Nuclear deal would put Iran’s intentions to the test

Good news from Lausanne. We hope.

The nuclear-control outline Iranian diplomats signed Thursday looks promising. Looks can deceive, though, and promises aren’t always kept; this is only the first chapter in a story that could end badly or well.

Thursday’s agreement certainly hit the right notes.

In return for relief from crushing international sanctions, Iran would drastically reduce its capacity to create weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, which provide the explosive power of nuclear bombs.

It would scale back – from 19,000 to 5,000 – the number of centrifuges that spin out enriched uranium. Uranium can explode on an immense scale only when its most radioactive component has been concentrated beyond 90 percent. Under the agreement, Iran would not enrich the metal beyond 3.67 percent for at least 15 years. Slightly enriched uranium can be used to make electricity but not mushroom clouds.

The framework also calls for prohibiting the creation of weapons-grade plutonium at an Iranian reactor that was designed with that capability.

One crucial U.S. goal is to extend Iran’s “break-out time” – the time it would take Iran to assemble enough weapons-grade uranium or plutonium to create bombs if it repudiated the restrictions. The agreement would reportedly stretch the break-out window to more than a year, enough time for Iran’s opponents to respond if it plunged headlong into weapons production.

The most important provision requires Iran to open its nuclear complexes to intensive inspections to verify its compliance.

In hindsight, the Lausanne agreement may be remembered as a historic breakthrough that not only averted a Shiite bomb but also pulled the Iranian government into the orbit of decency and reason. We devoutly hope that it turns out that way.

But anyone who’s giddy about the agreement is banking on the good faith of a regime with a long record of fanaticism and subversion of other Middle Eastern nations. Iran’s historic Arab enemies and Israeli leaders are deeply skeptical of that good faith. With Iran nurturing the likes of Hezbollah and Yemen’s Shiite insurgents, the smart money may be on the skeptics.

Yet vicious dictatorships have been known to grow more moderate when their ideology stumbled over reality. The Soviet Union did in the 1980s. China did.

Iran’s chief theocrat, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is 75 years old. His successor may not share his hatred of all things Western and most things non-Shiite. There are realists among the leaders of Iran who would like to end the country’s isolation, see its economy grow and end the misery of its impoverished population.

Some no doubt roll their eyes when aging Islamic revolutionaries chant “Death to America!” It may be that even some of the old fire-breathers recognize that defying most of the world has carried too high a price.

So we’ll indulge in a twinge of optimism in the hope that Thursday’s agreement marks a slight crack in the regime’s belligerence. If so, there will be more cracking as negotiators nail down the final details of a nuclear pact between now and the end of June. And if a credible treaty materializes then, Iran will have an opportunity to prove that its intentions, if not peaceful, at least don’t involve nuclear warheads.

If the deal in June bears out the promise of Thursday’s agreement, putting Iran on nuclear probation will be worth a try.