Has the New Nuclear Deal Diminished the Threat of an Iranian Nuclear Weapon?

By December 8, 2015 No Comments

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA], better known as the Iranian nuclear deal, was reached on July 14 2015 between Iran, P5+1 (USA, China, Russia, UK, France, and the European Union), and Germany. In accordance with the agreement, Iran is required to scale back its nuclear facilities and development, especially its enrichment and reprocessing of uranium and plutonium, as well as allow the International Atomic Energy Association [IAEA] to strictly monitor and inspect all of Iran’s nuclear facilities and technologies. In return, economic sanctions will be lifted. Perhaps the most significant part of the newly agreed upon framework is that it allows Iran to continue with its nuclear program, though strictly for peaceful uses (research and energy production). Following the deal, many scholars, politicians, and peace/nonproliferation activists have asserted that the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon no longer exists, and essentially, Iranian nuclear proliferation for the purpose of weapons development has for now ceased.

In 2002, the National Council of Resistance of Iran announced that Iran was “building two secret nuclear facilities: a uranium enrichment facility near the city of Natanz and a heavy-water reactor near the city of Arak.”[1] As a signatory to the NPT, Iran is obligated to declare and allow the IAEA inspectors into its nuclear facilities; however, Iran failed to report to the NPT. Following intense international pressure in early 2003, Iran issued an extensive declaration to the IAEA about its nuclear activities, continuing to assert that its program was for peaceful purposes.  Between 2003 and 2004, Iran provided the IAEA with several declarations about its nuclear program, while the IAEA continued to uncover hidden activities and sites not included in Iran’s declarations. Due to international pressure and fear of additional sanctions, Iran began negotiations with Britain, France, and Germany, known as EU-3; later in 2006, Russia, China, and the United States joined the negotiations group, now known as P5+1. On November 24, 2013, Iran and P5+1 announced that they reached an “interim” deal, known as the Joint Action Plan, where Iran would “freeze most aspects of [its] nuclear program and allow time to negotiate JCPOA.”[2] In return, P5+1 would remove some sanctions against Iran. On July 14, 2015, P5+1 and Iran finalized the JCPOA, which seeks to curtail Iran’s nuclear program and ensure it is only used for peaceful purposes. According to the terms of the JCPOA, considerable constraints are placed on Iran’s enrichment, reprocessing, advanced centrifuge research, and heavy water reactor programs, and nuclear research in Iran will be extensively monitored by the IAEA for the next 10 to 15 years.[3] Furthermore, the agreement places limits on Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium.

Iran’s new breakout time under nuclear deal

Despite international enthusiasm, the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal has not entirely eliminated Iran’s nuclear threat, but rather has prolonged Tehran’s breakout time—assuming that Iran follows through with the agreement. Breakout time refers to the time needed to produce a sufficient amount of weapon-grade uranium (which requires a longer timeframe) for one nuclear weapon. Prior to the 2015 agreement, Iran’s breakout time as of late 2013 was one to two months. In accordance with the agreement, Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities will be capped, lengthening Tehran’s breakout timeline to seven to ten months after year 10 of the agreement, and subsequently, to about six months by year 13 of the agreement weapon.[4] Additionally, following year 15, Tehran’s breakout timeline is substantially decreased from a few days to a week. Preceding the agreement, Iran was able to enrich uranium to 20% (enrichment less than 5% is all that is required for civilian purposes, which clearly indicates that Iran was seeking to develop nuclear weapons); however, under the JCPOA, Iran cannot enrich beyond the 3.67% threshold for the next 15 years.[5] In that respect, the JCPOA actually did not abolish the Iranian nuclear threat, but rather has delayed the inevitable, and perhaps has even worsened the threat posed by Iran nuclear weaponization to the region, especially for Israel.

This worsening threat to security is tied to Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities. To date, Iran lacks an intercontinental ballistic missiles program [ICBMs], despite having an advanced program for short-range ballistic missiles [SRBMs] and medium-range ballistic missiles [MRBMs].[6] It should be noted that ICBMs are designed to be used strictly for nuclear weapons and not for conventional warheads. Now given that Iran will likely have various Security Council sanctions removed with the implementation of the JCPOA, Iran will soon have at its disposable considerable monetary resources, foreign sellers of missile technology (besides North Korea, Iran’s previous main provider of missile technology), and the ability to import the needed technology and materials to build an advanced ICBMs program. What is lacking from the JCPOA is some sort of mechanism or requirement to get Iran to become party to the Hague Code of Conduct [HCOC] against ballistic missile proliferation, which seeks to limit the production, testing, and export of ballistic missiles. All members of the HCOC must “commit themselves politically to provide pre-launch notifications on ballistic missiles and space-launch vehicle launches and test flights….states [must]…submit an annual declaration of their country’s policies on ballistic missiles and space-launch vehicles.”[7] If Iran had become a member of the HCOC, it would have made it very difficult for them to develop an advanced ICBMs program, since the HCOC requires that all member states submit an annual declaration of their ballistic missile activities. However, in the current situation, when year 15 of the agreement approaches and Iran’s breakout time is reduced from a few days to a week, Iran may already have delivery capabilities, therefore posing a much greater threat than if sanctions that limited Iran’s ICBMs program had continued. Thus, the JCPOA is beneficial for P5+1 in the short run, pushing the problem of Iranian nuclearization away for 15 years; however, in the long run, the agreement is beneficial for Iran as it gives the state time to augment its ICBMs program, which is the only mechanism used to deliver nuclear warheads.

The North Korean model to nuclear weapons proliferation – two possible scenarios

Despite sanctions and international isolation post-1979, and particularly after 2003, Iran was able to develop its enrichment capacity in defiance of the IAEA and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, suggesting that nuclear weapons development is an Iranian priority. Within the JCPOA, mechanisms exist to deal with this potential problem, in that the sanctions will ‘snap back’ into place once it has been determined that Iran has violated the agreement.[8] Additionally, the UNSC embargo “on the export of technology related to nuclear weapon delivery system to Iran”, would remain in force for the next 5 to 8 years.[9]  Two possible scenarios are present here with the North Korean path to nuclear proliferation: covert-breakout and overt-breakout.

With the removal of the sanctions, Iran will have billions of dollars in oil revenues as well as access to its frozen assets; this situation could possibly and perhaps more easily allow Iran to undertake a covert-breakout by establishing a secret weapons program, similar to North Korea. In order to hide its clandestine nuclear activity, evade IAEA inspections over the years of the agreement, and perhaps more importantly prevent the snap-back of sanctions, Iran will likely expand its nuclear program outside its borders. This option is not something new for Iran, for fact, the Al-Kibar nuclear facility in Syria was “a multinational nuclear weapons effort by Iran, in which Syria and North Korea were collaborating”[10]. Having forged alliance with both with Syria and North Korea, Iran could likely establish a clandestine nuclear program in either country, and it’s no secret that the North Koreans have previously assisted Iran with its nuclear program. This is one weakness of the JCPOA, in that it failed to cover Iran’s nuclear activities outside its borders.

With the overt-breakout scenario, Iran will likely wait until it has developed an adequate delivery system as well as wait for the the expiration of the UNSC embargo on delivery technology, then Iran will most likely defect on its ‘political commitment’ to the JCPOA, and reinitiate its nuclear enrichment program. Since the JCPOA contains a stringent mechanism to monitor and enforce the agreement, Iran will only have the opportunity to defect on the agreement following the removal of the embargos and as it gets closer to year 10, when Iran’s breakout time will be reduced and sanctions will have a negligible effect on Iran program. This situation is even more likely, given the recent news that the JCPOA was not signed by President Rouhani. In a recent letter sent from the US Department of State to Pompeo (Republican – House of Representative), which stated that the “JCPOA is not treaty or an executive agreement between Iran, P5+1, and the EU”[11], but rather the deal is a set of political commitments between the three negotiating parties. Since the deal did not include President Rouhani’s signature, it is not a legally binding document; thereby, the deal does not establish a legal obligation on Iran to follow through with the terms of scaling back its nuclear program.

Consequently, this gentlemen’s agreement between Iran, P5+1, and Germany is strictly dependent on Iran’s promise to cooperate. However, looking at Iran’s previous cooperation or lack of with the IAEA, for example the 2004 Paris Agreement, where Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment; however, in 2005, the IAEA reported that Iran was converting uranium into fuel for enrichment. Since 2003, Iran would agree to cooperate with the IAEA, but at the same time carry out covert nuclear activities, for example, it has a secret enrichment facility in the city of Qom or barring IAEA inspectors from certain sites. Thus, since it’s not legally bound by the terms of the JCPOA, Iran is going to do the same cat-mouse game with the IAEA and international community, making this deal no different than the previous ones. In the end, Iran will likely become nuclear as long as the international community continues to take the diplomatic path.

 Final remarks about the Iranian nuclear deal

In conclusion, the JCPOA has prevented Iran from becoming a nuclear power today but has failed to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power tomorrow. Rather, the JCPOA in the long run has benefited Iran, not only by lifting economic, financial, and political sanctions, but by possibly enabling it to join the nuclear club at a later date, must likely in 2030. Again, this depends on whether Iran will follow through with the agreement or follow the same path as North Korea, where we could see a nuclear Iran much sooner than 2030. Only time will tell what Iran will do in the next few years. Thus, two possible scenarios are likely to happen: first, that Iran will become nuclearized but at a much later time; or second, that the deal will open the way for Iran to follow the North Korean path.

On a final note, why would the US agree to such a deal that does not legally bind Iran to the terms of the agreement or outright prevents Iranian breakout from occurring? The political context in the US is key to answering this question. Keep in mind that the Presidential elections are just around the corner, and so striking a deal with Iran will provide a major boost to the Democratic Party, this is particularly imperative with the military crises in Syria and Iraq.  This could also be a sheer attempt by the US to hide and delay the fact that Iran may actually have the bomb, and so concealing this information is important for the Obama administration. One should always keep in mind that international political are integral part of domestic politics, particularly in the US. Again, only time will tell if Iran will abide by the agreement or not.