Almost exactly six months after it was first announced, the nuclear agreement with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), went into full effect on January 16. On what, in the vernacular of the deal, is called “Implementation Day,” the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared that its inspectors had “verified that Iran has taken the actions specified” by the JCPOA and, in return, the United States upheld its end of the deal by lifting agreed upon sanctions.
But this swift move, by both sides, to carry out the JCPOA’s provisions has done little to address the stark polarization between supporters and critics of the deal that still lingers after last summer’s stunted congressional review period. There is plenty of evidence for both sides to point to in claiming that the deal represents either a diplomatic breakthrough or a terrible miscalculation; there is not, however, enough attempt to bridge this divide, strengthen the deal’s positive aspects, and mitigate its shortcomings.
Areas of Iranian Compliance
In order to get to “Implementation Day” and receive sanctions relief, the JCPOA stipulated that Iran first had to put into place a series of restrictions on its nuclear program. Acording to an IAEA report, Iran has in fact complied with these requirements, seemingly going above and beyond in some areas. Specifically, the IAEA has verified that Iran has:
- Modified the Arak Heavy Water reactor to prevent it from producing large quantities of plutonium
- Reduced the number of installed centrifuges from some 19,000 (including 1,000 next generation IR-2m centrifuges) to the agreed upon 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges, having dismantled the excess
- Ceased enrichment of uranium above 3.67 percent
- Restricted its research and development of advanced centrifuge technology as required by the deal;
- Reduced its stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium to 300 kilograms
- Eliminated or transformed the entirety of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium into forms that cannot easily be reintroduced into the enrichment process
- Made arrangements with the IAEA to implement all the monitoring and verification measures included in the JCPOA
Additionally, and remarkably, the IAEA also states that, as of January 16, Iran had ceased its uranium enrichment even in the 5,060 centrifuges where it is permitted to continue. Should this abstention from enrichment continue it would make the JCPOA much easier to police—one of the uncertainties of the deal is how to ensure that even as Iran is allowed to produce more uranium it complies with the stockpile cap set by the deal. Given, however, that the “right to enrich” was a significant Iranian demand at the negotiating table—and one of the concessions most criticized by opponents of the deal—it seems unlikely it would refrain from exercising this hard won right.
Taken together the restrictions that Iran has put in place on its nuclear program do not fully prevent the possibility that Iran might seek to develop a nuclear weapon. But, even if enrichment resumes, as is likely, the JCPOA’s restrictions will make it more difficult and time-consuming for Iran to pursue a “breakout”—an escape from the deal’s restrictions and IAEA monitoring as it sprints to a nuclear weapons capability. If before the deal Iran could breakout in a matter of weeks, that timing has now been pushed, according to the Institute for Science and International Security, to at least seven months. That might be short of the 12-month breakout that President Obama touted the JCPOA would achieve, but still, in the eyes of the deal’s supporters, represents real progress in addressing the threat of a nuclear Iran.
Areas for Concern
Despite these positive developments in Iran’s nuclear program, many of the concerns voiced by critics of the deal have not been allayed. That is because the central criticism of the deal has never been that Iran would not comply with it, but that Iranian compliance would not mitigate a host of other problems, including: Iran’s determination and ability to pursue a nuclear weapon after the major restrictions on its nuclear program lapsed in 15 years; Iran’s habit of testing boundaries, searching for loopholes, and incremental cheating on its international agreements; and its destabilizing regional behavior. In fact, Iranian behavior in the run up to Implementation Day exhibits many of these problematic traits, giving credence to the issues raised during last summer’s congressional debate over the JCPOA.
First, Iran failed to fully cooperate with a JCPOA-mandated IAEA investigation into Iran’s past work on developing a nuclear weapon. In its “Final Assessment on Past and Present Outstanding Issues regarding Iran’s Nuclear Programme,” the IAEA essentially admits that it has not significantly furthered its understanding of Iran’s military nuclear activities since 2011, despite the JCPOA’s provisions for Iranian cooperation on this issue. The report finds, contrary to U.S. intelligence estimates, that Iran likely did pursue weaponization research beyond 2003, although these efforts appear to have been conducted piecemeal rather than in a comprehensive manner. Although Iran appears to have provided some information to the IAEA to suggest that these activities had non-nuclear industrial and military purposes, the IAEA largely dismisses these excuses as unconvincing.
This finding that Iran had covertly pursued a nuclear weapon and then tried to hide it from the international community raises concerns about just how committed it will remain to maintaining solely a peaceful, civilian nuclear energy program in the future. This is especially troublesome looking 10 to 15 years down the road, when the JCPOA’s restrictions on centrifuge numbers, enrichment levels, and enriched uranium stockpiles expire, leaving Iran the ability to breakout in a manner of days, if it still aspires to be a nuclear weapon state.
Iran’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA inquiry into its past nuclear weapons work also feeds into a second concern about the deal, which has to do with Iran’s past history of intransigence. Despite White House assertions to the contrary, Iran did violate terms of the interim nuclear deal, agreed to in November 2013. And current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has himself in the past bragged about how Iran cheated on an earlier 2003 nuclear agreement with European countries. This pattern strongly suggests that Iran might try to cheat again and the lack of any attempt to criticize or punish Iran for its lack of cooperation with the IAEA will suggest to Iran it can get away with it.
Iran’s leaders choose to follow the letter of the deal (answer the questions), but not its spirit (reveal and constrain nuclear proliferation activities). Since this did not slow down the arrival of Implementation Day in any way, Iran will draw a dangerous inference: that the appearance of compliance is much more important than actually complying. Having already established a pattern of pushing boundaries, seeking out loopholes, and outright cheating on its international legal nonproliferation obligations, this lesson could motivate Iran to continue such behavior under the JCPOA.
Third, critics of the deal have voiced concerns that the JCPOA’s terms not only did nothing to ameliorate U.S. concerns about Iran’s destabilizing regional activities—supporting dictators like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, fueling proxy wars in Yemen and elsewhere, and funding terrorist groups like Hezbollah—but might exacerbate them. The six months leading up to Implementation Day have provided good reasons to take this criticism seriously. Since the JCPOA was agreed to in July, Iran has twice tested ballistic missiles in contravention of United Nations Security Council resolution 1929, taken American citizens into custody (though they have since been released), fired rockets in the direction and close proximity of a U.S. aircraft carrier traversing the Strait of Hormuz, participated in a ratcheting up of sectarian tensions with Saudi Arabia, and shown no signs of abating its support for the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Such aggressive behavior raises serious concerns about how Iran will spend the tens of billions of dollars in previously frozen assets it will now be granted access to, whether to rebuild its own economy or fuel its pursuit of regional hegemony.
The strength of U.S. policy on Iran has always been the bipartisan consensus that guided it. With the deal going into effect and tensions in the region continuing to rise, the White House and Congress need to rebuild that consensus and cooperate on finding ways to limit Iranian aggression and protect U.S. interests and allies, without contravening the agreement. There are multiple steps that could be taken that would both help “deal with the deal” and lay the foundation for a renewed bipartisan approach to Iran. These include:
- Pass an Authorization for the Use of Military Force empowering and supporting the President’s commitment to prevent a nuclear Iran by any means necessary. Further, to communicate U.S. determination to confront Iran’s destabilizing activities, Congress should finally pass an AUMF covering not just the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State, but potential action against Assad’s regime in Syria as well
- Reverse the damage being done to the force structure, readiness, training, and modernization of U.S. armed forces by sequestration
- Reassure the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia and other regional allies of a continued U.S. commitment to their security. This should include extending our nuclear deterrent to cover these nations, developing a regional missile defense shield, and sharing with them critical intelligence and defensive military capacity
- Strengthen U.S. sanctions on Iranian entities and officials tied to terrorism and human rights violations. In particular, reauthorize the Iran Sanctions Act now, even though it lapses at the end of the year, to signal continued resolve to enforce existing and new non-nuclear sanctions
- Enhance Treasury Department efforts to clamp down on international terrorist financing to prevent Iran from transferring the proceeds of sanctions relief to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. This may require more resources as well as greater authority from Congress.