Iran has given up one path to nuclear weapons, its breakout time has been extended to at least a year, and continuous IAEA presence has made ‘sneakout’ very difficult.
Historically, negotiations have rarely resulted in the complete capitulation of one side to the other side’s demands. Even military force, for that matter, has provided only uncertain results – Carthage paid off the war indemnity levied by Rome after the Second Punic War ahead of schedule but Berlin proved a far more tightfisted customer after World War I. The Japanese, even after losing two cities to nuclear bombing, refused to surrender unconditionally to the United States in World War II. With that background in mind, the nuclear deal agreed upon by Iran and the E3+3 (Britain, France, Germany + United States, Russia, China) is the praiseworthy outcome of 23 months of hard bargaining between the two sides. Politics demands playing to the home crowd and that each side emphasise the gains it made in the talks but the agreement is remarkably fair and a model for future non-proliferation risk scenarios.
The nuclear deal, however, thankfully depends upon the exact terms and conditions laid out in the agreement and not the rhetorical interpretation of either side. To that end, the terms are a logical extension of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed upon in July this year. The final JCPOA, running to 159 pages, consists of the terms and conditions between Iran and the E3+3 as well as a detailed timeline of implementation and dispute arbitration mechanisms. The deal achieves balance also in that it is progressively implemented in a staggered manner, allowing each side to gain confidence in the other’s intentions. The agreement reflects Iran’s practical needs and research ambitions aside the international community’s desire for circumscription, transparency, and verification. A Joint Commission (JC) reporting to the United Nations Security Council and comprised of a representative from each of the negotiating parties as well as one from the European Union, will oversee the implementation of the nuclear deal and serve as a forum for dispute arbitration.
As US President Barack Obama said in his speech, the JCPOA is not based on trust but on verification. As such, it has two aims: to extend Iran’s breakout time – the time required for Iran to acquire a nuclear device after it expels international observers from its facilities – as much as possible and give the international community time to respond, and to make sneakout – a clandestine parallel programme designed to provide Iran with a nuclear weapon – virtually impossible. Towards this end, Iran will accept limitations on its uranium enrichment and research & development for the first eight years after which it will be gradually allowed to begin enrichment activities and research. Tehran is restricted to using its first generation centrifuges, the IR-1, for 10 years; enrichment will not be allowed beyond 3.67 per cent and all such activity will be restricted to just one facility – Natanz – for 15 years, where 5060 IR-1s will be installed and the rest kept in storage under continuous IAEA monitoring. Failed or damaged centrifuge machines may be replaced from storage.
However, Iran is allowed to conduct research in future generations of centrifuges, the IR-4, IR-5, IR-6, and IR-8, at a small scale in a manner that does not accumulate enriched uranium and isotope separation will be limited. Work on IR-4 is restricted to a cascade of 10 machines and one machine for the IR-5, IR-6, and IR-8. After 8.5 years, the IR-6 and IR-8 cascades may be expanded to 30 machines. The manufacture of IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuge machines without rotors will be allowed then in consultation with the JC. At no point is Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium in any form to exceed 300 kilogrammes. Any excess quantities must be sold on the international market or downblended to natural uranium level. These combined restriction on stockpile, enrichment, and rate of production serve as technical barriers to an Iranian breakout bomb.
Iran’s nuclear facility at Fordow will be converted into a nuclear physics and technology centre where an additional 1044 IR-1 centrifuges will be allowed in six cascades. Two of these will be used for isotope production for medical, industrial, and research purposes and the other four will remain idle. Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak will be redesigned to use lightly enriched uranium (LEU), minimise plutonium production, and operate at 7 MW instead of the 40 MW it was originally designed for. No more heavy water reactors will be constructed in the country for 15 years and surplus heavy water will be exported.
What is a remarkable achievement for the West is that Tehran has agreed to not only ship out all spent fuel from Arak but also from all of its other research and power reactors. Furthermore, Iran will not engage in spent fuel reprocessing, construct a facility capable of reprocessing, or conduct any research in the area except for isotope production. Iran has also acquiesced to not acquiring fissile metals or conduct research on their machining, casting, and metallurgy for 15 years. This effectively shuts down a second, plutonium path to a nuclear bomb. What may be of concern to Iran, however, is that this limits its options in any future interest in fast reactors.
The JCPOA also makes it incumbent upon Iran to apply the Additional Protocol (AP) to its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and implement the modified Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements to its Safeguards Agreement within a timeframe. Another remarkable feature of the JCPOA is that Iran will resolve all its issues regarding past and present activities with the IAEA within the next six months. These, along with other stipulations agreed upon by both parties, will allow the IAEA to monitor the implementation of the various non-proliferation measures. The IAEA will have a long-term presence in Iran, monitor its uranium ore concentrate plants for 25 years, maintain surveillance on enrichment machinery such as bellows and centrifuge rotors for 20 years, and install monitoring equipment in Iran’s nuclear facilities that will provide a measure of transparency for 15 years. This surveillance will make an Iranian dash for the bomb more difficult even as its more advanced centrifuges start to come online after 10 years.
The nuclear agreement draws out a timeline stretching at least ten years for complete sanctions relief. Staggered between Finalisation Day (conclusion of negotiations), Adoption Day (endorsement of the JCPOA by the UNSC), Implementation Day (IAEA verification of Iranian implementation of nuclear-related measures), Transition Day (eight years from Adoption Day when the IAEA should have reached a Broader Conclusion regarding Iran’s peaceful nuclear intentions and Iran seeks ratification of the AP), and Termination Day (ten years from Adoption Day when the UNSC closes its Iran file based upon interim progress), nuclear-related sanctions against Iran by the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States will be repealed contingent upon Iran meeting its end of the bargain.
During the implementation of the JCPOA, if there is any suspicion of Iran possessing illicit nuclear material, a complaint may be filed with the JC. Iran must respond quickly and if its answer is not satisfactory, an on-site visit by the IAEA can be ordered. However, Iran has the option of suggesting other methods by which its compliance can be reassured. This entire exchange must occur within 14 days, allowing the monitoring agency timely access to Iran’s nuclear facilities. Given the short timeframe in which this process is to occur, it gives little time for Iran to conceal evidence of potential wrongdoing and is as close to anytime access as can be reasonably expected of Iran.
Until the last few days, the E3+3 were divided amongst themselves on the automatic reapplication of sanctions in case of Iranian non-compliance. Russia and China viewed automatic sanctions as a violation of their veto rights in the UNSC while the United States worried that it may not be possible to hold the international community and the permanent members of the UNSC together on the subject. This difficulty has been ingeniously resolved in the final agreement. Once a complaint has been filed, the JC has 35 days to resolve the matter satisfactorily. If it fails to do so, the matter may be brought up before the UNSC again. To prevent sanctions from returning, the Security Council would have to pass a resolution declaring that sanctions should not be reapplied. If this resolution does not pass within 30 days, sanctions snap back on Iran. Given the negative wording of the resolution, a veto would not be able to block reapplication of sanctions within 65 days of the initial notification.
In exchange for Iran returning to a nuclear stature it committed to in the NPT, the E3+3 will cooperate with Iran in matters of civil nuclear technology and ensure that the country meets international standards in nuclear safety and security. Iran will also receive assistance in attaining global guidelines in the export of nuclear materials. Initially, these cooperative ventures are meant to hasten Tehran’s compliance with the JCPOA’s terms but they also signal Iran’s return to good standing that makes it eligible for such cooperation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Critics of the deal tried to add missile proliferation and even human rights concerns to the agenda but that would have in all likelihood scuttled the deal. Strictly speaking, neither of those issues bear a strong relationship to Iran’s nuclear programme; Iran’s ballistic missile programme has incurred sanctions of its own apart from the nuclear restrictions. To critics, it is unsatisfying that Iran has not abandoned its nuclear ambitions altogether; it is also unrealistic.
Whatever else the JCPOA may be, it is not a victory for non-proliferation efforts. Vienna, Lausanne, and Geneva were merely different battlegrounds for the geopolitical struggle between Iran and the United States. Washington has tried to interpret the NPT to its convenience and deny Iran its enrichment rights under the treaty but this is a farcical attempt. Besides the NPT being fundamentally unequal, even a quick glance at the debates in the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) that led to the NPT would reveal that non-proliferation was only a tangential goal. Furthermore, when convenient, Washington has not found it difficult to look the other way when its allies are busy acquiring nuclear arsenals. Yet a nuclear Iran threatens Western interests and also their security as Tehran’s missiles reach farther and farther.
The successful conclusion of a nuclear agreement with Iran does not mean that the West has a new ally in the Middle East. On the contrary, Washington and other Western capitals will be busy trying to reassure their friends in the region that the deal is not an indication of a new geopolitical alignment or in any way threatening to them. The fear in Arab capitals will be that an Iran free from crippling sanctions is bound to alter the balance of power between itself and its Arab neighbours. Already, events in Iraq have seen Tehran’s influence grow and its grip on Syria does not seem to be loosening despite four years of civil war. The United States and the European Union will continue to struggle against Iranian ambitions in Syria, Iraq, and perhaps Afghanistan. While Washington still remembers the Tehran Embassy hostage crisis vividly, Iran has yet to come to terms with the US-sponsored coup in 1953, the tacit US approval of two nuclear programmes in Israel and Pakistan, and the arming of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons in the 1980s which he used with impunity on Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War.
Despite these recriminations, both sides were able to reach an amicable settlement that prevented yet another war in the Middle East. If implemented according to plan, the JCPOA is a very good deal for both sides. Iran has given up one path to nuclear weapons, its breakout time has been extended to at least a year, and continuous IAEA presence has made sneakout very difficult. For all its alleged flaws, it would be no surprise if the negotiators of the JCPOA were to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in the near future. As for the nuclear apartheid codified in the NPT, Iran signed and ratified the treaty – perhaps next time, it should think before making a commitment of such gravity. The sanctions and the limitations on its nuclear programme are the price Tehran now has to pay.