The Iran Nuclear Deal: More Continuity Than Change 

photo Iran nuke deal

by Gordon M. Hahn

The P5 + 1 succeeded last week in agreeing on a draft agreement intended to curtail and terminate Iran’s weaponization of its nuclear energy program. The so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2165388-iran-deal-text.html) is actually just the beginning of the final stage in the Western-Iranian jostling over Iran’s efforts to raise its weaponization capability to a level that will allow it in short order to create a nuclear weapons strike capability. In short, at best the JCPOA will delay Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear strike capability by 10-15 years, assuming Tehran complies with the agreement, which is a stretch to say the least.

Tehran has been working on all three major components needed for a nuclear capability for many years: (1) creating fissile material; (2) warhead construction; (3) and development of delivery vehicles/methods.

As Andrew Cordesman points out there are at least four key criteria for a good arms control agreement. First, it should be balanced; an imperfect ‘win-lose’ from the point of view of all parties. Otherwise, it is likely too advantageous for one party and be later abandoned or immediately left non-ratified by the other. The Iranians are already boasting that they received everything they wanted: the right to continue enriching uranium, the lifting of economic sanctions, and the lifting of the ban on arms purchases. In the U.S. there are already signs the Congress may not sign on to the treaty, precisely because the Obama administration bargained for very little.

The agreement leaves enrichment levels and infrastructure in place for ten years. For example, Tehran does not need to begin to dismantle its treaty-allowed 5,060 R-1 centrifuges until ten years after the treaty comes into force. This, along with other centrifuges Iran is permitted under the agreement, is sufficient for Tehran to develop a bomb in a year or perhaps considerably less (an unknown given our lack of a baseline of knowledge about its program) should it decide to cheat. After the ten-year period treaty period expires, the delay of Iran’s legal right to enrichment to levels achieved by the treaty will end and, assuming no cheating has occurred hitherto, Iran will able to build a bomb in a year or less.

The treaty also sidelines or softens a series of previous Western positions, such as shutting down the formerly secret underground enrichment facility that will be impossible to monitor without the right to surprise inspections.

Second, compliance with any and all adversarial agreements needs to be fully verifiable. President Obama claimed in April that the agreement was not based on trust but rather on “unprecedented verification” and “unprecedented access to Iran’s nuclear program verification because Iran will face more inspections than any other country in the world” (www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2015-04-04/obama-iran-deal-based-on-unprecedented-verification-). The agreement indeed does allow for constant technological and on-site monitoring, “including daily access,” of all uranium enrichment processes for 15 years at the lone known site, Natanz, where enrichment will be allowed under the JCPOA (JCPOA, pp. 39-41).

However, the operative word above is ‘known’. The JCPOA includes measures to resolve the problem of “undeclared materials and activities” or any still hidden materials and activities, but their robustness is questionable. Thus, if the IAEA suspects that there may be materials and activities at a a site undisclosed by Tehran, then it can submit a request for clarification, which if it does not satisfy inspectors can be followed by a request to inspect the site. If the IAEA and Iran cannot settle on a verification procedure within 14 days, then a consensus or a majority vote by the JCPOA’s eight-member Joint Commission (JC) will vote on a proper procedure for access and verification within in seven days. The West’s majority (EU, US, UK, France, and Germany) on the JC should routinely prevail over Russia, China and Iran. Iran will then have three days to comply with the JC-mandated procedure (JCPOA, p. 42).

Third, an agreement must be enforceable so that there are tangible consequences for non-compliance. If any of the eight participants feels one or more other participants are living up to their obligations under the JCPOA, then the same process is followed and in the event of dissatisfaction with the JC decision there can be an appeal to the eight foreign ministers. If this does not resolve the dispute, the parties can then cease their participation in the JCPOA. Any Iranian failure to comply with the temporary limits of enrichment levels or other stipulations of the agreement should lead to immediate if not automatic reinstatement of the economic sanctions traded away in return for establishing Iran’s limited right to enrich (JCPOA, p. 19).

Fourth, an adversarial treaty must have mechanisms built-in for constant review of the various verification and other processes and procedures required in the course of implementation as time passes and the political and technological environment in which the treaty was concluded changes. The review process is inevitable and crucial, given the ongoing need to clarify clauses in the treaty, the clarification and interpretation of which is open to both sides in what is highly distrustful, antagonistic relationship. You can be sure that each side will be interpreting the treaty’s stipulations differently and fighting for every inch of its own interpretation becoming the foundation for building implementation procedures. The ‘daily’ venue for these battles will be the Joint Commission to be set up under the JCPOA to review implementation and procedures for said. In addition, the foreign ministers of the signatory states must meet at least once every two years or earlier as needed to review implementation and adopt measures to resolve issues hindering implementation.

Unfortunately, Iran’s record of compliance with the NPT and the IAEA inspections regimes does not encourage hope that the JCPOA will lead us away from a future Iranian nuclear weapons crisis. It is very likely that at some point, a party or parties to the agreement will be left dissatisfied with the agreement’s implementation and withdraw. Iran may decide to do so, if its uses the agreement to stall and achieves a ‘break out’ in fissile material, warhead development and/or delivery capability.

The IAEA’s 2011 report “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran” clearly demonstrates Iran’s efforts to weaponized its nuclear program and hide those efforts from the IAEA and the international community. The report also stressed that Iran only declared a number of facilities after other sources informed the IAEA as to their existence. Subsequent reports only reinforce a sense that grave concern is appropriate. Given Iran’s long-standing efforts to conceal its nuclear program from the IAEA and international community, there should be a high level of concern that Iran is hiding other nuclear facilities, material, and activities (see the detailed summary of the report in Andrew Cordesman, Judging a P5+1 Nuclear Agreement with Iran, Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 2015, http://csis.org/files/publication/150330_P5_1_Nuclear_Agreement.pdf, pp. 5-8).

As Cordesman warns, the gaps in Western knowledge created by the outstanding issues created by past Iranian cheating means the absence of any reliable baseline for assessing how far Iran has progressed towards designing and producing a nuclear weapon, and this makes it “almost impossible to really judge the merits of a framework or full agreement.” An agreement without more information means we have no reliable estimate of how much time Iran would need to develop either fissile material or, more importantly, a nuclear strike capability (p. 16). Iran does pledge in the new agreement under a ‘Roadmap for Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues’ to resolve all outstanding issues raised in the 2011 IAEA report and subsequent reports by 15 October 2015 to be confirmed by an IAEA General Director’s report on 15 December (JCPOA, p. 10). This will be the first major test of Iran’s willingness to comply with agreement, and its failure to address all the outstanding issues should be followed by the P5’s suspension of the agreement until resolution is implemented.

However, a major problem is the long-term nature of implementation after the Roadmap. The term of the JCOPA only begins on Adoption Day, which comes 90 days after the UN adopts a resolution to support the JCOPA. Even if UN endorsement comes yesterday, on Adoption Day JCOPA participants will only begin making “necessary arrangements and preparations, including legal and administrative preparations, for implementation of their JCPOA commitments.” This means mere preparation for implementation – not implementation of any ‘dismantling’, ‘ceasing’, verifying, etc. – will likely begin in 2016. Actual implementation could start as late as 2017. Given our lack of a baseline, Iran could have fissile material and, who knows, a nuclear weapon and a crude delivery capacity by then. This is the advantage Tehran has accrued as a result of years of non-compliance with IAEA agreements, obstruction, and delay.

Further down the road, the Obama administration’s hope that Tehran will become ‘embourgoised’, non-revolutionary, realpolitik, and pro-status quo is a bad bet. There are too many issues left unresolved in the treaty and in Iranian-Western relations to herald any forthcoming détente`. The regime will only become non-adversarial if there is a regime transformation, willingly or otherwise. Meanwhile, the agreement’s sanctions relief offers a dividend some of which can be used to fund destabilizing actions such as terrorism, as has been acknowledged even by some State Department officials (www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/07/08/obama-admin-fears-iran-deal-could-give-tehran-billions-for-terror.html). This is just one of the many contentious issues that is likely to keep the relationship adversarial and thus encourage cheating on Tehran’s part.

Even an Obama administration State Department official recently acknowledged that “the U.S. sees Iran clearly for what it is: the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism; a supporter of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas; a backer of the Assad regime’s brutality in Syria; and a force for instability in Yemen” (www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/07/08/obama-admin-fears-iran-deal-could-give-tehran-billions-for-terror.html). The treaty’s cessation of the ban on arms sales to Tehran five years after treaty compliance will give Iran even more options and robustness for destabilizing the region’s regimes, promoting Shiism (in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria), and destroying Israel.

Uncertainty regarding issues related to one’s survival dictates to Israel, Iran’s Sunni adversaries, and the West to err on the side of caution. If we know that Iran has failed to comply with international agencies and inspectors in the past and we do not know how far Iran has progressed towards a nuclear strike capability, then any responsible leader will be prepared to abandon the Vienna treaty at the first sign of Tehran’s failure to allow inspections or otherwise comply. This will require the swift reinstatement of sanctions and preparedness to undertake military action should Iran be in a position to develop strike capability as a result of any non-compliance. Ultimately, this may be the only way to get the most if anything out of this risky agreement.

The treaty could help get access to the additional data needed to make some general estimate. Here the review process and the negotiations over clarifying the treaty’s clauses and delineating processes and procedures for implementation could be crucial. Iran could drag these talks out in order to delay implementation and allow for more development under the treaty’s nose, reducing the time needed to hurdle the gap to fissile material development, warhead design, and weaponized strike capability.

Also, although plutonium and uranium make bad and expensive dirty bomb components, we have to acknowledge that Iran is already sufficiently far advanced that in a pinch it could already resort to such a weapon. This alone will spark its Sunni neighbors to pursue nuclear and radiological capabilities, which create a two-pronged threat to Israel in the broader region. Whoever wins in the coming war, the Sunni or the Shia, could be in a much better position to challenge Israel’s survival.

Thus, despite some naivete in the Obama administration’s flexible negotiating approach and the concessions it produced, the US, Israel, the West, and even Russia find themselves pretty much in the same position they found themselves before the JCPOA. All sides are seeking to put off as long as possible that terrible day when in Washington and/or Tel Aviv must take the decision to strike and destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons development infrastructure in the hope that before that day the Islamist regime will transform or be transformed by transition or revolution.

Some expect that in the wake of the agreement Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will be introducing economic, social and political reforms to buttress his position in the run-up to the 2017 presidential elections. Reforms in tandem with the economic boon and Western contacts influence should accrue to both the population at-large and the few pragmatists among the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, with its $150 billion in business interests, and thus could enlarge the middle and creative classes to critical mass. They might demand then a full transition to democracy or perhaps attempt to overthrow the mullah regime if fundamental liberalization is deferred. These two paths remain the easiest, though perhaps less likely roads out of the Iranian nuclear morass. The other will be the purview of the military.

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Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, MonTREP, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.

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About Gordon M. Hahn