With Implementation Day just around the corner, the cooperation between Iran and the US is extraordinary. Although non-nuclear problems persist in the region, Mark Fitzpatrick is optimistic

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas

When the Iran nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was struck on July 14, I was among those who anticipated that it would not go into effect until nine or more months later. The speed at which Iran is moving to accomplish its required tasks, however, means that Implementation Day now is likely to take place in January. US Secretary of State John Kerry said on 7 January that it could be just ‘days away if all goes well’.

Iran’s main tasks are nearly completed. Most of the stockpile of low-enriched uranium was shipped out to Russia and Kazakhstan last month. Norway played a key role in helping to pay for 60 tonnes of natural uranium yellowcake that Iran received from Kazakhstan in return for the temporary export of excess enriched fuel. When the fuel is gradually returned in small increments to replace fuel that is irradiated in the Tehran Research reactor, Iran will ‘pay’ for it indirectly by making extra-budgetary contributions to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), I was told by a knowledgeable source. There was drama over Christmas when Turkmenistan rescinded its flight clearance for the transfer because of the perceived danger of having uranium in its skies. Azerbaijan, which has had cool relations with Iran, was then persuaded to allow a flight through its airspace over the Caspian Sea on 27 December.   

Removal of about 14,000 centrifuges and related infrastructure is on pace to be finished very soon. Likewise, removal of the calandria of the Arak reactor should be completed shortly. In the autumn, an Iranian demand for a contract signed by all JCPOA parties about redesign of the reactor threatened to delay calandria removal as parties sought to work out acceptable language. By mid-December, however, Iran’s negotiators found another way to meet the supreme leader’s requirement for a contract. The three tasks thus may completed by the middle of the month, after which it will take the IAEA up to nine days to verify compliance.

Some issues are still being worked out. In addition to the three main tasks outlined above, Iran also has to export a few dozen tonnes of excess heavy water. The United States Department of Energy has agreed to purchase 6 tonnes and to facilitate the sale of 34 more tonnes to the private sector. The contractual arrangements for these sales could take some time, but Iran might arrange to send the heavy water to Oman in the meantime. 

When issues have come up, they have generally been worked out between Iran and the US often via email and telephone calls between cabinet members, and then confirmed by the other parties through the Joint Commission. Given the animosity that has prevailed between the two countries for 35 years, the degree of cooperation is extraordinary; who would have thought that Iran would be selling heavy water to the US government or that the US would be the intermediary in working out Caspian Sea flight clearances?

Deep fissures between Iran and the US remain over non-nuclear matters, particularly Iran’s unjustified imprisonment of American citizens, its human-rights violations, its missile tests and its role in propping up the Assad regime. The trust that is being built up between those in charge of the nuclear file has not yet had any discernible impact in ameliorating these other problems. It is not unreasonable to expect, however, that the easing of sanctions that will come with implementation of the Iran deal will boost domestic support for Hassan Rouhani’s government. This should pay dividends in the Majles elections to be held on 26 February and strengthen Rouhani’s role in other areas of importance to the US and its allies. Amidst all the other trouble in the region this new year, there is a ray of light.

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