Will the US even hold Iran to the terms of nuclear agreement?


Kyle Orton
Friday 17 July 2015 23:50 BST

With all the leaks and the numerous "interim" deals, the nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—made with Iran on July 14 contained few surprises. The deal makes Iran a threshold nuclear-weapons regime for its duration and smooths the path to an overt nuclear-weapons capacity afterward. In the meantime, it has given Iran extra resources for the export of terrorism. And that's just if Iran keeps the deal.

In November 2013, the United States conceded Iran a right to enrich uranium on its soil, something six U.N. Security Council resolutions said was illegal. (Those six resolutions are now to be formally repealed.) After that concession, giving Iran what it most wanted in the first round, it was merely a question of how many centrifuges and how much enriched uranium Iran would be allowed. Negotiations that were supposed to be about dismantling Iran's nuclear-weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief became about the size of the nuclear program and the length of the delay in Iran getting The Bomb.

Under the JCPOA, Iran will keep 5,060 centrifuges at Natanz and 1,044 at Fordow. Deal supporters have said Iran is removing two-thirds of its centrifuges; this is wilfully misleading. Iran has 19,000 centrifuges in its possession, but only 9,000 active—i.e. Iran keeps two-thirds of its centrifuges. And even the third that are being disconnected are not being dismantled; they are being placed in IAEA storage in Iran.

The JCPOA relies on technical fixes to restrain Iran rather than the easier-to-verify dismantling, but even those conditions come with a sunset clause, a dangerous trapdoor that means all restrictions lapse after a date-certain and Iran can have a nuclear weapon by keeping the deal. The most important restriction—on enrichment—is lifted after eight years. Far from removing weapons of mass destruction from the region, the JCPOA is likely to prove a spur to proliferation, as Saudi Arabia has already pointed out.

Iran is supposed only to carry out enrichment of uranium at Natanz for the next fifteen years. "During the 15 year period … Iran … will keep its uranium stockpile under 300 kg of up to 3.67% enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6) or the equivalent in other chemical forms," the JCPOA says. Excess will be sold on the international market or blended down. But the JCPOA confirms that there is a massive research and development loophole. The stockpile of fissile material is irrelevant if Iran can put its program under the protection of American power for the duration of the deal while perfecting—and testing—advanced centrifuges that mean the stockpile can be recovered very quickly, shortening the breakout time, after the JCPOA elapses.

Fordow, the heavily-fortified facility near Qom, is especially dangerous. As President Obama himself said in December 2013: Fordow serves no peaceful purpose. Assuming Iran sticks to the deal, because of the R&D provisions it will be "capable of producing enough weapon-grade uranium [at Fordow] for a nuclear weapon within a few weeks" after the end of the deal, according to David Albright and his team at the Left-wing Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).

The early dismantling of the sanctions and the legal regime that goes with it is confirmed by the JCPOA. As mentioned above, the U.N. Security Council resolutions on Iran's special status vis-à-vis nukes will be terminated and the deal commits to a "comprehensive lifting" of all sanctions, U.S. and multilateral, granting Iran $100 billion almost immediately, and even pledging to open up "areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy" for Iran.

Credit the Obama administration: the JCPOA-created "Joint Commission"—an eight-member body including the P5+1, Iran, and the European Union—passes the matter of Iranian violations to the U.N. Security Council in a format where the U.S. veto can "snap-back" the sanctions rather than the Russian and Chinese vetoes blocking that reimposition.

The problem with the "snap-back" provision on its own terms is that it is the only sanction in the JCPOA for infractions, big or small, and the reimposition of sanctions frees Iran from its obligations under the JCPOA, i.e. if "snap-back" is activated it cancels the JCPOA. Given that, as Mark Dubowitz says, "The Iranian regime cheats incrementally, not egregiously, even though the sum total of its incremental cheating is egregious," the "snap-back" provision incentivizes Iran to continue this method, getting away with small- and medium-sized violations, since the U.S. is heavily-invested in this deal and would only abrogate it for a major violation.

The broader problem with the "snap-back" sanctions is that don't really exist: other than taking two months to reimpose and not cancelling any contracts made up to that point, Iran has been granted too much of a cushion with the sanctions relief for any sanctions to bite in time to stop Iran when it is less than a year from a nuclear weapon.

The sanctions on conventional weapons are lifted after five years and—in the one of the most ominous concessions of all—sanctions on ballistic missiles are lifted after eight years. Critics had worried that missiles—the delivery system for a nuke—were being ignored in the negotiations; Iran's agitating on the missiles question—a natural accompaniment to a peaceful nuclear program—in the final days of the talks led, as on so much else, to a finessed American capitulation.

The "redesign and rebuild" of the Arak heavy-water reactor "to minimise the production of plutonium and not to produce weapon-grade plutonium" is not as sure as converting it into a light-water reactor in blocking the plutonium path to a bomb, but—assuming this action is carried out—it would work. As with Iran being entrusted to "seek ratification" of the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which grants inspections additional (but not sufficient) access, the provisions on Arak rely on trusting Iran, since no end-date is put on these commitments, which means there are no consequences for delay. Given that Iran withdrew from the AP in 2005, after signing it in 2003, the lack of a clear timetable by which Iran must ratify and keep to the AP is worrying.

The only two key areas where the U.S. position had not completely collapsed in April was inspections and making Iran disclose the possible military dimensions (PMDs) of its nuclear program. On both points the final deal has conceded to Iran.

ISIS said that anywhere/anytime inspections, including of military sites like Parchin where Iran is believed to have tested nuclear detonators, were "needed" to ensure that the IAEA could enforce a deal. In April, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said there would be anywhere/anytime inspections; now Rhodes says, "We never sought anytime/anywhere inspections." Whether the U.S. tried to secure anywhere/anytime inspections or not, they didn't get them.

If the IAEA identifies a suspicious site, Iran can delay access for fourteen days before it is referred to the Joint Commission, which has a week to decide if the IAEA's request is reasonable; Iran then has three days to decide if it will comply before the "snap-back" procedure begins. Even if Iran chose to comply before the "snap-back" procedure began, it would have twenty-four days to delay an inspection.

The single worst aspect of the deal is its lack of stringent demands on the PMD question. The PMD issue is a poison pill, but it is not even mentioned in the JCPOA. The PMDs are being dealt with as part of the separate "Roadmap for Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues" that Iran signed with the IAEA on July 14. Iran is supposed to implement everything by Oct. 15 and a final assessment will be provided on Dec. 15. As far as anyone can tell this is after the initial, major tranche of sanctions relief has been given. As ISIS put it, to lift sanctions before Iran has come clean would imperil "regional security and peace."

The Roadmap also mentions another "separate arrangement regarding the issue of Parchin," which again seems not to have any firm timeline attached, and the leverage to ensure Iran's compliance is unclear.

The defenders of this deal often say they have found a "peaceful" way out of a knotty impasse, but the deal moves us closer to war: with the provisions it allows for Iran to perfect its enrichment and shorten the breakout time, this deal removes all options except the military one for stopping Iran getting a bomb in future. Moreover, there will be no peace in the region as a result of this deal.

Some regional analysts, Michael Doran most notably, have long argued that Obama's engagement with Iran was really about détente and not an arms control agreement, making Iran a partner in regional security, especially against the Islamic State (I.S.), which would allow America to pull back from the Middle East. This explains why the U.S. has played a strong hand so badly: the U.S. couldn't threaten to walk away because the U.S.'s real interest wasn't in disarming Iran but in securing Iran's partnership for a new regional order, and neutralizing the nuclear issue was key to doing that. Thus, Iran was the one that could threaten to walk away and the U.S. would pay to keep them at the table.

The evidence for the détente policy has been convincing for a long time, from Obama's letters explicitly requesting this regional partnership, if only Iran would sign a paper agreement, to Obama providing airstrikes for Iran's militias in Iraq and an effective security guarantee for Bashar al-Assad, but in the immediate aftermath of the deal it looks more certain still. Obama publicly stated that Iran was part of the solution in Syria, despite declared U.S. policy since August 2011 being the overthrow of the regime Iran has seized control of.

The freeing-up of billions of dollars is clearly going to allow Iran to extend further support to Assad's killing machine, especially via Iran's Lebanese proxy Hizballah, and to expand Iran's already-considerable control of Iraq's security sector through al-Hashd al-Shabi—to say nothing of HAMAS and the Houthis in Yemen. Iran had made investments in Empire it was struggling to keep; relief had come just in time.

The naming of Qassem Suleimani, the spymaster who leads the expeditionary wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp charged with exporting Iran's revolution, among the eight-hundred people and entities to be removed from sanctions lists buttresses the argument made by Tony Badran and Lee Smith that so far from intending to tame the Iranian regime and empower moderates over the long-term, the deal is very specifically made with the hard men and extremists around Suleimani whom, the argument has it, Obama sees as being capable of bringing order. This is already precipitating a closing of ranks among the Gulf States, which will get less and less choosy about who they sponsor as their decision-making is reduced to a single question: Will they damage Iran?

Empowering Russia is a significant side-effect of this deal. Obama had already allowed Russia back into the region after his "redline" debacle in Syria and Russia has capitalized on the new business opportunities in Tehran. But Russia is already pushing for the removal of the NATO missile shield in Europe, which was placed there ostensibly to defend against Iran.

Ultimately, the text of this agreement is only the start; enforcement is the crucible: Will the U.S. risk the JCPOA by holding Iran to its terms, or will the U.S.'s instinct be to insist Iran is compliant? Expect Iran to test this early. Still, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that President Obama's real achievement is kicking the Iran can—the key parts of enforcing the JCPOA begin after Obama leaves office. Meanwhile, Iran has wrung permanent concessions legitimizing its regional hegemony from the West, and even got the West to pay for its imperial surge, in exchange for delaying the decision to assemble a bomb, while being allowed to shorten the breakout time for the day when that decision is made.

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