14 July 2017 marked a two-year anniversary of Iran’s nuclear deal with with P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States) and the European Union (EU). Years of negotiations resulted in a landmark deal for the international community, with hopes of blocking all potential pathways for Iran to become one of ten countries with nuclear weapons. The agreement also eased longstanding and widespread economic sanctions on the country to stimulate economic recovery.
If the agreement is consensual and mutually beneficial, the deal can repair Iran’s international political and economic standing. However, it’s good to be hopeful but more important to stay realistic: Iran has a long-standing history of non-compliance with the international community. The country has been secretly developing nuclear capabilities since the 1970s and financing terrorist organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Palestinian terrorists, and showing wide military support for Assad’s regime in Syria.
Considering these doubts and concerns, President Trump announced his decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal. He accused Iran of violating the agreement, despite multiple verifications of Iran’s compliance by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It took years of diplomacy to establish the agreement between Iran and the international community. What does this decision by the President mean for the agreement, and what’s the deal about anyways?
Before exploring what it’s all about, let’s go back in time. After the events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, multilateral treaties have been signed and established with a goal to prevent nuclear proliferation, testing, and promotion of nuclear disarmament. On July 1, 1968 Iran became one of 51 nations to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, thus agreeing to never become a nuclear-weapon state.
The promise does not last long: in 1973 Shah Reza Pahlavi established the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to study and develop capabilities to build a nuclear bomb. By the late 1970s, United States is concerned that Iran may indeed have a nuclear weapon created. However, in 1979 Iranian nuclear projects were halted because of the Iranian Revolution.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, due to the instabilities following the revolution, Iranian government secretly restarted its nuclear program, partnering with various states to continue the development of such capabilities. When Russia and Iran signed a contract to complete the construction of two water reactors in 1995, the following year, President Bill Clinton signs a bill that imposed sanction on all companies that have investments with Iran and Libya. Similar sanctions have already been placed on all American companies.
In 2002, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—a UN led “watch-dog” of nuclear power—started actively considering the matter when Mujahedeen Khalq (dissident group also known as the M.E.K.) obtains proof of a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy water plan at Arak.
In 2003, Britain, France and Germany started their own negotiations with Iran to ensure no nuclear weapons would be developed. The Tehran Agreement, pledged full cooperation of Iran on the matter. However, the implementation of the deal was unsuccessful; Iran continued to withhold the information and failed to report the manufacturing of their new nuclear capabilities.
Noncompliance with recent negotiations continued, which put the international community in doubt about any resolution that would not resolve in non-compliance. In early 2000s, Iran’s interest in nuclear capabilities resumed, despite various bilateral negotiations. In December of 2006, the first round of U.N. sanctions was unanimously approved by the Security Council to curb Iran’s nuclear program. The sanctions ban was placed on all import and export of any technology used in uranium enrichment and reprocessing, as well as material used in production of ballistic missiles. From 2006-2012, UNSC passed eight sanction resolutions against Iran; sanctions on Iran were the toughest sanctions ever imposed by the international community on any country.
The election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013 brought the needed change in cooperation between Iran and Western countries. In October 2013, Iran and the IAEA signed a Joint Statement on a Framework for Cooperation; and an agreement that established the bases for cooperation on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The objective was to resolve previous issues, plus strengthen cooperation and encourage the step by step cooperation.
The official agreement on the Joint Statement Framework for Cooperation was signed in November 2013, which established a long-term solution to the conflict. While it’s desired by many that Iran gave up all its nuclear power and development, the country has been developing these capabilities since the 1970s. A simple “all-or-nothing” approach that’s been in place all these years has not produced the desired outcome for neither Iran nor Western countries. The goal of the agreement is to strengthen cooperation by a step-by-step approach that will bring countries to mutual understanding, both economically and politically, over the years to come.
After extensive negotiations, October 18, 2015 marked Adoption Day of the JCPOA when it came into effect and participants took the needed steps to implement the commitment. January 16, 2016 was the Implementation Day of the deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was tasked to oversee and verify that Iran is cooperating with the measures under the agreement.
So, what is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)? It is a 109-page document that aims to effectively block all potential pathways for Iran to race towards a nuclear weapon for the next 15 years while ensuring that the relationship with Western countries is strengthened in the process. It covers 5 main areas of concern regarding Iran’s nuclear development and economic rehabilitation of the country.
First, the deal requires Iran to give up 97% of its enriched uranium stockpiles— or the stuff that is dug out of the ground that is used to create nuclear fuel— from 10,00 kg to just 300 kg. Second, Iran must significantly decrease the enrichment (or concentration) level of uranium that it possesses to about 3.67%. To put it in perspective, uranium used for research has to be concentrated to about 20%; and to successfully develop nuclear weapons, uranium has to be enriched to about 90%.
The concentration process that makes uranium more dangerous is done in centrifuges where uranium can be spun to a force thousands of times more powerful than the force of gravity. Iran is bringing the number of centrifuges from 20 thousand to 5 thousand, leaving 1 thousand for research and development purposes. By January 2016, Iran drastically reduced the number of centrifuges at its power plans in Natanz and Fordo. In addition, any research and development that Iran can conduct in the next fifteen years can only be done for 8 years in Natanz nuclear power plan facility. No enrichment can be done in Fordo, however the underground facility will be converted to a nuclear-physics technology center where 1000 centrifuges left in procession of Iran can be used to produce radioscopes used in medicine, agricultural industry and science.
Easier said than done, right? Well the forth and one of the most important part of the deal is close monitoring and regular inspections to ensure Iran abides by the rules. IAEA can monitor all nuclear and military sights; however, IAEA has to provide explanation for inspections and Iran is allowed to challenge the request. For the next 15 years, Iran can have 24 days to comply with IAEA access request. Critics say that 24 days can be enough for Iran to hide any secretive nuclear development. Since January 2016, IAEA has verified six times that Iran fulfilled JCPOA obligations.
What does Iran get in return? While Iran is subjected to world’s most robust nuclear verification regime, the country has tremendous undiscovered economic potential. If Iran complies with the JCPOA, sanction relief can bring Iran renewed economic development. Rich in both oil and gas, Iran is the “world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves and the world’s second-largest proven natural gas reserves” say Cyrus Amir-Mokri and Hamid Biglari. According to the International Monetary Fund’s 2015 World Economic Outlook report, Iran has 18th largest economy in the world between Turkey and Australia. With 82 million people living in Iran, sanction relieve can potentially bring development and foreign investment in the country.
Most certainly, there’re enough evidence to be doubtful of the deal. Israel has been one of the major opposition powers when it comes to Iran’s nuclear agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the agreement a “historic mistake” that only rolls back the Iranian nuclear program 15 years down the road. Experts say that a 24-day compliance notice gives Iran enough time to hide evidence of any secretive development.
In implementing the 15-year deal, the international community had hoped that through greater cooperation and economic integration Iran will have a more Western-centered outlook on their foreign policy. However, considering the most recent decision by President Trump, the agreement is under threat. By not certifying the deal, the President is closing a major door of diplomacy that has been shut since the late 1970s. With President’s decision, the administration hopes to reopen negotiations with its allies and Iran to renegotiate terms.
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