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?


12 thoughts on “Tough Questions About the Iran Nuclear Deal

  1. JCPOA’s potential relation to the NPT is quite interesting. As you point out, it seems plausible that, if Iran fully complies with JCPOA’s stipulations, the NPT might be strengthened overtime. By publicly committing to nonnuclear weapon status, Iran is essentially participating in a global discussion about the norms of nuclear use. Sagan’s article described how the acquisition of nuclear weapons can serve a normative or symbolic function; but it is also true that the rejection of nuclear weapons can influence public ideas about “what actions are legitimate and appropriate in international relations” (Sagan, 73). Perhaps Iran’s cooperation with JCPOA will make a non-nuclear norm more salient, thereby reinforcing the NPT. That said, if the NPT was incredibly strong to begin with, there would be no reason to negotiate and implement JCPOA. Iran has essentially violated the NPT (by not reporting its enrichment activities), but the NPT contains a loophole that allows Iran to cast its program as “peaceful use” of atomic energy. This is not the only loophole or ambiguity in the NPT. As the treaty calls for disarmament of the few nuclear weapon states, it does so without finite deadlines – only calling on nuclear powers to act in good faith toward that goal. Realistically, one could argue that if the NPT adopted stricter language toward both weapon and nonweapon states, it would have never been agreed upon. However, it still suffers from some inherent weaknesses, and JCPOA may reveal them more than it resolves them.

  2. Like anything else in American-Iranian relations, the nuclear deal is complex and multifaceted. I agree with your assessment of the deal, but I think the importance of the intelligence community cannot be understated. In my view, the effectiveness of the deal hinges on monitoring, and is thus really the business of the international intelligence community. I think something that would be interesting to explore, and that has perhaps been missing from the debate, is a review of how the intelligence community plans to monitor this deal. Explanation of this may have been published in the policy making realm, but the extent to which policy makers understand the intelligence community is notoriously limited. So I would be extremely interested to see something by the intelligence community at least outlining how they plan to monitor Iranian activity. Such could also lead to a discussion of intelligence technologies, and how these play a role in global security.
    Personally, I am skeptical of the ability of the intelligence community to monitor and therefore enforce the deal. Iranian culture is not extremely open to intelligence, and we, the United States, have a record of failure in intelligence in Iran. I am curious to see how this develops.

  3. I am interested in the broader implications of the deal for Israel – Israel’s domestic and foreign policies and their relations with the US and UN. From Israel’s point of view, the lifting of sanctions has destroyed the effectiveness of the deterrence strategy to stop Iran from becoming nuclear-capable. It has legitimized a nuclear Iran by basically giving a 15-year timeline for covert research, and then allowing Iran to use that research after those 15 years. A nuclear-threshold gives legitimacy to its destabilizing policies in the region, and in a sense it gives legitimacy to the terror groups which Iran helps to fund. Specifically, Hezbollah, Iran’s most prized non-state proxy, has been at war with Israel since the 1980’s. This terror group “views the nuclear deal (like the rest of the region) as a sign that its patron Iran is a burgeoning regional power, and that the military advantage is shifting away from Israel in the Middle East” (Schanzer, Huffington Post). With this greater confidence in their allies, Hezbollah will likely be more aggressive in its attacks on Israel, using a larger percent of the 100,000 rockets pointed at Israel because they are more confident in their ability to defend Lebanon from an Israeli counterattack (which they have suffered huge infrastructure damages from in the past). This war is becoming increasingly likely (as it always seems), but with a more powerful Iran, the type of war will change. Instead of being content with a partial victory which sets Hezbollah back, Israel will likely want to make an example out of the group and completely destroy their capabilities and will to fight. This will cause more and more violence as Iran (with more funds) better arms Hezbollah and the US (which has already pledged to help Israel in the case of a conflict with Hezbollah) continues to help Israel.

  4. I am skeptical of the Iran Nuclear Deal for a few reasons. One, the deal rests too heavily on intelligence from the P5+1 Powers. Under past agreements, Iran has been unwilling to cooperate fully with monitoring efforts. This has damaged my trust in them to cooperate under the new nuclear agreement. Two, I believe an economically empowered Iran would disrupt the geopolitics in the Middle East and could lead to the financing of terror organizations. If Iran successfully reduces its centrifuge numbers and uranium stockpiles, the economic and financial sanctions will have to be immediately lifted, giving Iran access to billions of dollars in overseas assets and dramatically increasing its oil exports. This intense economic prosperity could effect political relations in the already unpredictable Middle East, which could give rise to military conflict or a nuclear arms race. Lastly, under the agreement, Iran granted IAEA permission to inspect declared and undeclared nuclear facilitates, along with documents, scientists, and research pertaining to nuclear development. This investigation should validate Iran’s claim that it has never militarized its nuclear program. If the investigation discovers that Iran had militarized its nuclear program, I believe the sanctions should be immediately reinstated until the P5+1 Powers agree upon an alternative deal.

  5. I would argue that Iran’s policies mostly resemble the second model of nuclear proliferation; namely, the domestic actors model. Iran is notorious for the disconnect between its younger, more secular populace and the upper echelons of the Iranian government, which is much more conservative and hawkish. Specifically, many members of the cabinet of Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, the previous Iranian president, was composed of former members of the hard-line Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a group whose stated mission is to protect the accomplishments of the 1979 Revolution. The IRGC answers to the Supreme Leader, and in recent years has been expanded by the Supreme Leader, in part because they are “better [suited] to counter external pressure on the nuclear issue” (Alfoneh, Council on Foreign Relations). They also have close financial ties to companies with nuclear technology (Council on Foreign Relations). It seems the upper ranks of the IRGC, with their ideological commitment to expanding Iran’s power, and with their influence reaching well into the highest levels of Iranian government, could be the actor pushing for nuclear weapons development at the expense of economic prosperity and acceptance in the global community. The Iranian paradigm seems to fit very well within Sagan’s model, where “security threats are not the central cause of weapons decisions… they are merely windows of opportunity through which parochial interest can jump.” (Sagan, p. 65).

  6. In regards to Sean’s first question (of whether the deal can actually prevent the Iranian regime from producing a nuclear weapon in the next 10-15 years, absent a massive intelligence oversight), I think the brunt of the deal is situated upon an overly rosy a portrait of U.S. intelligence capabilities. Yes, as the authors of the Belfer Center report state, the verification apparatus put into place by the JCPOA will make it hard(er) for Iran to hide any secret nuclear programs, and the reinstatement of UN sanctions is a visible deterrent to Iranian subversion of the deal (The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide, 7). But the authors admit that “incremental … cheating,” i.e. covert weapons and centrifuge research, is a more insidious threat to the deal, “less likely” to be deterred/detected than outright defiance and opening the door to a substantial nuclear transformation come the end of the JCPOA’s 15-year tenure (The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide, 7-8). This potentiality is quite troubling, especially when we take into account the difficulties inherent in uncovering gradational developments like these: the authors recognize that discovery of “cheating” depends heavily on the robustness of the U.S. intelligence network, as some nuclear activities often fly under the intelligence radar because they require a small team and (beyond fissile material) relatively minimal equipment (The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide, 8). Given the close ties between the Iranian government and local terror groups, I believe that even the “mildest” forms of subversion to which Iran might take would prove incredibly difficult to contain, especially within such a capricious and connected regime, and warrant increased international oversight.

  7. When discussing the potential effectiveness of the JCPOA over the next 10-15 years, I think most of us have a tendency to assume that the political forces and structures that are in power in the Middle East right now will hold on firmly without change for the next decade and a half. If we were to assume this, I would certainly agree with both Michael’s and Zach’s analysis of the harms of economically empowering a country in a very destabilized region. This certainly seems like a fair assumption to make considering that the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been in power since 1989, but I believe it is also crucial to remember that tensions during the Cold War between the US and the USSR persisted for nearly 50 years before the collapse of the Soviet Union within the span of two years. The mass reshuffling of several state governments during the Arab Spring also reflects the potential for dramatic change to take place despite decades under a single reigning power. Keeping in mind how quickly these regime changes took place, fifteen years starts looking like a fairly long time.

    Of course, I’m not arguing that, with the anticipation that the Iranian government will undergo mass restructuring, the P5+1 have nothing to worry about over the next decade and a half. Concerns about the effectiveness of US intelligence and monitoring of Iran’s adherence to the terms of the JCPOA are still very real and practical. I believe it is dangerous, however, to cast Iran as a permanent enemy who will spend 15 years covertly researching nuclear warfare and waiting for the expiration of the JCPOA. International policies do not take place in a vacuum and such determinedly oppositional stances have the potential of fueling an already fear-mongering media to propagate xenophobia here in the States.

  8. I agree that the safeguards in the Iranian nuclear deal are sufficient to keep them from producing a nuclear weapon within 10-15 years. However, I also believe that this point is irrelevant when discussing the overall effectiveness of the deal. By focusing on whether Iran will get a nuclear bomb in the short-term, proponents of the JCPOA have misunderstood Iran’s actual objectives. In my opinion, rather than developing one nuclear bomb in the short-term, they are willing to wait a few years in order to break out with an entire arsenal. The JCPOA arguably makes this outcome easier for Iran to obtain.

    Due to international sanctions, Iran is relatively weak today (both economically and militarily). If they produced one or two nuclear weapons now, other countries would quickly retaliate and destroy their nuclear program before they could create more weapons. However, the JCPOA provides Iran with $100 billion in sanctions relief and a 15-year time period with which they can build up their military and reduce the ability of foreign powers to launch a future attack. The JCPOA allows countries to trade major arms to Iran only 5 years after implementation, and it allows Iran to acquire ballistic missiles only 8 years after implementation (Samore, 14).

    In 15 years, when Iran is no longer governed by the provisions of this agreement, “some [experts] believe that breakout time… could be comparable to what it is today—a few months—while others believe it could be reduced to a few weeks” (Samore, 6). A shorter breakout time would allow Iran to produce more weapons, thereby potentially giving them second-strike capability. Moreover, even if the JCPOA keeps Iran from building new enrichment facilities, “the provisions of the JCPOA (as well as national intelligence) are less likely to deter or detect more incremental Iranian cheating, such as covert nuclear weapons research or advanced centrifuge research” (Samore, 7-8). If Iran conducts such research in secret, their future breakout window could be even shorter than expected.

  9. I believe that when trying to assess what Iran will decide to do 15 years from now and what its position on the NPT will be, it is critical to consider the potential impact the deal will have on both the Iranian and the world economies. I agree with Josh that Iran’s case seems to fit well within Sagan’s second model of nuclear proliferation and that domestic political actors in Iran that favor nuclear proliferation for the sake of strengthening Iran’s security apparatus and its position within the region have dominated how Iran has approached the issue of nuclear weapons. More importantly, domestic political actors that favor nuclear proliferation for Iran such as Ahmadenijad are frequently those that interact with the international community.
    The JCPOA has already begun to open the door for Iran to reenter the global economy and to do business with the rest of the world. As the Financial Times points out (, many bankers are eager to begin investing in Iranian business. While of course this will take some time and many hurdles await, the JCPOA represents an opportunity for the world to work with Iran again.
    Politically, this could have an enormous effect on the types of groups that have influence within the Iranian government. The results of the JCPOA could empower economic groups and their interests in Iran. All this goes to say that the JCPOA will have an impact on several sectors of Iranian society, and it will be interesting to observe just how the agreement leads to changes within the Iranian government.

  10. I think given what we’ve read in the text the deal could effectively prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon over the next 10-15 years. We have to keep in mind that plan might only be effective at prevention if the United States and other P5+1 Powers are diligent in their intelligence/surveillance efforts. We can only hope that this will be the case. I’m not sure why they would not be but that possibility is daunting and anything is possible.
    Of course Iran might have some incentives to cheat and to covertly build facilities or even make weapons. I’m not sure how forceful/effective the possible [economic] repercussions are as they are outlined in the text. The reading mentioned that “Iran has withstood international pressure for nearly a decade and there is no way of knowing whether or when Iran can be compelled to make larger concessions.” This sort of makes me nervous because what might the P5+1 Powers feel compelled to do if these economic sanctions are not effective?
    I’m also not quite sure why Iran would be allowed to retain a significant “uranium enrichment infrastructure and to begin to expand that infrastructure after 10 years.” I understand that it increases the breakout time but I’m not sure it is enough to have the intended result of keeping nuclear weapons from being developed by Iran?

  11. I agree with Mitch that perhaps a better way to approach a nuclear determined Iran is to look at political change. At some point in any sanctions regime, a deal must be made. So long as sanctions are upheld, distrust of the US and power to those who distrust the US will be upheld. With a deal built on relatively amicable terms, however, our actions support a more moderate view just in their tone. Furthermore, as Iran becomes more tightly integrated into the world economy, the severity of sanctions or punishment reintroduced in response to Iranian infractions increases. Politically and realistically, in some situations the only way to achieve some of what we’d prefer to be prerequisites to a nuclear deal with Iran, such as a more moderate government, can only be introduced as consequences of a well-structured deal.
    However, intelligence concerns are valid, as a number of people have pointed out. While it’s difficult for the public to get an accurate measure on our intelligence capabilities within Iran, even great intelligence efforts could still have trouble detecting small, incremental-type research efforts. The current deal has a clear focus on keeping Iran detectably weapons incapable for the near future, but may fall short in long-term efforts. However, as we navigate new territory in weapons proliferation, do we necessarily even have an effective long-term prevention strategy regardless of what Iran agrees to, beyond economic sanctions for activity we suspect but clearly can’t prove is happening, and which still respect state sovereignty? This deal may serve as a good step forward, while we spend the next 15 years of this trial (and any deal we make will necessarily be a trial) improving on our own nuclear capability detection capacity. Meanwhile any sign of a stumble of good faith on Iran’s part should be seen as grounds for us to rework and tighten the deal as necessary. A hard line may be taken while moving forward, but a hard line taken in stasis, with no clear deal on the table, is only incentive for Iran to pursue illicit nuclear development.

  12. I believe that the Belfer Center’s guide was clear about the intelligence capabilities of the P5+1 nations. The record of detection of the Natanz and Fordow sites demonstrates that they can detect large-scale operations early on, and the text explains that restrictions and requirements in the JCPOA will make this type of detection easier. What will remain difficult to detect is small-scale research and testing which will reduce future breakout time requirements, but I believe that this type of research would occur with or without the deal. Why then doesn’t the US push for a better deal with more effective monitoring of the incremental violations? Domestic support for moderates in Iran would likely decline following a sudden return to the bargaining table, as would international consensus on the policy of sanctions.This is not an ideal conclusion to negotiations, but it is the only viable path for a solution now.
    Though I believe the deal itself reinforces international norms on nonproliferation, it also reveals weaknesses in the NPT. Namely, the possibility that states may pursue nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian weapons program is a glaring fault. Improved monitoring capabilities are key, and the AP and JCPOA do much to address gaps.

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