Implementation and Enforcement Uranium Enrichment Natanz Site Fordow Site Arak Reactor and Reprocessing Procurement IAEA Verification Sanctions Nuclear Cooperation
On July 14, 2015, Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) concluded a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concerning the future of Iran’s nuclear program. The deal, which is the outcome of more than two years of negotiations, includes limits on Iran’s nuclear program as well as provisions for verification, implementation, procurement, sanctions relief, and peaceful nuclear cooperation. It singles out specific nuclear sites in Iran for particular scrutiny and restrictions, including the enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow and the heavy-water reactor, with its supporting facilities, at Arak. Unsurprisingly, the deal is complex—the text and its five annexes stretch to over 100 pages.
Our aim here is to analyze the deal as impartially and objectively as possible solely from a nonproliferation perspective. It is not to offer a final conclusion about whether the deal is a good or bad one, but instead to help readers make up their own minds.
As in many complex negotiations, parties to the JCPOA traded compromises between seemingly unrelated areas. Accordingly, we look at the benefits and risks of the agreement as a whole, as well as the pros and cons of individual provisions. Throughout we identify key questions and issues that will need to be addressed in the months and years ahead if the deal is to be implemented successfully.
The agreement provides well-defined limits on Iran’s nuclear program lasting between ten and fifteen years. If implemented, these restrictions would measurably enhance confidence during the term of the agreement that Tehran will not seek nuclear weapons. This will help avoid much-worse alternatives, including Iran’s resumption of threatening nuclear activities and war.
The JCPOA provides the basis for transparency of procurement and for verification of nuclear activities to enable the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to determine that Iran’s nuclear program is wholly understood and is dedicated exclusively to peaceful uses.
The agreement demonstrates the viability of the rules-based nonproliferation regime created by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and including especially the IAEA safeguards system, notwithstanding the lacunae and imperfections of this regime. Indeed, the JCPOA buttresses the NPT. Whereas states may withdraw from the NPT and, in principle, then seek nuclear weapons, in the JCPOA Iran has committed not to ever seek nuclear weapons under any circumstances. And whereas the NPT does not include specific restrictions on activities that could contribute to the design and development of a nuclear explosive device, the JCPOA does.
The preface of the JCPOA establishes expectations that Iran’s peaceful nuclear program should evolve at a “reasonable pace,” “consistent with international non-proliferation norms. . . . [and] practical needs”—benchmarks that the Iranian program previously did not meet. It establishes a channel for open diplomatic engagement between the United States and Iran after thirty-seven years.
Other states could be encouraged to follow the Iranian example of acquiring uranium enrichment and other dual-use capabilities that would significantly shorten the time required to produce a nuclear weapon.
One or more parties to the agreement may not implement provisions as required or perform to the satisfaction of other parties. Failures to perform may result in disputes that the parties will not resolve peacefully.
After the restrictions on its nuclear program end, Iran, like any party to the NPT, but endowed with capabilities advanced during the period the JCPOA was in force, may exercise its right to resume nuclear behavior that the international community finds provocative. This could potentially give it the capability to break its commitments and manufacture a small number of nuclear weapons in a relatively short period of time.
The parties to the JCPOA recognized the need to address inevitable challenges that will arise during implementation of the deal. These challenges will stem from political opposition to the agreement in both Iran and the United States, and from common temptations to test the boundaries of agreements such as this.
The Agreement in a Nutshell:
- The JCPOA establishes a dispute resolution mechanism led by a Joint Commission composed of one representative each from China, the European Union, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
- Any party to the JCPOA could refer an issue of compliance to the Joint Commission.
- If the commission were unable to resolve the issue in fifteen days, any participant could refer the matter to the foreign ministers of the states on the commission, who would have another fifteen days to resolve it.
- In the meantime, any state could request that an advisory board composed of three members (one appointed by each of the two disputing parties and a third independent member) provide a nonbinding opinion on the compliance issue.
- If none of these modalities satisfies the complaining participant, that participant could treat the issue as grounds to cease performing its commitments and/or notify the UN Security Council that it believes the issue constitutes significant nonperformance.
- Upon receipt of such a notification, United Nations sanctions would automatically be reimposed thirty days later unless the Security Council passed a resolution to continue the lifting of sanctions called for under the JCPOA.
- The stepwise consultative mechanisms overseen by the Joint Commission create due process, with built-in deadlines so that disputes can’t be prolonged indefinitely.
- Any party represented in the Joint Commission may initiate review of a compliance issue.
- Any one of the veto-wielding UN Security Council members could, in effect, ensure sanctions were reimposed if it were not satisfied with the results of the Joint Commission’s deliberations and/or the response of the party whose performance was being questioned.
- If consultations and adjudication run their course, conflict or possibly escalation that in the worst case leads to the termination of the agreement might not be avoided.
- Iran has stated that if sanctions are reinstated in whole or in part, it will treat that as grounds to cease performing its commitments under the JCPOA in whole or in part, which could inhibit enforcement of some violations.
- It will be more difficult for governments to legitimize any response outside the JCPOA, including any unilateral response, to Iranian violations of the agreement intended to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons unless and until the commission process has been exhausted. Iran and many other states view this positively, while some states particularly in the Middle East do not.
The dispute resolution mechanism combines reasonableness with sensitivity to the need for timely action. It also provides significant leverage by invoking the UN Security Council in a way that would make the reimposition of sanctions highly likely if Iran were found to be in significant noncompliance.
That said, realistically, states’ willingness to hold other parties to account for implementation and to take envisioned steps to enforce it will depend on the circumstances obtaining at the time. These circumstances will include performance of the specific terms of the JCPOA as well as broader political, economic, and security dynamics, even though the JCPOA is confined to nuclear-related matters.
Today, most of Iran’s 19,000 gas centrifuges are low-capacity IR-1s, but Iran has set up some more advanced IR-2m machines and is developing more powerful models.
The Agreement in a Nutshell:
- For ten years, Iran will reduce by about two-thirds its current population of about 19,000 gas centrifuges.
- Iran may have only 6,104 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges installed and may use no more than 5,060 to enrich uranium.
- For fifteen years, Iran may build no new enrichment plants, it may enrich the uranium isotope U-235 to no more than 3.67 percent (about 90 percent is needed to make a bomb), and it must reduce its enriched uranium inventory of about 10,000 kilograms to 300 kilograms (enriched to a maximum level of 3.67 percent).
- Iran will be subject to strict limits on all centrifuge R&D for eight years. Work will only be permitted on a limited number of more advanced models on the condition that testing and trial operation does not contribute to Iran’s inventory of enriched uranium. Beginning after eight years, restrictions on deployment of advanced technology will be lifted.
- For ten years, the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon—so-called breakout time—would be increased from between two to three months, as it is estimated by the U.S. government to be today, to twelve months.
- The IAEA would be able to detect with high confidence if Iran were cheating on enrichment limits at any declared facility.
- Iran will retain an enrichment program on a scale that heretofore has not been justified by the country’s practical needs.
- After the relevant ten-to-fifteen-year restrictions have ended, Iran may expand its enrichment activities without restrictions on technology, enrichment level, and locations. Iran also may deploy more powerful advanced centrifuges, including those developed under the strict limitations of the JCPOA.
- After ten years, Iran may enrich uranium with proliferation-sensitive laser technology.
- When the restrictions end, a deployment of enrichment capacity beyond Iran’s practical peaceful needs would escalate concern that Iran aims to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
Iran’s enrichment program provoked the nuclear crisis, so the JCPOA must effectively address the threat it poses, within the constraints of the NPT. The JCPOA will increase breakout time and reduce Iran’s incentives to secretly enrich uranium and its capacity to do so without being detected. All of this is an important achievement. But after ten-to-fifteen years, key restrictions will sunset and Iran will be treated again like other non-nuclear-weapon states under the NPT.
Natanz is the site of Iran’s largest uranium-enrichment complex, and the revelation in 2002 that Iran had built it in secret touched off the nuclear crisis. In fact, there are two enrichment plants at Natanz. One is an industrial-scale facility designed for 50,000 centrifuges; it is currently equipped with over 15,000 IR-1 centrifuges and about 1,000 IR-2ms. A second, smaller facility is used for test operations of advanced centrifuges under development and, until 2013, enrichment to 20 percent.
The Agreement in a Nutshell:
- Under the JCPOA, Iran is limited to operating only 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz for ten years. All IR-2m centrifuges will be removed and stored in a program monitored by the IAEA.
- The total population of installed centrifuges at Natanz will be reduced for ten years.
- For ten years Iran will only be able to enrich using its least powerful centrifuge, the IR-1.
- After ten years, Iran may begin incrementally enriching uranium with more advanced centrifuges, thereby increasing its enrichment capacity.
Enrichment at Natanz will be effectively banned for fifteen years. Thereafter, the scale and pacing of enrichment should be “reasonable,” “consistent with international non-proliferation norms. . . . [and] practical needs,” but it is not clear how Iran’s compliance with these criteria would be assessed and enforced.
Activities at this site exacerbated the crisis beginning in 2009, when it was discovered that Iran had secretly built a bunkered underground installation that Western governments believed was meant for undeclared enrichment. By late 2013, Iran had installed about 2,700 IR-1 centrifuges at Fordow and was operating some to enrich to 20 percent.
The Agreement in a Nutshell:
- Under the JCPOA, Iran for fifteen years will not enrich uranium, carry out centrifuge research and development, or have any nuclear material at this site.
- The utility of this hardened site for producing nuclear weapons material will be practically eliminated for fifteen years.
- Iran will retain a deeply protected site designed to be used for uranium enrichment should it seek to break out from the JCPOA.
- After ten years, Iran may install and operate newly developed centrifuges provided they are not used for uranium enrichment, and after fifteen years, Iran may resume uranium enrichment without restrictions as to scope, technology, or enrichment level.
The JCPOA’s Fordow provisions further reduce the threat at this site, building upon the interim agreement in 2013 to limit the number of centrifuges and to halt enrichment at 20 percent U-235. That said, Fordow could retain value as a potential hard-to-target location for enrichment should Iran at any time contest implementation of the JCPOA, or after fifteen years.
Since 2006, Iran has defied UN Security Council resolutions ordering the suspension of construction of the IR-40 reactor at Arak, a heavy-water reactor ideally suited to producing weapons-grade plutonium.
The Agreement in a Nutshell:
- Under the JCPOA, Iran will not complete the IR-40 as planned but will modify its design, limit activities involving heavy water, and remove from Iran the reactor’s irradiated fuel.
- Iran commits not to reprocess spent fuel for fifteen years and declares it does not intend to thereafter.
- Modification of the IR-40 project to build a smaller, heavy-water reactor will significantly reduce the quantity of plutonium that could be produced at Arak and ensure that if Iran attempted to produce weapons-grade plutonium, it could only do so in very small quantities.
- Iran will commit not to reprocess (that is, extract plutonium from) this reactor’s irradiated reactor fuel, which will be shipped abroad.
- Iran will not have access to the plutonium in the irradiated fuel.
- After fifteen years, Iran could decide to pursue reprocessing, notwithstanding its affirmation in the JCPOA that it has no intention to do so.
A country seeking to produce fuel for nuclear weapons has two basic options: plutonium or highly enriched uranium. The JCPOA effectively eliminates the threat that the IR-40 project would give Iran a capability to produce, separate, and stockpile plutonium it could use for nuclear weapons.
Iran obtained equipment, materials, and know-how for the sensitive elements of its nuclear program through black market procurement activities, many of which violated or evaded other states’ export control laws.
The Agreement in a Nutshell:
- The JCPOA sets up a formal transparency mechanism—a procurement channel, overseen by the Joint Commission—to monitor Iran’s procurement of specific nuclear and dual-use items.
- UN Security Council Resolution 2231 provides the Security Council the authority to review and approve proposed transfers of nuclear and dual-use goods to Iran on a case-by-case basis, on the recommendation of the Procurement Working Group under the Joint Commission, to determine the consistency of proposed procurements with commitments made by Iran in the JCPOA.
- Provided this innovative arrangement is effective, the P5+1/Iran procurement-management channel may help detect any clandestine Iranian nuclear development.
- Undeclared procurement would be a violation that could lead to snapback sanctions.
If implementation is effective, these provisions should build confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is transparent and should render implementation easier because any detected procurement outside this channel would be a violation of the JCPOA.
Verification by the IAEA is vital to monitor Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA and Iran’s safeguards obligations. The IAEA seeks to verify that declared facilities, activities, and nuclear materials are not diverted to acquire nuclear weapons, and also to verify that no undeclared activities or activities that are not peaceful are undertaken.
The Agreement in a Nutshell:
- The JCPOA includes numerous provisions concerning IAEA verification of Iran’s commitments, including on uranium enrichment, centrifuge production, and the removal and storage of materials and equipment.
- It contains requirements that Iran implement the Additional Protocol, which gives the IAEA more wide-ranging inspection authority especially at undeclared locations, and report on planned nuclear installations and nuclear trade activities.
- The JCPOA prohibits specific activities that could contribute to the design and development of a nuclear explosive device, and the access provisions provide a basis for the IAEA to investigate suspicions that these prohibitions are not being adhered to.
- IAEA verification has a clear goal: to determine within eight years that Iran’s nuclear program is totally transparent and peaceful.
- The IAEA will monitor Iranian compliance with provisions limiting Iran’s enrichment program and other sensitive nuclear activities that exceed provisions in other states subject to IAEA safeguards.
- The IAEA will get access to import data and to uranium processing and centrifuge production facilities.
- The IAEA may use advanced technologies for monitoring Iran’s compliance.
- Iran will implement up-to-date safeguards provisions requiring it to notify the IAEA in advance of construction of new nuclear installations.
- All of these measures will enhance the probability of detecting undeclared nuclear activities.
- The general procedures for gaining IAEA access to locations and information are spelled out in the JCPOA and Iran’s Additional Protocol; if Iran does not implement these to the satisfaction of the IAEA and/or China, France, Russia, the UK, and/or the United States, sanctions could be reimposed on Iran.
- Iran may implement its Additional Protocol on a voluntary basis for the duration of the agreement. Iran is required to initiate ratification of the protocol after eight years but not explicitly to bring it into force at any time. At the conclusion of the JCPOA, Iran’s Additional Protocol may not be in force.
- Iran may challenge an IAEA request for access to locations and information; the subsequent adjudication process may take up to twenty-four days.
- While in most cases it would be extremely unlikely that Iran could hide evidence of activities involving nuclear material in twenty-four days, evidence of proscribed activities not involving nuclear material potentially could be removed.
The IAEA will have access going beyond Iran’s safeguards agreement in some key specific areas. But the JCPOA reflects Iran’s resistance to making additional commitments, including the Additional Protocol, that were sought in light of the country’s twenty-year record of systematic deception.
Political and operational challenges may make it difficult to obtain timely and usable intelligence to defend a request for access to investigate potential undeclared facilities and activities. Iran, other parties to the JCPOA, and/or the IAEA may differ over the provision of such access.
In the twenty-four days allowed to resolve differences, it is possible that Iran could seek to remove evidence, particularly having to do with proscribed activities, such as testing of detonation systems, that do not involve nuclear materials. This could exacerbate disputes about Iran’s compliance. It cannot be known in advance how the Joint Commission composed of China, the European Union, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States would resolve such disputes, and what the consequences would be if they could not.
The P5+1 have engaged in negotiations on the basis that nuclear sanctions imposed on Iran will be lifted in tandem with Iran’s implementation of the provisions of the JCPOA. The deal is based on the premise that sanctions relief will move Iran to comply with the provisions restricting its nuclear activities, as will the provisions to snap sanctions back into place if Iran fails to implement its terms.
The Agreement in a Nutshell:
- The JCPOA has been endorsed by the UN Security Council.
- The JCPOA includes a comprehensive schedule for suspension and termination of nuclear sanctions imposed on Iran by the EU, the United States, and the Security Council.
- The agreement includes a three-phase lifting of sanctions meant to retain leverage on Iran for ten years; some sanctions will be lifted at the outset of implementation, and the remainder eight years and ten years later provided Iran is deemed to have complied with the agreement. The separate embargo on conventional arms sales to Iran will end in five years.
- The Security Council endorsement provides legitimacy to the JCPOA while extending its ultimate leverage, especially concerning possible reimposition of sanctions.
- The comprehensive schedule assures Iran that compliance with the agreement will result in the lifting of sanctions, while permitting the powers to leverage Iran’s compliance until the agreement is fulfilled.
- The agreement enables sanctions to be reimposed on Iran if any party to the agreement concludes Iran is not complying with its obligations.
- Significant early sanctions relief given to Iran may create commercial incentives in other countries—including parties to the JCPOA—not to reimpose sanctions in the case that Iran does not implement the JCPOA.
- As more sanctions are lifted, Iran’s willingness to fully comply may decline.
- The strengthening of Iran’s economy due to the lifting of sanctions may result in diminished punitive impact if sanctions are reimposed.
The premise of the UN Security Council’s imposition of sanctions on Iran was that these sanctions would be lifted if Iran took agreed steps to constrain its nuclear activities and built international confidence that its nuclear program was exclusively peaceful. The JCPOA reflects this premise.
One or more parties could initiate the process that would lead to sanctions being snapped back into place, but Iran has stated that if this occurs it could cease performing its commitments under the JCPOA in whole or in part. Thus, reimposition of sanctions will remain a lever that each party could pull, but a decision to use it would have to be weighed against possible consequences.
Iran has long sought to use nuclear energy for generating electricity and other civilian purposes such as the production of radioactive isotopes for cancer treatment and, in this regard, would benefit significantly from international cooperation. The P5+1, therefore, sought to use such cooperation as an inducement to Iran for concluding the JCPOA.
The Agreement in a Nutshell:
- The agreement includes provisions committing the P5+1 to assist Iran in the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
- Iran has agreed to work with the P5+1 in constructing a 20-megawatt reactor to replace the IR-40 project at Arak.
- The general plan for construction of the new Arak reactor will reduce the threat potential from Iran’s nuclear program.
- Provisions in the JCPOA may lead the way to Iran’s eventual participation in international nuclear conventions on nuclear safety, security, and liability.
- It is not apparent how critical political, economic, and business decisions will be made on commitments and elements of the JCPOA, especially for the Arak reactor and the removal of its spent fuel from Iran.
- It is not clear that the Joint Commission will have the resources necessary to effectively manage nuclear energy cooperation on the ground in Iran.
- The obligations of the P5+1 in many specific areas of nuclear cooperation in the JCPOA are not clear. This could lead to misunderstandings between the powers and Iran that could imperil implementation of the accord.
These provisions may contribute to Iran fulfilling its obligations under the JCPOA. But in the absence of clearly defined P5+1 obligations, the text looks like a wish list that could prove to be a liability.