Reddit Q&A Session with Sharon Squassoni and Ariane Tabatabai
Iran and the P5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany) signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on July 14, 2015. One year later, the agreement continues to curtail Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions has prompted many questions and analyses. With just a few months of implementation, it’s time to take stock of the deal and developments since last year. So, on July 11, Sharon Squassoni, Director and Senior Fellow of the Proliferation Prevention Program (PPP), and Ariane Tabatabai, PPP Senior Associate and Visiting Assistant Professor of Security Studies at the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, hosted an online Reddit “ Ask Me Anything” (AMA) to mark the one-year anniversary of the JCPOA signing. Ms. Squassoni and Dr. Tabatabai responded to readers’ questions live on the nuclear agreement’s implementation, sanctions relief, domestic Iranian politics, and their own backgrounds in the field.
Below is an excerpt from the Reddit AMA.
We are nuclear nonproliferation experts Sharon Squassoni and Ariane Tabatabai, taking your questions on the Iran nuclear deal, its implementation over the past year, next milestones, and more!
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, was signed almost one year ago, on July 14, 2015. We’re here to answer your questions about what’s happened in the past 12 months of the deal and what is to come in the future. We’re also happy to try to clear up any lingering questions about what the text of the deal actually contains, Iran, or nonproliferation more generally!
Thanks for taking questions! There's been a lot of debate about the fundamental question of whether or not Iran will be able to still acquire nuclear weapons, despite the deal's restrictions. From what you can tell over the past year, does the deal have adequate measures in place to prevent this from happening (or detect it if it does)?
Thanks for your question. Let me answer it in two parts: 1. Are JCPOA measures adequate to detect acquisition of nuclear weapons and 2. What is the experience of the last year?
- Among nonproliferation experts, it’s well known that a country determined to get nuclear weapons can’t really be prevented from acquiring them – we can just make it more difficult, costly, and painful (in terms of sanctions or other related punitive measures). The JCPOA adds additional obligations to those that Iran is obliged to meet as a non-nuclear weapon state under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The JCPOA obligations limit how close and how fast Iran can come to a nuclear weapons capability. You may have read about concerns about "break-out" capability, which means how quickly Iran could put together the elements of a nuclear weapon once it decided to really go for it. The JCPOA measures were specifically designed to lengthen the time that Iran would need to develop a nuclear weapon from a few months to one year. Experts debate exactly how you calculate the break-out time and there are a lot of assumptions involved, but basically the JCPOA limits the material Iran can stockpile (Iran can only have < 300 kg of low-enriched uranium and no highly enriched uranium), limits the production capabilities (e.g., no enrichment of uranium at the underground facility at Fordow and only about 5000 first-generation centrifuges spinning), and requires modifications to the Arak reactor so that it can’t produce bomb-grade plutonium. In addition to monitoring Iran's compliance with those measures (and I haven't been entirely comprehensive because we need to keep this concise), there are technologies to continuously monitor enrichment levels, to monitor activities at uranium mines and mills, at component manufacturing sites and there is an entire procurement chain that is being monitored. Also, Iran has agreed to allow other kinds of access to facilities under the IAEA Additional Protocol which it has not allowed in the last ten years or so. This is much more comprehensive than what was in place before, so there is significant confidence in the ability to detect irregularities.
- On the experience of the last year, we have to keep in mind that about six months were devoted to preliminary steps; we have had only about 6 months of implementation of the JCPOA. As the second question in this reddit chain suggests, however, verification that Iran is meeting technical milestones is fairly easy to determine. More broadly speaking, it's important to remember that many of the JCPOA restrictions will be lifted in ten years' time, so we have a deadline for ensuring in the future that Iran sees no benefit in having these risky capabilities.
Hello, thank you for holding this AMA.
One of the core flaws of the JCPOA, in my opinion, is the difference in the ability to track and manage the obligations of the various parties to the agreement. For example, it's a straightforward process for Iran to demonstrate compliance to the JCPOA because of the material nature of its obligations: reduce the number of centrifuges by x amount, limit the stock of enriched uranium by y amount, and so on. Whereas the ability to track and manage the lifting of sanctions, particularly by the US, is a lot more conceptual, in that there is no real metric by which compliance can be measured, other than to determine whether or not the US is abiding by the 'spirit of the deal'.
This problem is coming to the fore today: while Iran believes it has stuck to its obligations, and can materially demonstrate so, it is proving far more difficult to determine whether the US is sticking to its own obligations. Frozen assets have been unfrozen, yes, but so too has the US passed new laws and regulations seizing such assets (for example the ruling to pay victims of Iran's 'terror'). The recent move by Congress to block the sale of Boeing and Airbus planes to Iran, on the basis that these planes would support Iranian 'terror' and violate non-nuclear related sanctions, is another perceived slight on the JCPOA, which actually undermines one of the core selling points of the deal (to revive Iran's ailing and dangerous airline industry). Along with refusing Iran access to dollar trading, these restrictions hardly appear to be abiding by the 'spirit of the deal', although the US can rightly argue that it is not violating its obligations.
To what extent do you believe Iran can withstand and navigate these difficulties? Are there better ways to track US compliance to the JCPOA? In hindsight, would you have negotiated the JCPOA differently?
Thank you again for your time.
You pinpointed one of the main challenges facing the JCPOA today. There are more questions than answers on this front right now because we have thought a great deal about how to impose sanctions, how to make them effective, and how to leverage them, but we haven’t thought as much about what happens once we lift those sanctions. So Iran is a Guinea pig in a way.
Iran won't have an interest in implementing the JCPOA and complying with its international obligations unless it sees tangible benefit in doing so. So far, there have been some benefits. But not enough for the Rouhani government to be able to continue selling the deal at home if this trend continues. People are increasingly fed up with the economy, and what they’ve seen this past year has been more promises than actual progress. There are a number of obstacles that must be overcome in order for Iran not just to see sanctions relief, but also to feel its impact on its economy. Some of these obstacles are those you mentioned: There is a lot of pressure on the Obama administration to stop Iran's economic recovery, and essentially to undo the deal's benefits for Iran. The Obama administration is well aware of these challenges and is working to make the JCPOA as irreversible as possible. It’s also been creating different channels to tackle sanctions relief related issues, like the recently opened channel between the Department of Treasury and the Iranian Central Bank. Iran also has its own set of challenges at home. It continues to grapple with mismanagement and corruption, as illustrated by the recent scandal surrounding the astronomical wages paid to government employees. One more difficulty is the presence of the Revolutionary Guards in so many key sectors in Iran, an entity that is still under sanction. Rouhani has been working to address some of these challenges, it’s now working with the IMF to raise the country to international standards when it comes to terrorism financing and money laundering, for example. Once these challenges are addressed, the situation will improve and Iran will become a less risky market for businesses. On top of that, the longer the JCPOA is implemented without major issues, the more confidence there will be in the market, and the easier it will become for businesses to dive back in. So, it will all take time and it’s imperative that the two sides keep talking to address challenges quickly. If all this is done and in a couple of years there’s still no economic recovery in sight, Iran will be unlikely to have an incentive to continue implementing the JCPOA and we may go back to where we started.
The JCPOA is not a perfect document. Neither side got everything it wanted, but both sides’ redlines were more or less respected. This means that there are loopholes in there, and this is one of them. Ultimately though, if the deal is implemented adequately and both sides get what they signed up for, they’ll be better off than when they started.
In some respects, the ambiguities regarding Iran's responsibilities were quickly wrapped up in the Roadmap obligations that the IAEA and Iran conducted with lightning speed between July 2015 and December 2015. I think you are correct in that going forward, there may be fewer ambiguities there, except perhaps in the procurement chain.
While Iran may be dissatisfied with the raft of U.S. sanctions that are still in place, there is language in the JCPOA that acknowledges that limitations of the executive branch (e.g., regarding Adoption Day, "The United States, acting pursuant to Presidential authorities,"). The US can prove that it has revoked the specified executive orders and licensed certain activities. From an economic perspective, Iran would do better to focus on the influx of European and Asian investment, although the possibility that U.S. actions could provide an excuse for Iran to walk away from the deal is still a real one.
What impact do the deal's enrichment limits have on Iran's nuclear weapons capabilities? Could Iran justify enriching uranium after the deal ends under the guise of peaceful nuclear energy?
Thank you for your question. Let me start with why enrichment is so important to a nuclear weapons program. The fundamental dilemma in nuclear energy is that the same technologies -- uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing -- can be used to make fuel for peaceful purposes or to make the essential element in a nuclear weapon -- fissionable material. This dual-use nature makes it impossible (or improbable) to ban these technologies, even though it is clear that a country that pursues enrichment or reprocessing has an essential capability useful for nuclear weapons. In fact, most nonproliferation experts consider that the hardest part of making nuclear weapons is acquiring the fissile material. This is why they assume that once enough material is acquired, it is merely a matter of time before a country can assemble all the other elements for a relatively crude weapons. Not only can states legitimately pursue uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing as members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but they can also stockpile as much fissile material (including weapons-grade Highly Enriched Uranium --HEU -- and separated plutonium) as they like. The JCPOA has several different limits: Iran cannot keep any uranium enriched above commercial grade (3.67%), and may only keep < 300 kg of commercial grade uranium. This means that should the deal end, it would not have a ready-made stockpile of material that it could feed into centrifuge cascades to make weapons-grade material quickly. Likewise, the limit of 5060 P-1 centrifuges ensures that it will have to add to its capacity significantly to be able to produce weapons-grade uranium. Iran is still enriching uranium, albeit at low enriched levels (3.67%) and without accumulating a stockpile. Iran intends to continue enriching uranium for commercial or research purposes. The big question is whether Iran would seek to enrich to highly enriched levels (>20%) for use in research reactors or naval reactors. Once the JCPOA ends, it could legally do so under the NPT. There has been a lot of effort under the Nuclear Security Summits to minimize the use of HEU in the civilian sector for this reason, and it may be time to think about restricting the use of HEU for naval reactors for this reason. Presently, no non-nuclear-weapon state under the NPT uses HEU in military reactors; only the US, UK, Russia and India use HEU in their naval reactors. The US recently decided to research whether LEU could be used in some naval reactors.
Thank you both for your responses. Sharon, in your response you mentioned the need to ensure that Iran sees no benefit to restarting its weapons program after the deal expires. Will continued sanctions relief be enough? Are there other carrots that you think will be necessary down the road to incentivize Iran to not pursue sensitive technologies, even if not a full-on weapons program?
There are several steps the international community can take to make sure Iran continues to implement the JCPOA and continues compliance with its international obligations once the JCPOA expires: 1. Help Iran's economy recover. If Iran's economy is re-integrated into the world economy and its trade is normalized, it will have an incentive to continue compliance. This serves two purposes: It reward good behavior and compliance, while making sure that if sanctions are snapped back, they hurt. So the "stick" will be sharper and more effective. 2. Iran has a dynamic civil society (that is fairly young, educated, and West-leaning) that is starving for international exchange and opportunities. This is the part of the population that supports moderates and reformists and votes for it. If the moderates can show that their efforts bear fruit and maintain this base, they will be empowered. But if the moderates and reformists can't show anything for the "concessions" they made under the JCPOA, they will be undermined, while the hardliners will have more solid grounds to stand on. And a more moderate, more integrated, Iran is much less to pursue a nuclear weapons program. 3. More pressure and more isolation mean that Iran will feel more incentivized to pursue nuclear capabilities. The nuclear program was revived in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, which saw hundreds of thousands of deaths, and the use of chemical weapons by Iraq, and missile attacks against Iranian cities. And many of Iran's neighbors supported Iraq. If Iran feels less threatened in its neighborhood, it'll have less an incentive to pursue nuclear weapons. Today, given regional events, it is increasingly difficult to see a positive outcome for any regional party. But encouraging sustained regional dialogue (in particular between Saudi Arabia and Iran) and recognizing Iran's concerns can offer long-lasting solutions. 4. Thinking ahead: What happens when the JCPOA expires? We need to be thinking about this already. How to make sure the progress made by the JCPOA doesn't go to waste and Iran doesn't resume its activities without any accountability. 5. Making sure the procurement channel works! This is an opaque part of the JCPOA. If Iran doesn't get the authorized items it needs for its nuclear program, it'll have an incentive to procure them outside the established channel, and once the deal expires, it'll just continue illicit procurement. So, while the deal is in place, we need to make sure the channel works, and we need to think about a gameplan for post-JCPOA.
In today's nuclear market, neither enrichment nor reprocessing is particularly cost-effective. (There's a big debate about the costs of reprocessing, but let's not get into that here). On enrichment, the conventional wisdom is that only when a country has 15-20 nuclear power plants does it make sense to have a domestic enrichment capability. Japan had 54 commercial power reactors and was never able to enrich enough uranium for its own use. It's important to remember that no one gets rich from enriching and that the commercial international market is dominated by about 3 companies. It's a classic oligopoly -- the costs ($ and technology) are high to get into the market and there are only a few competitors.
Economic reality aside, I think Iran is likely to keep its "boutique" enrichment capability. The question is whether Iran will expand it, spend a lot of money on improving it, and actually try to make a commercial-scale go of it. What I would hope that we spend the next ten years doing is convincing Iran that it has more to gain by being a part of the nonproliferation regime than it has by returning to an outlier status. Sanctions relief is likely not enough there. I'll let Ari handle the Iran-specific carrots, but I think the nonproliferation regime has to stop pretending that there isn't a problem. These technologies, and the ability to stockpile material present real risks. One approach is to try to universalize the JCPOA limits, which is expressly prohibited by the JCPOA. Another approach would be to work on universal limits that strengthen the nonproliferation regime. These may not necessarily be the same as those of the JCPOA. Iran may find it easier to adhere to widely accepted norms than to take a path that only a few have trodden (some of the unwillingly).
Israel has always been vocal regarding Iran being an existential threat, from what I recall, did not support the lifting of sanctions without much greater concessions.
- Has support for JCPOA changed at all in Israel and how has that affected the implementation of the deal?
- With many US congresspeople and presidential candidates decrying the JCPOA, what would the implications be following a US withdrawal or an unilateral US demands?
- Even though China was a signatory of JCPOA, they had been investing heavily in oil and resource industries in Iran. Has trade between China and Iran lessened the pain of sanction and consequently the incentive to comply with JCPOA?
To your first question: The JCPOA was and continues to remain controversial in Israel. There is a gap between the views of the political and security establishments on the deal though. PM Netanyahu has been one of the most vocal critics of the JCPOA and any overture toward Iran. But a number of key figures in the Israeli security apparatus don't share the PM's views on this. Even Netanyahu has been much less active on this matter since the deal was signed though.
On the implications of a potential unilateral withdrawal by the US: It depends on the context within which this happens. If there are clear indication of Iran cheating or failing to implement the deal, the US would be able to convince its partners that this is beneficial. But if the US withdraws for domestic political reasons and without a clear Iranian breach, it'll have a hard time justifying it to its partners, and to get their support later on to reinitiate a similar process. It would also find it more challenging to lead arms control and nonproliferation agreements and its credibility would suffer
Last but not least: China. China has become a key trade partner for Iran and sees itself as a facilitator in the process, and a nuclear energy supplier for Iran. China is also trying to expand its presence in the Middle East and sees Iran as a key part of its economic and strategic plans in the region. It has a lot to gain from the process. Iran was hoping to diversify its partners post-JCPOA and in fact came to the table partly to be able to do business with others, as it doesn't really trust China. Chin has increased its presence in various sectors of the Iranian economy in recent years, and really stepped in to fill the vacuum left by Western businesses. Iran knew that it wouldn't be able to completely stop working with China, but wanted to have access to more partners, and be able to have some competition to get better deals and better quality goods. But it's becoming increasingly clear that this won't be very simple. So, it's likely to keep working with China for the foreseeable future.
I'm wondering, have you been to Iran as part of this process? If so, had you been before, and how has it changed? Do you expect this deal to bring about a normalisation of relations between Iran and the international community? In your estimation, in what time frame might we expect this?
I have lived in Iran and traveled back to it during the talks. Iran has changed a lot in the past few years. The most noticeable change you can see is that tourism has increased and many business delegations have visited the country and concluded MOUs. Iranian officials have traveled to various regional countries and other key countries, and officials from many countries, including China, South Korea, the EU,... have gone to Iran. There are also a number of channels that are now open between various key points in the US and Iranian governments. All this indicates that Iran is reintegrating the international community. But there are also a number of issues holding the country back from fully normalizing its relations with the West in particular, including factions in Iran that don't want to see that level of rapprochement. So, the process will be long, and it will take a while for the country to reintegrate the international community fully. I don't have a concrete timeframe, but we're looking at several years (if the presidential elections lead to a Rouhani or moderate victory).
Have there been any surprises, pleasant or unpleasant, for you in the aftermath of the deal's signing? And what are the one or two biggest misconceptions you see about the deal (or Iran) in Washington? Do you think these are different in DC than in the United States more broadly?
Not necessarily surprises but certainly unpleasant developments: The increased push by some factions in Iran to test the deal on several fronts (arrests of dual nationals, cyberactivities, ballistic missile work...); and the US Congress efforts to block the JCPOA implementation (the recent vote to block the Boeing deal with Iran, which would have provided Iran with a new fleet after decades of sanctions and an aging and unsafe fleet being operated). The two biggest misconceptions I see in Washington:
- The US can get a better deal by withdrawing from the JCPOA process and imposing more sanctions to get a better deal. This completely ignores the role of the other parties at the table (the EU, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, and China) and assumes that they'll follow Washington whatever happens. It also ignored the huge impact this would have on US credibility abroad and ability to effectively lead in similar processes in the future.
- The only way to deal with Iran is to put pressure on it. This ignores that there are areas where US-Iranian interests align (for example in Afghanistan, and Iraq to some extent).
What is the likelihood of Iran pulling out of the nuclear deal, in the near future? Iran has been pretty vocal about not being able to realize the benefits of the deal. European banks are very hesitant deal with Iran and Iranian firms, and fear the wrath of OFAC. Iran and banks have hired a lot of OFAC experts, and it looks like they are still finding it risky. It also looks like the Airbus deal might unravel. Would love your opinion on this. Thanks for doing this AmA.
I don't think Iran will pull out of the process any time soon. The deal is turning 1 in 3 days, it's only been implemented for a few months. The Iranian public may be getting impatient, but the government knows that economic recovery won't happen overnight. The government is also aware that the deal isn't just facing challenges from the US, there are huge obstacles on the way to economic recovery within the Iranian system. And while the government has started to address some of these issues, it's going to take a while to fix structural shortcomings that have been in place for decades and benefited many within the establishment. There's a willingness to see where the JCPOA will take Iran at the highest levels. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei who has the final say on virtually all foreign policy issues recently said that Iran won't throw out the deal unless the US does. But if the current trend continues and Iran doesn't see tangible results from the deal in a few years, the JCPOA will be seriously threatened.
Iran’s recent parliamentary elections seem like a positive indication that the moderates are gaining power and credence, but we’ve also thought that the moment had come for "reformers" multiple times before. From what you can see going on in Iran in the past year, has the deal had positive (from the US perspective) impact on the country? Do you think that we will have a changed Iran by the time the deal expires?
And, unrelated, what impact might the Iran deal's relative success so far have on a potential agreement with North Korea? Would they be willing to accept similar restrictions on fuel cycle capabilities and be willing to submit themselves to an intrusive inspection regime?
It's far too early to tell whether the deal has had a positive impact on the political process in Iran. Presidential elections will be held in about 9 months, and it remains to be seen how much of a challenge they will be for the Rouhani government. But as a general trend, the Iranian society is becoming more "liberal" and open. So, if the deal is sustained and Iranians see economic recovery, by the time it expires, we could be dealing with a much more moderate Iran. But there are many unpredictable variables: The next Supreme Leader, regional issues, US-Iran relations (and related to that, how the next US admin handles Iran for 4/8 years)...
On North Korea, I'll let Sharon give you a more comprehensive answer, but the two countries don't share much in common except for being tough cases in nonproliferation. So, replicating the JCPOA for North Korea would be incredibly tricky.
Thanks for more good questions. On DPRK, I find it hard to imagine they would accept similar restrictions and a intrusive inspections regime. The DPRK never came into compliance with its IAEA safeguards agreement and certainly doesn't have an Additional Protocol. Beyond that, the DPRK already has nuclear weapons and shows no signs of wanting to negotiate them away. Would we want an agreement that just limits their fuel cycle capabilities? What kind of confidence would we have in their material declarations? At least in the Iran case, the stockpiles of material produced had been under IAEA safeguards but with North Korea, we'll be back to where we were in 1994, trying to figure out if they were clandestinely holding back material. The first step is having a partner that wants to negotiate and it doesn't look like we are there yet.
There have been numerous criticisms of the deal including Iran's self-inspection of facilities, Iran's continued development of nuclear payload capable missiles, and the recent revelation that Iran is still pursuing nuclear material (in Germany). Do you consider any of the many criticisms of the deal significant, and what exactly would Iran need to do at this point for snapback sanctions to take effect?
Thanks for this question. Some of the criticisms of the deal are valid and should be taken seriously but others are not. On missiles, I think it's a bit of sophistry for Iran to say it's not developing nuclear-capable missiles because its nuclear program is captured under the JCPOA. What makes a missile nuclear-capable is a somewhat arbitrary decision about range and payload ( 300km, 500 kg). That said, the JCPOA doesn't address missiles in a comprehensive way, which is why U.S. government officials say it violates the spirit of the agreement rather than the letter. I'm not sure we've ever been successful in tying nuclear limits to missile limits with any country. Even arms control agreements with the Russians focused on actual weapons, not capabilities. On the self-inspection, that was really a part of completing the Roadmap to clarify past activities. Some things were left in the hands of the IAEA and it's not clear why the IAEA agreed to that. On Iran's continued pursuit of dual-use materials, it's hard to say. Parties to the JCPOA may have to consider whether these are attempts to undermine the agreement or whether these efforts are directed by the Iranian government. In any case, the JCPOA refers to "substantial non-performance" and includes several mechanisms for resolving the issue before it all goes back to the UN Security Council for snapback. Specifically, Iran must not engage in activities, including at the R&D level, that could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive decide and Iran must cooperate and act in accordance with the procurement channel of the JCPOA.
“Parties to the JCPOA may have to consider whether these are attempts to undermine the agreement or whether these efforts are directed by the Iranian government.”
Is there reason to believe that these were attempts to undermine the agreement and who do we believe would be the underminer - Iranian hardliners who want to undermine the deal (but who weren't directed to procure by the government) or other parties making claims about Iranian procurement that may not be supported by fact?
If these were directed by the Iranian government would that be sufficient to find Iran in violation of the JCPOA?
Thanks for the follow-up. Right now, the press reports stem from a German domestic security office that issued a report entitled "2015 Annual Report on the Protection of the Constitution: Facts and Trends." The period covered is all of 2015, and JCPOA implementation did not begin until January 2016. Honestly, it's not an intelligence document and among all its topics it includes a report on the growth of Scientology in Germany. Even so, officials who examine information regarding potential violations of any agreement almost always need to consider whether actions performed are with the consent/acknowledgement/direction of government leaders or not. With an agreement as controversial as this one is, it would not be surprising to have individuals or entities act to sabotage the agreement. Of course, there are times when governments do feign ignorance of an activity in order to escape blame. For example, the United States did not levy sanctions on Pakistan for the proliferation activity of A.Q. Khan presumably because the Pakistani government feigned ignorance of his activities. In the case of Iran, my guess is that potentially significant incidents would need to evaluate whether or not these actions were sanctioned by the Iranian government. A finding that they were would be necessary but not sufficient to find a violation; it would also have to be considered to be significant non-performance and only after efforts to rectify the situation had failed.
Thank you both for all of these thoughtful responses. There are obviously many nonproliferation scholars in and outside of government in the United States, like yourselves, and many of them have been quite active in debating the merits of the Iran deal (and potential solutions to other nonproliferation problems). Does Iran itself have the same sort of civil society body of nuclear experts/scholars in this field? In Tehran, for instance, do you know if there is any rigorous non-government debate about the JCPOA or other nonproliferation measures like the NPT, CTBT, FMCT, etc?
The number of experts in government, think tanks, universities, national labs,... working on arms control and nonproliferation issues is exceptional. In European countries, there are far fewer colleagues working on these issues. Iran has a small circle of experts, even though most of them are not focused on arms control and nonproliferation specifically. Iran has a number of universities, but most of them don't offer a single course on these issues. It also doesn't have independent think tanks as the US does. There are a some government or quasi-government think tanks, where folks discuss the same issues we grapple with here in Washington and elsewhere throughout the country. But the discussions are fairly limited. The only exception, of course, is the JCPOA, which has been the subject of a very serious debate in Iran.
Thanks for doing this! The Iran Sanctions Act is set to expire this year and the argument is that without law authorizing sanctions then the U.S. loses its leverage, or tools, to ensure Iran's compliance to the agreement. What do you see the response being within Iran if Congress passes further sanctions targeting Iranian nationals and businesses that are believed to have ties to terrorism etc.?
The Supreme Leader has made it clear that he believes ANY new sanction against Iran will be considered a violation of the JCPOA. This means that it's not just nuclear sanctions that are seen as a violation of the deal. Of course, that's not what the JCPOA says. The JCPOA deals with nuclear sanctions exclusively. Sanctions on human rights and terrorism remain in place, and Iran knew this from the get go. I believe this to be more posturing than anything else. But what does make matters complicated is that the existing and new sanctions against certain entities make it difficult for Iran's economy to recover with sanctions relief. For instance, the paramilitary forces in charge of many aspects of Iran's security and economy (the Revolutionary Guards or IRGC) will continue to play a key role in Iran's economy. So, it's difficult to reconcile their regional activities and ties to groups on the US terrorism list (like Hezbollah), with their role in Iran's economy and therefore economic recovery.
What do you see as the principle obstacles to encouraging other nations to adopt the monitoring procedures outlined in the Iran deal?
How could policy makers be encouraged to adopt or pressure other nations to adopt this type of expansive IAEA access?
The additional monitoring procedures have only been possible to reach because Iran was in noncompliance with its NPT/IAEA safeguards agreement and in violation of UN Security Council resolutions for years. Even then, the parties were unable to get Iran to completely stop enriching uranium as the UNSC resolutions required. The short answers to your question: sovereignty and cost. However, if the Iran deal prompts some soul-searching within the nonproliferation regime about how to strengthen monitoring and all countries agree to add such monitoring measures to their safeguards agreements with the IAEA, that might be one way.
How did you get into this line if work? Have you been passionate about the subject since you were young, or is it something you discovered later?
I became intrigued by scientists saving the world from nuclear annihilation in the dark days of the Cold War -- that is, my college years. I discovered the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists by accident doing some other research and I was hooked. (I am now on their Science and Security Board). I interned in the German parliament in the fall of 1983 when Germany was considering whether or not to station Pershing and cruise missiles, which brought home the real human concerns about these weapons. And I worked in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and State Department on nuclear nonproliferation, followed by advising Congress on weapons of mass destruction. I can't seem to get rid myself of fascination for this topic, but having visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few years ago, I remain committed to trying to make a change. Thanks for being interested!!
Thanks for the details. I find career paths fascinating, an yours seems fairly straight forward. Thanks for doing your best to keep us all safe.
Will nuclear weapons laws raise the price of nuclear energy?
Directly/indirectly? ; how?
I believe this will be the basis for whether or not many of the engineers/tech/science people on Reddit agree with you.
Great question. Nuclear energy needs no help from nuclear weapons laws to make it expensive. Most of the costs from nuclear energy come from their financing and construction, not operating costs. And inspections would add to the operating costs. But, nuclear is just one way to make electricity, and its expense ultimately depends on what access a country has to other resources, and how it subsidizes those resources. By "nuclear weapons laws," I understand you to mean those regulations that require inspection for security and nonproliferation purposes. Treaties that address nuclear weapons themselves (like New START) have no impact at all on nuclear energy. In the United States, our nuclear power reactors are generally not inspected for safeguards purposes but listed on what they call an "eligible facilities list." The IAEA can choose to inspect them, but rarely does because it serves no nonproliferation purpose in a nuclear weapon state. Elsewhere, for example, in non-nuclear-weapon states that are NPT members, nuclear power reactors are inspected for nonproliferation purposes. The cost is pretty small compared to the cost of those power plants -- the annual budget of IAEA safeguards (globally) is $140M.
How can we assure countries that their sovereignty and borders will be respected without nuclear weapons after the Budapest Memorandum just fell through so spectacularly?
Most countries don't have nuclear weapons (US, UK, France, China, Russia inside the NPT; India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea outside the NPT) and most countries are not invaded. Of course, the US extends its deterrence to many countries, including those in Europe but increasingly this is based on conventional superiority, not nuclear weapons. The Obama administration has reduced reliance on the nuclear component of deterrence overall. There are many scholars who have addressed the "what if" regarding Ukraine but few have concluded that Ukraine would have been better off keeping the Soviet nuclear weapons on its own soil in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Thank you both for taking the time to answer questions. From what I understand, there have been several more or less permanent steps to dismantle Iran's nuclear program that were required, like filling the reactor core with cement. While Iran could build another reactor, it seems as though it was rendered impossible for it to revert to using the now-cement-filled one. To what extent is the deal permanent from a political perspective? Could any of the P5+1, or Iran itself, take steps to undo the progress of the deal? Should we take the threats of political candidates seriously, that the deal could be "torn up"?
The reactor you're referring to is the Arak Heavy Water Reactor, that is undergoing a redesign. As part of this redesign, Iran removed the calandria (its core component) and filled the core with cement. Iran, China, and the US are discussing how to move forward with the redesign, but Iran will have a heavy water reactor that produces less plutonium (and will be much less problematic from a proliferation perspective). This is virtually irreversible, but other technical elements of the deal are not. This means that Iran can take a number of steps to accelerate its nuclear program. But this violate the terms of the JCPOA. For its part, the P5+1 has a built-in mechanism in the deal allowing it to "snapback" or reimpose sanctions.
But the two main concerns are the US and Iran. In the US, a number of candidates pledged to undo the deal. This would be incredibly difficult for the US to do unless there's clear evidence of Iran cheating or failing to comply by the terms of the deal. US partners in the process (the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the European Union) would not stand by and support a unilateral attempt at killing the deal. And China and Russia won't be onboard if the US tries to get out of the process and impose more sanctions for a better deal. The strength of the sanctions imposed on Iran was that they were multilateral, with support from the the P5 (permanent members of the UN Security Council) and the broader international community. US credibility would also be gravely undermined if the US chooses to leave the process unilaterally and without Iran triggering it.
What I think will be more likely is that the US will continue to impose non-nuclear sanctions and make it more difficult for businesses to enter or re-enter the Iranian market. And Iran is likely to test the JCPOA by testing ballistic missiles (not covered by the JCPOA) and increasing its cybercapabilities and cyberactivities.
The deal itself is not permanent and that is why it's important to nurture its success. At the Arak reactor, that particular calandria can't be reused, but Iran could (with difficulty) build another calandria for the reactor to produceweapons-grade plutonium if the deal were to fall apart. While it would be starting from scratch on acquiring enriched uranium (because it no longer has stockpiles of material), it could put more sophisticated centrifuges on-line within a certain timeframe. The way to make the deal more permanent and thus lock in the progress we have made is to build confidence over time that both sides are complying.
That said, the notion that we should tear up the deal and renegotiate a better one is dangerously simplistic. There is no better deal to be made, and certainly if the United States pulls out, it will not be able to find partners in any new deal.
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