its strengths. For the very first time, Iran’s nuclear enrichment program will be reversed in significant ways. Without this agreement, there would be no barriers to a continued acceleration of Tehran’s dangerous nuclear effort. The overall deal is thus a clear gain for the US and Europe as well as Israel and the Arab world.

The specific concessions to which Iran agreed will make it very difficult for it to get closer to a nuclear capability, much less a weapon during the upcoming talks. Secretary of State John Kerry’s list of Iranian compromises in his early morning Geneva press conference was impressive.

Iran will convert its entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium (200 kilograms) to make it unusable for a nuclear weapon. It will also suspend all enrichment activities above a low level, not manufacture new enrichment facilities or centrifuges at existing facilities and not fuel or commission the Arak Heavy Water Reactor. Most importantly, Iran will now be subjected to daily inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

These are significant compromises by Iran and not superficial as some critics have incorrectly alleged. In fact, the Iranian concessions are much stronger and more intrusive that many of the deal’s supporters and critics alike had anticipated.

The totality of Iran’s assurances mean that the US, the EU, Russia and China can now negotiate the final agreement with Iran over the next few months without having to worry that Iran will race ahead toward a nuclear weapon behind their back. This was a crucial condition for the next round of talks. In fact, it would have been dangerous to negotiate without having first rolled back and frozen in these areas Iran’s nuclear program. The Geneva deal does that.

What about criticism that the Geneva deal is too lenient and reduces pressure on Iran, especially through its limited sanctions relief?

In international politics, you always have to weigh a prospective deal against the alternatives. In this case, the alternative was to continue with full sanctions and not commit to negotiations and this interim agreement. Some Israeli, Saudi and American critics of the deal say we would have been better off with no deal and by keeping maximum sanctions pressure on the Iranian regime.

But, that criticism misses a key point. It would have been reckless to negotiate while Iran had no limitations on its current, well-financed and increasingly powerful program. By stopping it in place, it gives the US and others the time to negotiate in a much stronger position.

Here is the other problem with the critics — they assume the sanctions regime could be implemented at full force for months or years to come. But, as Kerry pointed out in his press conference, a refusal of the US to negotiate and to provide limited sanctions relief might have led over time to a weakening of consensus among the Perm Five Powers about keeping Iran’s feet to the fire for too much longer. With the election of Rouhani and the new Iranian interest in a diplomatic solution, the US would have lost international credibility —