Deconstructing the Iran nuclear deal

Image credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Flickr: Creative Commons)

During the US election campaign, US President Donald Trump described the Iran nuclear deal—known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—as a ‘disaster’ and ‘the worst deal ever negotiated’. Since assuming office, President Trump has imposed fresh sanctions on Tehran following Iranian ballistic missile testing, marking ‘what officials called the end of an era in which the United States was “too tolerant of Iran’s bad behavior”’. Despite this, the deal appears now to have taken a backseat on President Trump’s agenda, with Iran only receiving a brief throwaway mention during the President’s first speech to Congress.

The Iran deal has undoubtedly generated no shortage of controversy. But what is it about this deal that makes it so appealing to some and so repugnant to others? Interestingly, both sides of the argument point to the very same factors to make their case.

First, both critics and proponents of the deal point to the limits of its scope. Critics argue that the deal does nothing to reform Iran internally, nor to stop it from sponsoring terrorism and destabilising the region, or to encourage it to recognise Israel. Moreover, the deal grants Iran billions of dollars of sanction relief, which can be used to continue these destabilising activities. However, proponents argue that this very same limitation is one of former US president Barack Obama’s greatest manoeuvres. On this view, Obama was only able to galvanise support from the international community precisely because the agreement focused on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Obama himself addressed this issue by arguing that Iran will use much of the money to pay off its debts, and by somewhat glibly asserting that ‘if we are serious about confronting Iran's destabilizing activities… we need to check the behavior that we are concerned about directly’. While not without merit, this latter argument does appear to sidestep the actual question.

Second, even regarding the nuclear aspects of the deal itself, critics and proponents disagree. Proponents, including Obama, point to the requirements placed upon Iran to get rid of its medium-enriched uranium and 98% of its approximately 10,000 kilograms of low-level uranium. Similarly, Iran is required to give up 14,000 of its 20,000 centrifuges. Additionally, the deal only permits Iran to to enrich uranium to low levels for peaceful purposes, and proponents argue that ‘Iran would never agree to abandon enrichment entirely’. However, critics point to these very same facts to make the opposite argument. They argue that Iran ‘has no domestic need for uranium enrichment’ and that Iran will now be allowed to install far more efficient centrifuges than it has in the past. Similarly, Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argues that 6,000 centrifuges is ‘woefully inadequate’ for peaceful nuclear energy and is ‘exactly what you need if you want to weaponize uranium’. Additionally, the deal also allows for limited centrifuge research and development.

Third, critics and proponents disagree whether the deal appropriately deals with Iran’s ballistic missile capability. Following the deal’s signing, the United Nations Security Council endorsed the deal by passing Resolution 2231. This Resolution states that for 8 years after the deal’s adoption, ‘Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons’. The key issue here is what happens to ballistic missile activity that may not be designed for delivering nuclear weapons.

Writing in the National Interest, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute Paul R. Pillar argues that previous restrictions on Iranian ballistic missiles were aimed at preventing nuclear activity, and were therefore only necessary ‘as long as there was not yet an agreement precluding Iran from producing the fissile material that would be needed for such a weapon’. Accordingly, now that there is such an agreement, Pillar argues that there is no need for concern over Iranian missiles.

Of course, this is not the end of the story. Emily Landau and Shimon Stein from the Institute of National Security Studies argue that Iran’s ballistic missiles cannot be divorced from the nuclear issue on two accounts. Firstly, unlike other states, Iran ‘continues to harbor military nuclear ambitions’. Secondly, nuclear capability is inherently composed of three elements: a ballistic missile, a nuclear detonator and fissile material. Although it’s technically possible to drop a nuclear weapon out of a plane, ballistic missiles are an inherent part of a state’s nuclear capability. More concerningly, the US, UK, France, and Germany have already written a letter to then Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon accusing Iran of testing missiles that were ‘inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons’ and ‘in defiance’ of Resolution 2231.

Pillar also contends that Iran’s missile program is focused on its immediate region, and is a response to Saddam Hussein’s use of missiles during the Iran-Iraq war. But, as Landau and Stein sharply argue, ‘is Pillar saying that if Iran is developing missiles that can carry a nuclear payload, but the missiles cannot reach the United States, then there is no problem?’

Finally, proponents and critics disagree over the deal’s safeguards. In a speech defending the deal, Obama touted the ‘daily access to Iran's key nuclear sites’ and the duty to provide access to any suspicious site within 24 hours. The issue, however, arises where the parties disagree over the inspection of a suspicious site. Here, the deal provides a series of dispute resolution mechanisms that can take up to 24 days. Obama has argued that this is not an issue because ‘once we've identified a site that raises suspicion, we will be watching it continuously until inspectors get in’. However, critics argue that these 24 days would still allow Iran to ‘relocate undeclared activities’.

Likewise, the effectiveness of the deal’s snapback sanctions are debated. Under the deal, sanctions are reimposed in the event of a violation. Proponents note that unlike other frameworks that require a new resolution to impose sanctions, here, sanctions are imposed automatically in the event of a violation, and can only be lifted by a Security Council resolution (over which the United States has veto power). Critics argue, however, that because the reimposition of sanctions would allow Iran to exit the deal, the United States would only invoke them in cases of ‘massive Iranian violations, because you're certainly not going to risk the Iranians walking away from the deal and engaging in nuclear escalation over smaller violations’.

Thus, the very same facts are what provides fodder for both proponents and critics of the deal. For its proponents, the deal is artfully limited to nuclear activities, provides significant limits and has thorough safeguards. But for its critics, the deal is wrongfully limited to the nuclear program, gives too much leeway for nuclear and missile activities and has ineffective safeguards. For proponents, then, the choice is a deal for the next 15 years, or no deal. But for critics, the deal merely kicks the can down the road, while Iran continues its activities for the next 15 years.

Shmuel Levin is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.