Iran: A Deal by Any Other Name

The recent media frenzy over the Republican Senators' open letter to Iran is notable for the questions it raises about the kind of agreement Westerners are seeking from Iran. Will the deal be sealed with an executive kiss? By a Senate-ratified treaty? By a UN Security Council resolution? Does it matter?

Q1: Does a nuclear agreement require a treaty?

A1: No. The agreement under discussion by the P5+1 (the United States, France, the United Kingdom, China, Russia and Germany) with Iran is fundamentally to provide assurances that Iran's nuclear program has purely civilian, peaceful uses. This is not an arms control treaty because it will not address weapons. While there is evidence to suggest that Iran engaged in nuclear weaponization activities, there is no evidence that Iran now has nuclear weapons. As a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), Iran is obligated not to manufacture, acquire, or otherwise obtain nuclear weapons. The agreement under discussion will impose requirements on Iran in addition to those it has (e.g., safeguards inspections and reporting) as an NPT party.

According to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will not be a U.S.-bilateral agreement, but include the P-5 of the UN Security Council, Germany, and Iran. Zarif has told the press that it will be endorsed by a Security Council resolution.

Q2: Are agreements that are treaties "verifiable"?

A2: They can be, but it depends on a lot of factors. Verifiability is essentially confirmation that parties are carrying out their responsibilities under an agreement. Adequate verification, according to most experts, will provide timely warning/detection of a violation of obligations.

Treaties (whether they address nuclear weapons or not) often do have verification regimes and schedules, but sometimes they do not. With respect to Iran, given its long history of concealing details of its nuclear activities, Western partners are likely to insist on measures that will show whether Iran is complying with its obligations. Some observers have suggested that Iran must give up all its nuclear assets for the international community to be sure that it does not have a nuclear weapons program. While it is absolutely essential for Iran to build confidence in its intentions and actions with the international community, a complete dismantlement of its program is highly unlikely.

Q3: What kinds of limitations are likely to be included in the agreement?

A3: Briefly, Iran's nuclear program spans almost the entire nuclear fuel cycle except for reprocessing (separation of irradiated nuclear fuel) and waste disposal. The most sensitive elements of this are the enrichment facilities (Natanz, Fordow), which are supported by research and development and manufacturing sites, and the research reactor under construction at Arak. The enrichment facilities and the Arak reactor are sensitive because of their ability to produce fissile material that could be used either for peaceful purposes or for a nuclear weapon. Limitations under discussion include how many centrifuges Iran will be allowed to run and how advanced they might be. One of the bigger issues is how long the agreement will keep restrictions in place on Iran's nuclear program.

In November 2014, negotiators set two deadlines for a framework agreement: March 31 for agreement in principle, with July 1, 2015 as the deadline for detailed annexes. The detailed annexes are likely to cover monitoring and other requirements.

Sharon Squassoni is director and senior fellow with the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Sharon Squassoni