Understanding the elements of an Iran nuclear deal
July 13, 2015
Q1: How can we tell if the Iran deal is a good one?
A1: Although observers would like experts to pronounce a deal “good” or “bad” even before they have seen the details of the agreement, the more relevant question is whether it will significantly reduce the risk of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. The answer to that is likely to be “Yes.” This is because without an agreement, Iran could have continued acquiring capabilities even under the auspices of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Critics who contend that a wiser path would have been to continue tightening sanctions until Iran agreed to eliminate its entire nuclear program forget that it has taken almost ten years to put in place sanctions that have actually had a significant impact, and there are few additional sanctions left in the armory. In addition, while sanctions, especially oil-related sanctions, have made Iran’s pursuit of an expansive nuclear program more painful, there are no sanctions that could completely prevent a country from acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities if that country is determined to do so. North Korea is an outstanding example of this kind of determination.
This is not to say that any agreement is better than no agreement, and Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama have made that obvious in their recent remarks. Nonetheless, there are some issues that are more relevant than others and there is no agreement that will be perfect or without compromise.
Q2: Will the agreement limit Iran’s nuclear program enough?
A2: In the last few weeks, four contentious areas of negotiation remained: the sequencing of sanctions relief, access to military sites, access to scientists, and resolution of the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. Obviously, the timing of sanctions relief is important: it will be necessary to keep some pressure on Iran to ensure that it complies with the terms of the agreement. Iran also reportedly wants arms and ballistic missile trade restrictions lifted, but these have not been a part of the agreement.
Access to military sites is important because it does not come automatically with inspections under the Additional Protocol (a strengthened inspections protocol that Iran has agreed to implement under the JCPOA). Even under the special inspections provision of full-scope safeguards (based on the model INFCIRC/153), the IAEA cannot force a country to grant access to sites. Under the Additional Protocol, complementary access is provided for places on sites (typically those that have nuclear material or had customarily processed nuclear material), places declared on the front end of the fuel cycle (e.g., uranium mines, conversion and fuel fabrication sites) and some locations to assure the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities or to resolve a question about correctness or completeness of declarations. In other words, it is not unlimited and should not be confused with “anytime, anywhere” inspections in other treaties. The provisions for access to military sites and for access to scientists will be important to look for in the final agreement.
Finally, Iran has resisted official references to what has become known as the “Possible Military Dimensions” of its nuclear program and last month objected, in a letter to the IAEA, to incorporating that language into the framework it is developing with the IAEA for resolving all issues (including past issues) regarding its nuclear program. Whether or not the JCPOA refers to PMD, observers should look for whether this issue is entirely left to the IAEA or to a smaller group of negotiators.
In addition, observers should look for how far the agreement restricts Iran’s research and development into advanced centrifuges and other kinds of enrichment, because they can affect the kind of capability Iran will have in 10 or 20 years. The Iranian parliament, or Majlis, recently passed a bill that would require no restrictions on Iran’s R&D. That bill, passed on June 23, 2015, also stated that sanctions should be lifted immediately, and that the IAEA should not be given access to military, security and sensitive non-nuclear sites nor to documents or scientists.
Q3: What are the basic outlines of the deal?
A3: The interim agreement in April provided quite a few details on the basics. On enrichment, Iran's capacity will be scaled back and limited to the Natanz site (for the duration of the agreement). The underground Fordow site -- the one discovered just a few years ago -- will be converted to other research purposes, at least for the life of the agreement. Iran has agreed to implement state-of-the-art NPT monitoring and more. The clearest victory, however, is in mitigating risks from Iran's plutonium-related efforts: the Arak heavy water reactor will be redesigned to not produce weapons-grade plutonium; its spent fuel will be shipped out of the country, and Iran has committed not to reprocess or build other heavy water reactors in the next 15 years. This drastically reduces opportunities for Iran to break out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty using a plutonium route to the bomb.
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.
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