Assessing the Iran Deal

by Jerome H. Kahan

“Under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop, or acquire nuclear weapons.” —Preamble to the Comprehensive Plan of Action (14 July 2015)

With the United States as de facto leader, the five members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – the so called “5+1” club – spent over two years negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or so-called “nuclear deal,” which is expected to reduce the danger of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. However, the nuclear deal is not seen by all as a “good deal.”

The nuclear deal theoretically reduces the threat by placing obstacles in the path of any Iranian efforts to build a nuclear weapon. Opponents in Congress and elsewhere forcefully argue that “no deal” is better than a “bad deal,” and claiming that President Barack Obama has led the nation into a trap that neither enhances its security nor increases stability in the Middle East. Summarizing the pros and cons of the agreement will show how tough it is to assess its “on balance” implications. But first, here are some key features of the JCPOA.

Features of the Deal  The agreement constrains Iran’s nuclear program for 10 to 15 years by placing stringent limitations on the weapons-related aspects of its entire array of nuclear activities, along with unprecedented restrictions and verification measures, some of which will remain for 20 to 25 years. The key attribute of the JCPOA is an asymmetrical quid-pro-quo, where Iran accepts constraints on its nuclear weapons activities in return for obtaining relief from sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union (EU), and the United Nations Security Council. These sanctions encompass Tehran’s nuclear-related imports; areas such as finance, transportation, trade, technology, and energy; and tens of billions of dollars of frozen revenues. This grand bargain was accepted by Tehran, “so long as Iran did not have to give up its nuclear capability entirely and forever in return for the lifting of sanctions,” as stated by Kenneth Pollack, before a House Committee on 9 July 2015.

The Pros Proponents of the JCPOA welcomed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) pre-agreement report that it had accounted for Iran’s prior nuclear activities with sufficient confidence to recommend signing of the JCPOA. Given this baseline, advocates point to the restraints on Iran’s nuclear activities that severely curb weapons-related programs but allow peaceful efforts to go forward. For example, according to The Iran Nuclear Deal – A Simple Guide, extended limitations have been placed on the numbers, types, and locations of centrifuges that Tehran is allowed to keep in order to prevent further production of so-called “weapons-grade” uranium for use in bomb making. Supporters also note that Iran has agreed to curb production of plutonium, which, when reprocessed into weapons grade, offers another path toward constructing a nuclear weapon. Among other limitations on this dangerous material is the requirement that Iran ship contaminated fuel rods produced by peaceful reactors to other countries where plutonium can be extracted and stored or used for nonmilitary purposes.

As expected, advocates stress the far-reaching provisions for verifying Iran’s compliance with the terms and conditions imposed on its weapons-related nuclear activities, arguing that these would not only have the effect of deterring violations, but also help catch attempts to cheat. In the run-up to the agreement, Iran accepted standard IAEA safeguards as well as the more enhanced protocol that would remain in force as long as Tehran stayed party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Designed to discover any non-allowed efforts Iran might undertake, these measures enable access by IAEA inspectors to all elements of Iran’s complete fuel cycle, including uranium mines, centrifuge and plutonium facilities, and other declared nuclear sites, as summarized in the official JCPOA Packet

The JCPOA also requires that Iran grant IAEA inspectors access within 24 days to any undeclared location where there are signs of clandestine nuclear weapons-related activities, if a majority of negotiating partners agree this is necessary to prove or disprove potential cheating. Advocates of the JCPOA argue that this would make it difficult for Iran to remove signs of cheating, such as ripping out large numbers of centrifuge machines or removing all traces of fissionable material. If all indications of cheating cannot be removed before inspectors arrive, the Iranians could find an excuse for blocking onsite visits, thus avoiding being caught in the act but increasing suspicions. If major noncompliant activities by Iran are not resolved, the agreement calls for sanctions to be reimposed as a means of pressuring Iran to “come clean.”

Supporters affirm that the JCPOA averted the risk that Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons would trigger a so-called “domino effect,” leading other nations in the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia, to “go nuclear,” citing a still relevant article by Timothy Miklos, published on 3 March 2013. With its undeclared but powerful nuclear weapons inventory, Israel has promised to take military action to destroy any Iran nuclear weapons, another danger to Middle East stability that the JCPOA has averted.

The Cons Opponents of the nuclear deal continue to express fear that Iran will not allow its ambitions to be thwarted by the JCPOA, and will implement prepared plans for cheating by using a cleverly disguised network of underground sites to continue production of weapons-grade uranium using high-tech centrifuges that were never known to exist when the IAEA estimated Iran’s pre-agreement nuclear infrastructure. If such covert actions raised suspicions, Tehran would exploit the 24-day review period, which is far short of the “spot inspections” the 5+1 negotiators failed to achieve. Under the agreed process, if accusations of cheating are made, Iran is allowed to rebuff these allegations, which then results in the negating partners deciding whether onsite inspections are needed. If such inspections are deemed necessary, the Iranians, having made plans to deal with such a contingency, would be able to hide evidence of foul play before the IAEA inspectors showed up at the undeclared site.

In order to deter cheating, Iran was warned that the sanctions released would be “snapped back “as a reprisal in the event such violations occur and more could be instituted. However, those arguing against the agreement believe Tehran would take this risk, since the EU and most of the United Nations Security Council members are not likely to restore their sanctions because of the economic and other benefits they accrue, although the United States would almost surely do so.

Many still accuse the negotiators of “giving away too much” in sanctions relief as a trade for restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program, claiming Iran will employ some if not all of the almost $100 billion of unfrozen assets for nefarious purposes, including support of proxy wars and terrorist activities that threaten many of its Gulf neighbors as well as Syria, Yemen, and other states. In a statement in mid-January 2016 when the JCPOA went into effect, Obama praised the agreement, but reiterated that it, “was never intended to resolve all of our differences with Iran.”

Strongly voiced opponents of this “bad deal” point to the ease with which Iran can violate the agreement by outfoxing the inspectors and building nuclear weapons covertly in a network of clandestine facilities. However, this risks getting caught and having its sanctions reinstated as well as facing other reprisals. More worrisome in the view of many is the danger that Iran might first secure the benefits from relief of an array of sanctions and then abrogate the agreement only a few years after it went into effect. This would enable Tehran to develop nuclear weapons in a relatively short period of time, given that the agreement leaves its basic nuclear infrastructure relatively intact.

In connection with this scenario, the United States and its partners have been accused of weak negotiations by failing to get a ban on testing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles put into the JCPOA. Ignoring a non-binding UN resolution that bans such testing, Iran can therefore continue testing with a dummy payload, develop a nuclear capable warhead, and soon after abrogation deploy an effective ballistic missile nuclear delivery system with the capacity to endanger the region and potentially threaten the United States. Once Iran decides to break out of the JCPOA, it will presumably walk away from its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations, as in the case of North Korea, which is not officially recognized as a nuclear weapons state, yet it built nuclear weapons and carries an expanding nuclear punch.

Ironically, opponents highlight the possibilities that a string of unpunished Iranian violations – or indications that Iran is contemplating abrogation of the JCPOA – would force many of the “doves” who favored the JCPOA to become “hawks” and propose that the administration launch selective conventional strikes against Iran’s critical facilities. This in turn would pressure the president to reconsider the military option rather than diplomacy as a means to set back Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons, which goes against one of Obama’s fundamental beliefs.

Even more ironic, critics enjoy discussing the prospect of Iran deploying nuclear weapons systems sooner rather than later by ignoring the JCPOA, which could pressure Saudi Arabia and other Middle East nations to seek their own nuclear weapons, even if this means foregoing their membership in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This causes many critics to charge that the nuclear deal, touted as an arms-control accord, might well have the reverse effect by stimulating a regional nuclear arms race!

On Balance Only time will tell whether the nuclear deal will fulfill its expectation or fall apart within a few years, thereby failing to halt Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons. Obama will do his best to ensure that this “good deal” stays in place as the torch passes to the next administration, making the argument that it will curtail if not eliminate Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and help secure stability in the Middle East. If the Democrats lose the White House, however, Obama will face the challenge of trying to trump Trump, who, in an interview on 4 April 2016 with The Washington Post, “dubbed the deal ‘disastrous’ and suggested it would be one of the first arrangements he would ‘renegotiate’ should he assume the office of the presidency next January.”


Jerome Kahan is an independent analyst with over 40 years of experience on national and homeland security issues, including senior positions in the Foreign Service, the Brookings Institution, and the Homeland Security Institute. In addition to his publications, he has been an adjunct professor in the graduate school at Georgetown University and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, with BS and MS degrees from Columbia University.