Tough Questions About the Iran Nuclear Deal

In their report The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide, Samore et al offer a comprehensive analysis of the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and supplementary protocols that together comprise the ‘Iranian nuclear deal.’ According to the authors, the agreement contains – from the perspective of the United States and other “P5 + 1 powers” that hope to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons – both significant strengths and weaknesses. A brief summary of highlights is provided below.

As the report notes, “the JCPOA effectively blocks the plutonium pathway [for weapons development] for 15 years” through a redesign of the Arak heavy water reactor and a comprehensive ban on the building new reprocessing facilities or reactors. Furthermore, Iran has publicly pledged to adhere to permanent enforcement (past the 15 year deadline of the JCPOA) of the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and the Additional Protocol to the NPT, which together require Iran to: declare all stockpiles (and the locations of) of nuclear material, allow IAEA inspectors to seek access to “undeclared” research and development sites, and permit IAEA monitoring of facilities and locations indirectly related to the plutonium and uranium fuel cycles, such as mines, concentration plants, and equipment manufacturers. The authors note that these provisions (and others) significantly hamper Iran’s ability to conduct research using nuclear materials at “undeclared” facilities, although the “detection of covert activities is heavily dependent on effective intelligence.”

Despite JCPOA’s stringent restrictions on the “plutonium pathway” to nuclear weapons, the agreement allows, in the words of the authors, “Iran to retain a substantial [uranium] enrichment infrastructure, with the technical capacity to expand its [uranium] enrichment program after 15 years…” After the entirety of JCPOA’s production restrictions are removed (after 15 years), Iran will retain the technological and material capability to produce HEU. Furthermore, the authors note the practical limits on detection of covert research of technologies that do not require nuclear material, such as centrifuge or explosives design and testing.

Feel free to respond to part (or all) of my questions.

  1. The authors are confident that, barring a major failure of intelligence/detection by the United States and other P5 + 1 powers, the deal will effectively prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon over the next 10-15 years. Do you share that assessment? Are the weaknesses of the JCPOA described by the authors unavoidable given practical and political constraints, or potential loopholes given Iran’s past unwillingness to fully cooperate with IAEA monitoring efforts under the NPT?
  2. What are the broader implications of the deal, particularly for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)? How does the deal relate to Sagan’s “Norms Model” and his suggestion that, in the post-Cold War world, effective ascension to and compliance with the NPT enhances a country’s international prestige? Will Iranian compliance (or blatant non-compliance) strengthen the NPT, or serve to effectively undermine the global nuclear monitoring regime should Iran be caught violating the agreement?

    In my personal assessment, the agreement could very well strengthen the NPT over time, if Iran fully complies (or is forced to comply by effective monitoring). The United States and other nuclear powers have reaffirmed their commitment to nonproliferation under the NPT. Further, in signing the agreement, Iran has made a public commitment to remaining a non-nuclear weapon state. Should it begin to develop nuclear weapons after the 15-year life of the agreement, Iran could once again open itself up to preventative action from the international community, while damaging its international reputation (and economic health).

  3. Do you agree with my assessment? Where would you place Iran within Sagan’s nuclear proliferation model, and how does that affect how Iran would respond to lifting of the JCPOA constraints in 10-15 years?