RPI author Rajesh Rajagopalan on “Iran nuclear deal: The promise and the peril”
The Iran nuclear agreement is a great victory for US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, neither of whom have had much success in foreign policy. Despite all the compromises, the Iran nuclear agreement – or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – does have the potential to hold Iran accountable for what it does with its nuclear programme for 15 years. This is assuming the US is willing to confront Iran if necessary, which is not a given especially in the remaining year and a half of the Obama administration. It also gives Iran yet another chance to prove that it is a state that abides by the solemn international commitments it willingly undertakes and that suspicions about it seeking nuclear weapons are unfounded.
The JCPOA permits Iran to have an enrichment programme, a big concession because the US and its partners do not recognize any inherent right to uranium enrichment, as Kerry reiterated early on. The JCPOA limits the quantity of enriched uranium that Iran can have to 300 kg of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) for 15 years and it leaves Iran with slightly more than 5000 old IR-1 type centrifuges, in addition to other restrictions. This prevents Iran from having a quick path to a nuclear weapon (assuming that Iran does not have a covert parallel programme we do not know about).
The problem is that all these restrictions end in 15 years, and Iran has complete freedom to legitimately expand its enrichment facilities as much as it desires after 15 years. The US has so far objected to any spread of enrichment technology and had forced even allies to give them up. Indeed, even as the JCPOA was being negotiated, the US signed a deal with South Korea that does not permit Seoul to enrich uranium. Though India was not an NPT member, India’s enrichment and reprocessing facilities had become an issue during the US-India nuclear deal (though the US gave in). Once these restrictions on Iran enrichment ends, Iran can ramp up production capacities so that it can very quickly accumulate weapons-grade uranium. At that stage, it is simply a question of making a decision to build a bomb because the international community simply will not be able to come together fast enough to stop Iran. But, on the positive side, at least for 15 years, if Iran abides by the JCPOA, Iran will not have nuclear weapons.
Iran has also agreed to fairly onerous verification protocols on its known nuclear facilities. Verifying Iran is sticking to its commitments which both sides are agreed to is obviously important but the real question about Iran has always been about Iran’s possible covert activities, not what it did with the facilities that were already known to the international community. Detecting centrifuge facilities is a particularly serious problem as Scott Kemp has pointed out. Unfortunately, the complicated procedures for dispute resolution would give Iran weeks to cover its tracks if the IAEA wants to verify any kind of suspicious activities in facilities that are not under regular IAEA monitoring. This might not matter if fissile material were involved because that might leave a trace that Iran would have difficulty in completely removing. But it would matter if the suspicion related to other activities, such as designing, testing or manufacturing the non-fissile parts of a warhead. For example, the IAEA has been asking Iran for access to the Parchin military base for about three years because of suspicions that Iran conducted explosive testing there related to warhead design, without much success. But in these three years, Iran has done so much digging and construction in the suspicious areas of the Parchin base that it is possibly useless to visit the site now.
The JCPOA also includes a very clever mechanism for reintroducing the sanctions regime or the so-called ‘snapback’ provisions if Iran violates the terms of the agreement. This to some extent reduces the threat of Chinese or Russian (or even European) veto in the UN Security Council by requiring a resolution to continue with the sanctions lifting rather than to impose sanctions. But the downside is that if sanctions are re-imposed, it will not apply retroactively to previously-signed contracts. This means that sanctions re-imposition is not going to have the kind of economic effect on Iran that it has had for the last several years. Moreover, this potentially allows Iran and its partners to grandfather additional agreements to existing contracts and make a mockery of any re-imposed sanctions. This makes the snapback provisions essentially meaningless, even if we assume no other obstacles or violations.
Another major area of dispute about Iran’s nuclear programme was about Iran’s previous, potentially weapons-related nuclear activities, what the IAEA calls ‘Possible Military Dimensions’ (PMD). It is possible, as Iran claims, that most of these are based on unfounded allegations or manufactured intelligence. Indeed, Iran has settled some of the issues raised by the IAEA in its main November 2011 reportwhich detailed the IAEA’s suspicions and concerns. But it has repeatedly stonewalled on answering key issues raised by the IAEA or in giving access to sites and individuals associated with Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme. Indeed, when these negotiations began, Iran had agreed to settle the PMD issue by August 2014. We are now over a year beyond this deadline and Iran has yet to do it. Under the JCPOA, Iran has made more promises: Iran and the IAEA are expected to complete investigating the PMD issue by the end of the year, “with a view to closing the issue” in the words of the JCPOA.
This is a serious problem: it is unlikely that all the work that the IAEA needs to undertake to investigate its previous suspicions about PMD can be resolved in a couple of months. And it’s unclear what happens if the IAEA is not satisfied with Iranian explanations about PMD. But the wording of JCPOA suggests that the US and its partners simply want this issue gone somehow. This suspicion is strengthened by Kerry’s statement that the US “was not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another.” As others have pointed out, not settling the PMD issue can have serious future consequences for detecting Iranian nuclear weapons related activities.
What all this does is that the JCPOA simply postpones the Iran nuclear problem while allowing Iran to get stronger meanwhile. Whenever this problem does come to a head, there is little doubt that Iran will be much stronger and better integrated into the global community than it is today, which will make taking any action against Iran that much harder then. So the American justification that delaying any possible Iranian nuclear weapon programme is itself a benefit might be short-sighted because the balance of power will have shifted in Iran’s favour by then.
But if Iran sticks to the terms of the agreement, it does give the Gulf states some time to try to build some indigenous nuclear capability. The JCPOA explicitly states that the terms of agreement does not set a precedent – in other words, if Saudi Arabia were to seek the same terms to build an atomic programme with a complete fuel cycle, it is unlikely that the US would help. The Arab states are realising what has been true for some time: that the US will enforce NPT restrictions much more rigorously on American allies than it will on others.
There can be little doubt that Iran was (and in all probability still is) interested in building nuclear weapons – no country puts itself through years of sanctions and tens of billions of lost oil revenue simply to prove a legal point about its right to uranium enrichment under the NPT. Altering Teheran’s strategic calculus requires an American leadership that is willing to bear the cost of standing in Teheran’s way — and this agreement might just possibly buy the time for it.
(Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan is Professor of International Politics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi)
This analysis originally appeared on the Observer Research Foundation.