Dealing with the Iranian Nuclear Problem.

Big news out of Vienna this morning, as International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed ElBaradei announced that the US, Russia, and France had reached a limited deal with Iran to curb its nuclear programs. Here are what details we know at the moment:

If approved, the deal would commit Iran to temporarily exporting 75 percent of its known stockpile of low-grade nuclear fuel to Russia, or about 2,600 pounds of low-enriched uranium, for additional enrichment. Negotiators say that would prevent the possibility that Iran could turn the fuel into weapons-grade material anytime soon.

But the key to the agreement reached in the talks, if it works, would be in the timing of the shipments — a detail officials were not discussing in Vienna in the hours after the announcement. If Iran actually sends the low-enriched uranium to Russia in a single shipment, as the draft document states, it would have too little fuel on hand to build a nuclear weapon for roughly a year, according to the agency’s experts. If the fuel leaves Iran in batches, the experts warn, Iran would have the ability to replace it almost as quickly as it leaves the country.

Of course, this is far from a comprehensive deal along the lines of, say, the Agreed Framework with North Korea. But it represents a significant slowdown in Iran's progress toward the bomb, especially if the fuel is sent in one shipment. The fuel shipment itself is important, of course, but more critical is the precedent this sets for a larger-scale agreement over the next year and the time it gives the Obama administration to convince Israel to hold off on military action.

That said, I worry about the specifics of financing here. I would prefer to have Russia or France pay the bulk of the expenses -- not because I don't think the project is worthy of American budget dollars but because I fear Iran would reject them. One of the main reasons the Agreed Framework collapsed in 2002 was because the Republican Congress refused to adequately fund the construction of nuclear reactors in North Korea, a key American obligation under the agreement. If a combination of conservatives and hawkish liberals in Congress is able to block or limit funding for the fuel transfer in Iran, it would seriously undermine the administration's ability to negotiate a broader deal. After all, what incentive would Iran have to make a deal when America politically cannot hold up its end of the bargain?

In any case, the details of the deal should be available soon enough. Hopefully the administration had enough foresight to limit Congress' ability to obstruct it.

--Dylan Matthews