WASHINGTON — The new treaty on nuclear issues with Iran is drawing praise from nuclear experts and watchdogs, despite concerns from members of Congress that the agreement puts US and Israeli national security at risk.

Substantively, a general consensus quickly emerged following the July 14 unveiling of the agreement that the deal is as close to a best-case situation as reality would allow.

Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, believes "the deal is excellent compared to where we are today."

"It puts a gap between [Iran's] ability to build a bomb and actually doing it, and the gap is big enough for us to do something about it if we detect them moving toward a bomb," Lewis said. "At the highest macro level, I think that's fantastic."

As to critics who say a better deal should have been reached, Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, puts it in simple terms: "A perfect deal was not attainable.

"Overall, it's a very strong and good deal, but it wasn't negotiations that resulted in a score of 100-0 for the US," Reif said. "That's not how international negotiations go."

Added James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment: "You can't compare this to a perfect deal, which was never attainable."

Speaking July 15, Obama called the agreement "the most vigorous inspection and verification regime by far that has ever been negotiated," something Reif agreed with fully.

"The monitoring and verification regime in this deal is the most comprehensive and intrusive regime that has ever been negotiated," Reif said. "But there is no country which would grant [total open access to all its territory], and there has never been a settlement where that has happened."

Jon Wolfsthal, senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the US National Security Council, echoed the president he serves by insisting that the treaty is "a very good deal that not only met, but exceeded" parameters laid out in the interim Lausanne accord from November 2013. 

"Limitations imposed through this agreement are for the long term. There is no sunset clause here. Limitations are permanent and we have the ability to enforce them," he told a July 15 gathering of the Atlantic Council in Washington.

An overriding concern with any Iranian nuclear deal, identified by all interviewed for this story, is the possibility of them starting up a covert nuclear program, one which inspectors possibly could miss.

In theory, Tehran could keep inspectors focused on the known nuclear sites while developing weapons elsewhere. And under the treaty, Iran can deny access to inspectors of any non-negotiated site for up to 24 days, raising concerns from some that an Iranian nuclear program could be moved frequently and kept underground.

If Iran refuses to allow inspectors to look at a site after 24 days, the US and its partners can reinstate the sanctions being lifted.

Given past Iranian behavior and attempts to conceal key aspects of its nuclear program, Wolfsthal said US negotiators and other world powers crafted the agreement on the assumption that Tehran would try to cheat.

"Our expectation is that Iran will implement the agreement, but the verification mechanism is structured to assume otherwise," Wolfsthal said.

Obama hit back at the idea that the Iranians could develop and produce nuclear weapons without inspectors being aware of the issue, noting that inspectors will be keeping a close eye on the potential streams of nuclear material and have 24/7 access to known sites.

"The nature of nuclear programs and facilities is such, this is not something you hide in a closet. This is not something you put on a dolly and kind of wheel off somewhere," Obama said. "And, by the way, if we identify an undeclared site that we're suspicious about, we're going to be keeping eyes on it."

Wolfsthal noted that compared to with previous agreements with North Korea, Iraq and the Moscow Treaty of 2002, which numbered a handful of pages, the treaty is meticulously detailed and annexed.

"We assume they will try to cheat. But this agreement is more than 100 pages long; it's like no nonproliferation agreement that's ever been signed. It will prevent them from cheating."

Acton agreed the document is crafted to address such concerns, noting that "it is impossible" to hide evidence of a nuclear program within that 24-day time period.

"If Iran wants a secret program, they have to procure yellow cake and centrifuge components," Acton said. "It now can't do that from existing facilities because they will be monitored. So then it will have to build more facilities or acquire it on the black market — creating opportunities for detection."

Joe Cirincione, president of the Washington-based Plowshares Fund, addedsthat Iran has very little, if any, room for error to hide a secret attempt at a nuclear program.

"The claims about the inspection regime are particularly ridiculous to anyone who knows anything about inspecting nuclear programs. If Iran were to flush the evidence down the toilet, they'd have a radioactive toilet. And if they were to rip out the toilet, they'd have a radioactive hole in the ground. They simply won't be able to cheat," he said.

"There is no silver bullet," to preventing a secret Iranian program, Acton noted. "There is nothing else that could be included in this agreement that solves the problem. What it does contain is a series of provisions that significantly mitigate the chance."

In other words, while a black program may be hypothetical, it is logistically very, very difficult.  And Iran was never going to allow inspectors 24/7 access to its entire territory, so the system put in place here helps create roadblocks to a secret program being spun up, Reif said.

According to Wolfsthal, Washington aims to expand the funding, technological expertise and personnel it contributes to the IAEA to ensure "24/7 monitoring.

"We're providing satellite coverage, live camera feeds, radio identification, tamper seals. … We will know whatever goes on in those facilities," he said.

Barbara Slavin, senior fellow of the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center and host of the July 15 event, noted that Iran has abided by previous commitments put forth in the interim agreement and believes the public focus of its people will help keep the agreement on track.

"This is a nation that, despite the rhetoric of its leaders, is influenced by its public."

Slavin, who has made repeated visits to Tehran, added the Iranian people aspire to turn a new page with regard to their place in the world.

Congressional Challenge Ahead?

Cirincioni said the debate surrounding the deal needs to be broken down into three parts.

"On its nuclear merits, the expert community is overwhelmingly in favor of this deal. There is not a serious debate on whether it blocks Iran from the bomb; it does," he said. "But then you get into policy, and that's where you'll find a divide among regional experts. And where it really gets contentious is at the political level; that's where facts don't really matter anymore."

Indeed, while experts are happy with the deal, members of Congress moved quickly to criticize the agreement — in some cases, before the final wording was even released publicly.

The most audible criticisms are coming from Republican members of the House and Senate, as well as the bevy of GOP presidential hopefuls who seem to view a deal with Iran as a cudgel that can be wielded during campaign season.

Much of the criticism is of the same flavor: that the US and Israel are less safe because of the agreement reached with Tehran.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said the deal "appears to be an historic capitulation on Iran's nuclear program," while her counterpart on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., slammed the deal in a series of television appearances. Graham, notably, is a GOP presidential hopeful who is staking his campaign on his foreign policy and defense credentials.

The committee's chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cited concerns that Iran already is expanding in other parts of the region and that loosening restrictions will allow the Iranian government to spread its influence unchecked.

"Ultimately, the problem with this agreement is that it is built far too much on hope, on the belief that somehow the Iranian government will fundamentally change in the next several years," McCain said in a statement. ""This is delusional and dangerous."

Realistically, Lewis sees little chance that Congress successfully blocks the deal, as it would require veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate. Instead, he said, expect a lot of talk, a lot of posturing, and potentially, a way for members of Congress to avoid the issue entirely.

"It's very easy to say you're against a deal but not vote for cloture on the resolution disapproving it," he noted. "That allows them to talk about much they hate the deal and then do nothing about it."

Acton said that if a deal goes through, it is highly unlikely that the next president will look to end it — despite widespread condemnation of the deal from the current crop of GOP hopefuls.

"If this goes into effect and a future president decides to roll it back, they will be responsible for giving Iran carte blanche to do its nuclear program. End of story," Acton said.

If Congress were to overcome the barriers in its way and override the treaty, it would likely lead to the crumbling of sanctions from the international community, said several of the experts.

And that role should not be overlooked, the noted. It is easy to think of this just as an agreement between the US and Iran, but the treaty was also backed and negotiated by the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany.

Top Pentagon officials have identified Russia as the top threat to the US, in part because of its own nuclear arsenal. But in the wake of negotiations, the Obama administration made a point of praising Russian President Vladimir Putin for his government's "important role in achieving this milestone."

The presence of China and Russia, two countries with whom the US has increasingly strained relationships, is a notable, said Reif. He adds that neither nation wants to see a nuclear Iran, but acknowledged that the two nations also have potential economic benefits to reap from lifted sanctions against Tehran.

Email: amehta@defensenews.com | brome@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta | @OpallRome

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.

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