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Imperfect Balance: Experts Say Iran Nuclear Deal a Step Forward

The agreement between world powers and Iran aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing economic sanctions is far from perfect.
Image: Iran Nuclear deal
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, second right, US Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, left, talk to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as the wait for the Russian Foreign Minister for a group picture at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015.Carlos Barria / AFP - Getty Images

The details of the historic agreement between world powers and Iran reached Tuesday aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing economic sanctions are far from perfect.

However, nuclear and foreign policy experts say the world is better off with the deal than without it.

“It does appear to stop Iran's progress toward developing a nuclear weapon and do so for a protracted period,” said David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and editor of Foreign Policy Group, a collection of foreign policy publications. “It seems to include a reasonable inspections regime and could prove beneficial in fostering more normalized relations between Iran and the world.”

“But the deal is only a first step,” Rothkopf said. “The real challenge will be implementing and enforcing it.”

Related: Iran Nuclear Deal: Tehran, World Powers Agree to Historic Pact

Iran has been negotiating with the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China for years to try and craft a workable and comprehensive plan. The agreement involves limiting Iran's nuclear production for 10 years and Tehran's access to nuclear fuel and equipment for 15 years in return for hundreds of millions of dollars in sanctions relief.

However, the sanctions would not be lifted until Iran proves to the International Atomic Energy Agency that it has met its obligations under the terms of the deal. The agreement also includes the provision of a "snap back" mechanism that could lead to the reinstatement of sanctions within 65 days if Iran violates the terms of the deal, according to officials.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Iran also has signed a roadmap with his organization to clarify outstanding issues.

Related: Iran Nuclear Deal: 13-Year Timeline From Covert Program to Agreement

Former State Department spokesman James Rubin, who served during the Clinton administration, described the deal as "an important step forward."

"The basic bargain that's been struck is good for the world and good for Iran," Rubin told NBC News.

The deal allowed the international community to place "very detailed, very focused, verifiable controls on Iran's nuclear program that will give us additional confidence they are not pursuing a nuclear weapon," he said, adding that it was an "arms control outcome that's good for everyone."

Some foreign policy experts question that assertion.

“All of Iran’s concessions are reversible. But reinstating sanctions and recouping hundreds of billions given to Iran will be next to impossible,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington D.C.-based think tank.

Related: Iran Nuclear Deal Highlights: The Good, the Bad, the Complicated

The deal might not be perfect, but it’s certainly better than the alternatives, said Jim Walsh, a nuclear policy and international security expert and research associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program.

“We shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here,” Walsh said. “I don’t see what alternatives beat this right now.”

Imposing sanctions would mean Tehran goes back to developing nuclear weapons, he said.

“We could bomb them, as some have suggested, and it would set back their program…but then after four years they’d go back (to developing weapons), compared to 15 years where they are voluntarily not pursuing their program,” said Walsh who also testified in June before the Senate Foreign Relations committee on the implications of a nuclear deal with Iran.

The benefit to the deal is largely a practical matter of “locking Iran in so they go down the path of nonproliferation rather than developing nuclear weapons,” Walsh said.

Read the full agreement

If the agreement is successful, there is also a political benefit for Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who called the deal "a beginning for new cooperation worldwide”, in that it gives him a “win” to counter criticism of hardliners in his country,” Walsh said.

Similarly, the success of this agreement could have a longstanding impact on whether there is the political will to tinker with the deal down the road, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

“Obviously there is potential for this to be a very good accomplishment,” Zelizer said adding that a successful agreement would reinforce President Barack Obama’s tactic of using diplomacy rather than force to resolve issues. The agreement would enhance the legacy of Secretary of State John Kerry “a guy who had a mediocre senate career and failed presidential run who went on to help put together a lasting and important nuclear agreement,” Zelizer said.

Related: Kerry to Iran Deal Doubters: 'What's the Alternative ... War?'

The deal still faces a vote in Congress, although it is unclear whether Republicans and some Democrats who object to the deal will actually be able to override the decision — and Obama threatened Tuesday to veto any attempt to reject the accord.

If the agreement works as the U.S. negotiators hope, this might be seen Obama and Kerry’s “moment of political courage” and an important example and guiding principle of how agreements can work with adversaries.

If it things go poorly the narrative becomes “ ‘why didn’t they listen to what people were saying’,” Zelizer said.

“If the things falls apart both sides race to what they know so well: sanctions and centrifuges,” Walsh said.

The world would also look closely to see who violated the agreement.

“If it’s the U.S. it would be hard for us to recruit partners,” Walsh said. “If it’s Iran it will be much easier to rally a response to it.”

However, nuclear and foreign policy experts also feel the longer the agreement is upheld, the less likely it will be violated.

Internal tensions in Iran are a large factor in determining all of those outcomes, Rothkopf said.

“Indeed, the next leaders there and in the US will be important to how this deal is ultimately viewed by history,” he said. “It is they who will maintain and deepen it or who will lead to its unraveling or it turning into only a temporary pause.”