Do the Original Assumptions Underlying the Iran Nuclear Agreement Have Any Basis Today?

, August 29, 2017

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 17, No. 25

  • The Iranian nuclear agreement (JCPOA) of 2015 was based on several key premises. Secretary of State John Kerry said that Iran was just two months away from having enough fissile material for an atomic bomb. With the agreement, that breakout time could be stretched out to a year or more.
  • Under the JCPOA, Iran is limited to using only its first-generation centrifuge, the IR-1, for the 10-year period following the 2015 agreement. But the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Saheli, has now warned the West that Iran will be able to “mass produce” more advanced centrifuges if “the other side violates its commitment.” According to one assessment, Iran’s breakout time will drop to four months with the installation of more advanced centrifuges. In short, there are scenarios evolving which completely contradict the timelines presented back in 2015.
  • Another underlying assumption was that once the JCPOA came into force, Iran would moderate its international behavior. Yet, Iranian force deployments in Syria and elsewhere, weapons transfers to radical elements in the Middle East, and threats against its neighbors all demonstrate that the expected moderation of Iran as a result of the JCPOA never occurred.
  • A third underlying assumption was that Iran had given up on its quest for nuclear weapons and that the Iranian nuclear program was peaceful. The roots of this observation could be traced to the unclassified summary of the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was later discredited by Britain, France, Germany, and Israel. Even the IAEA concluded that it could not say with certainty that Iran’s nuclear weapons program had indeed ended.
  • Finally, the idea that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program requires a robust inspection system to verify that this change indeed had occurred. Yet Iranian officials have rejected the idea that IAEA inspectors now have access to their military sites. In the meantime, Iran has been condemned for testing ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, because it is an act which is inconsistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the legal foundation of the JCPOA.
  • The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) of 2015 lays out in detail what Iran must do to earn presidential certification that Iran was complying with the JCPOA. Yet, as David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, testified before Congress in April 2017: “It is not possible to judge Iran in ‘full compliance’ with the JCPOA.” Indeed, there are multiple indications that Iranian violations of the agreement have occurred, or are being planned and on their way to being committed.
The Iran talks in Vienna, July 14, 2015

The Iran talks in Vienna, July 14, 2015
(Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres / Flickr)

When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was concluded on July 14, 2015, it was based, according to its advocates, upon a number of premises that featured prominently in the debate over the agreement. For example, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, former Secretary of State John Kerry confided that without the agreement, Iran was just two months away from obtaining enough fissile material to produce a single atomic bomb. With the agreement, he assured his audiences, that two-month “breakout time” would be extended to one year or more. He added that the fissile material Iran already possessed was enough for 10 to 12 atomic bombs.1 With the implementation of the JCPOA, that stockpile would be reduced “to a fraction of what is needed for one bomb.”

Two years into the agreement, what is the situation with the Iranian nuclear program?

Advanced Centrifuges

Take, for example, the question of advanced centrifuges. The JCPOA is structured so that various restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, particularly in the area of uranium enrichment, are removed over time; the restrictions on advanced centrifuges are in place for 10 years. Under the JCPOA, Iran is limited to using only its first-generation centrifuge, the IR-1, during that 10-year period. According to a report by AP, there is an understanding between the P5+1 and Iran that in year 11, Tehran can begin to install advanced centrifuges.2

In that spirit, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Saheli, warned the West in 2017 that Iran will be able to “mass produce” advanced centrifuges like the IR-2M, IR-4, and IR-6 centrifuges “at will.” He did not talk about year 11, but rather a scenario in which “the other side violates its commitment.” Future mass production of these centrifuges would require prior manufacture of centrifuge components, which is prohibited by the JCPOA.3 Saheli’s threat leaves open the real possibility that these components were indeed assembled relatively recently, which would constitute a massive violation of the JCPOA. Saheli also spoke about 20% enrichment in a period of five days, using the underground enrichment facility at Fordow. According to the JCPOA, enrichment is only allowed, at present, at the Natanz facility.

In January 2016, Iran unveiled its IR-8 centrifuge that is 15 times more efficient than the old IR-1 centrifuges installed previously by Iran.4 According to one assessment, Iran’s breakout time will drop to four months with the installation of the IR-8. Iran’s determination to move ahead with its advanced centrifuge program is also exemplified by its attempt to procure tons of carbon fiber for their production.5 

Recently, Iranian President Hasssan Rouhani warned that Iran’s nuclear program could be restarted in a matter of “hours” if the American government imposes further sanctions on Tehran. Rouhani added that a reconstituted nuclear program would be “far more advanced.”6   The JCPOA was supposed to prevent such advances in the Iranian nuclear program, but Rouhani’s threats indicate that such advancements may have occurred nonetheless. In short, there are scenarios evolving which completely contradict the timelines that were presented back in 2015 and the core assumption that breakout times had been safely elongated for the foreseeable future.

Iran Has Not Moderated Its International Behavior

Another underlying assumption presented in 2015 was that once the JCPOA came into force, Iran would moderate its international behavior. Secretary of State Kerry told the Senate Armed Services Committee in the summer of 2015: “It is possible that if the JCPOA is properly implemented, and Iran’s economy improves as a consequence of sanctions relief, it would strengthen the hand of moderate forces inside of Iran.”7

In a report on the administration’s approach to marketing the JCPOA in the New York Times Magazine, featuring the role of Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, the argument that Iran had a moderate faction emerged as a central pillar of Washington’s narrative.8 Its author, David Samuels, wrote: “In the narrative that Rhodes shaped, the ‘story’ of the Iran deal began in 2013, when a “moderate” faction inside the Iranian regime led by Hassan Rouhani beat regime ‘hard-liners’ in an election and then began to pursue a policy of ‘openness,’ which included a newfound willingness to negotiate the dismantling of its illicit nuclear-weapons program.’9 

This story was shown to be false by the fact that the secret negotiations that led to the JCPOA actually began before Rouhani’s election, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still president. What, in fact, followed the conclusion of the talks on the JCPOA was an unprecedented increase in Iranian regional activism – the exact opposite of what had been predicted. Iranian force deployments in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, weapons transfers to radical elements in the Middle East, and threats against its neighbors all demonstrated that the expected moderation of Iran as a result of the JCPOA never occurred.

In the meantime, the ubiquitous Quds force commander, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, has been popping up in Arab battlefields across the Middle East, like in Aleppo, Syria.

Iran’s Claim that Its Nuclear Program Is Peaceful

A third underlying assumption was that Iran had given up on its quest for nuclear weapons – meaning that the Iranian nuclear program was peaceful. The roots of this observation could be traced to the unclassified summary of the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). Yet back in 2007, assessments by Britain, France, Germany, and Israel concluded that this NIE was inaccurate. Later, the IAEA stated that it had evidence that Iran’s nuclear weapons program had extended into 2009.10

The IAEA concluded that it could not say with certainty that Iran’s nuclear weapons program had indeed ended at that point. Moreover, Iran never provided access to Iranian military sites that would be necessary to reach such a conclusion. In addition, Iran’s intense investment in long-range ballistic missile testing and attempts to procure components for a nuclear bomb point to its continued intent to develop nuclear weapons, since it makes no sense to develop such missiles as a delivery system for conventional weapons. Iran’s ballistic missile activities, using systems capable of delivering nuclear weapons, have been condemned by the U.S., France, Germany, and the UK as inconsistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which provides the legal basis of the JCPOA.11

During the debate on the nuclear negotiations with Iran, an argument was raised that the nuclear program had to be peaceful because the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, once issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons. But over the years, no one ever produced this supposed fatwa, and it remained unclear whether his informal references to the subject were confined to prohibiting their use, but not their production. In short, the fatwa story did not provide a reliable assurance that Iran had no intention of seeking atomic bombs.12

Where Are the Robust Inspections?

Finally, the claim that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program requires a robust inspection system to verify that this change indeed had occurred. President Obama believed that the JCPOA granted international inspectors “unprecedented” access to Iranian nuclear facilities, saying:

“Inspectors will also be able to access any suspicious location. Put simply, the organization responsible for the inspections, the IAEA, will have access where necessary, when necessary.”13

Was this access indeed granted? Iranian officials have rejected the idea that IAEA inspectors now have access to their military sites. Yet, that access is critical for ascertaining the extent of the Iranian military program in the nuclear field. This concern is indeed warranted. Back in May 2011, the IAEA reported that one of the areas of Iranian military research was “the removal of the conventional high explosive payload from the warhead of the Shahab-3 missile and replacing it with a spherical nuclear payload.”

Partial IAEA access to the notorious Parchin military complex was granted once back in 2005, before the JCPOA, when it was suspected of being a site for the production of nuclear weapons components. Since the JCPOA, the IAEA has only been granted access to soil samples from Parchin collected by the Iranians themselves. Significantly, Tehran has since modified the site considerably and paved much of the area with asphalt.14

Congress Set Standards for Iranian Compliance with the Nuclear Deal

On July 17, 2017, President Trump reluctantly certified that Iran was complying with the JCPOA.15 This presidential certification is required every 90 days by U.S. law in accordance with the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) of 2015.16 An earlier certification of the Iran deal was approved by the Trump administration in May. The next certification date under INARA will be in mid-October.

INARA lays out in detail what Iran must do to earn presidential certification.

  • First, Tehran must be “fully implementing” the JCPOA. Partial compliance is unacceptable.
  • Second, Iran must not commit a “material breach” of the agreement – the most severe level of violation.
  • Third, INARA wants the President to certify that there are no covert Iranian activities underway that could significantly advance Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.
  • Fourth, since Iranian compliance leads to a suspension of sanctions, the President must certify that such a suspension is in the national interests of the United States.

There is also an “Israel clause” in INARA. Paragraph 7 states that it is the sense of Congress (which has no force of law) that the President should determine that the JCPOA “in no way” compromises the commitment of the United States to Israel’s security. Additionally, the JCPOA must not compromise U.S. support for Israel’s right to exist. Certainly, Iranian statements since the JCPOA was concluded have continued to promote the notion that Israel must be eliminated. There has been no change in Iranian policy in this regard.17

How to Deal with Iranian Violations

The establishment by Congress of very clear standards for the United States to measure Iranian compliance was a critically important step. In January 1961, at the dawn of the arms control era, Fred Iklé wrote a seminal article in Foreign Affairs entitled, “After Detection – What?”18 about how states might deal in the future with violations of an arms treaty. Iklé pointed out that violations by the other side could be an embarrassment for a country like the United States, which would not like to be depicted as having been taken for a ride.

Iklé quoted Winston Churchill, who once quipped that his predecessor as prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, was concerned that if he admitted to German violations of the Versailles Treaty and sought British re-armament, he would not be re-elected, given the pacifist mood in the country at that time. Years later, Iklé would become Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the Reagan administration.

So, how has Iran done with the standards that Congress laid out in 2015? David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, testified on April 5, 2017, before the Subcommittee on National Security of the Committee of Oversight and Government Reform in the U.S. House of Representatives. Albright, who has a stellar reputation as an independent analyst, could not say Iran was fully implementing its side of the agreement: “It is not possible to judge Iran in ‘full compliance’ with the JCPOA.”19 Indeed, there are multiple indications that Iranian violations of the agreement have occurred, or are being planned and on their way to being committed. 

* * *

Notes

1 Jessica Shulberg, “John Kerry: Iran Nuclear Deal Is Good for Israel’s Security,” Huffington Post, July 24, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/john-kerry-iran-israel_us_55b22b45e4b0224d8831d360

2 George Jahn, “AP Exclusive: Document shows less limits on Iran nuke work,” AP, July 19, 2016, https://www.apnews.com/140ca41aba7a42cda13792f07df4b8d3

3 David Albright and Olli Heinonen, “Is Iran Mass Producing Advanced Gas Centrifuge Components?” Institute for Science and International Security Report, May 31, 2017, http://isis-online.org/isis-reports/detail/is-iran-mass-producing-advanced-centrifuges

4 Emily Landau, Ephraim Asculai, and Shimon Stein, “One Year to Implementation of the JCPOA: Assessing the Nuclear Deal in Context,” Strategic Survey for Israel 2016-2017, Institute for National Security Studies, 2016, http://din-online.info/pdf/in07e.pdf

5 David Albright and Andrea Stricker, “Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Attempted Carbon Fiber Procurement,” Institute for Science and International Security, July 7, 2016, http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/AEOI_Attempted_Carbon_Fiber_Procurement_7Jul2016.pdf

6 Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran’s President Threatens to Restart Nuclear Program,” New York Times, August 15, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/15/world/middleeast/iran-nuclear-hassan-rouhani-us.html

7 Secretary of State John Kerry, Hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “Impacts of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the United States Interests and the Military Balance in the Middle East,” July 29, 2015, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-114shrg21483/html/CHRG-114shrg21483.htm

8 David Samuels, “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru,” New York Times Magazine, May 5, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/magazine/the-aspiring-novelist-who-became-obamas-foreign-policy-guru.html?_r=0

9 Ibid.

10 David Albright, Andrea Stricker, Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, “Analysis of the IAEA’s Report on the Possible Military Dimensions of Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Institute of Science and International Security Report, December 8, 2015, http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/ISIS_Analysis_of_the_IAEA_PMD_Report_December_8_2015_Final.pdf

11 “Iran’s Space Launch Vehicle Inconsistent with UNSCR 2231 – Joint Statement by France, Germany, the United Kingdom and United States,” U.S. Department of State, July 28, 2017, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2017/07/272934.htm. Strictly speaking, the JCPOA is not a legal document, but only a political agreement. A UN Security Council resolution provides it with some legal standing.

12 Mehdi Khalaji, “Shiite Jurispridence, Political Expediency, and Nuclear Weapons,” Nuclear Fatwa: Religions and Politics in Iran’s Proliferation Strategy, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #115, September 2011, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyFocus115.pdf 

13 Rebecca Kaplan, “Obama Says Inspectors Get Access to ‘Any’ Site in Iran. Is It True?” CBS News, July 14, 2015, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/obama-inspectors-access-any-site-iran-true/  

14 David Albright, Sarah Burkhard, Olli Heinonen, Allison Lach, and Frank Pabian and others, “Revisiting Parchin: With plenty of evidence of past Iranian nuclear weapons activity at Parchin, the IAEA needs to revisit the site,” Institute for Science and International Security Report, August 21, 2017, http://isis-online.org/isis-reports/detail/revisiting-parchin

15 Peter Baker, “Trump Recertifies Iran Nuclear Deal, but Only Reluctantly,” New York Times, July 17, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/17/us/politics/trump-iran-nuclear-deal-recertify.html?_r=0

16 H.R.1191 – Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, Public Law 114-17 – May 22, 2015, https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1191/text   

17 “Iranian Official and Social Media Call for the Destruction of Israel after the JCPOA,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, February 17, 2017, http://jcpa.org/article/iranian-official-social-media-call-destruction-israel-after-jcpoa/

18  Fred Charles Iklé, “After Detection – What?” Foreign Affairs January 1961, 39:2,  https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/1961-01-01/after-detection-what

19 David Albright, “Assessing the Iran Deal: Examining Iranian Non-Compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231,” April 5, 2017, https://oversight.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Albright-Statement-Iran-Violations-4-5.pdf  

About Amb. Dore Gold

Ambassador Dore Gold has served as President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served as Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1997-1999), and as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.