The more I study the Iran nuclear deal, the more deeply I appreciate its worth. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed in Vienna on 14 July is better than all three of its antecedents. It goes beyond the political accord struck in Lausanne on 2 April, walking back from none of the parameters of that accord as described by the United States. Among other virtues, the verification procedures of the JCPOA are tighter than the safeguards provided for in the Additional Protocol. The constraints and obligations Iran accepts under the deal also go beyond the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The deal can be characterised as Lausanne-plus, Additional Protocol-plus and NPT-plus.

Opponents of the agreement typically compare it to idealised concepts of a better deal, one that would restrain Iran’s nuclear programme more tightly, and, for good measure, compel better behaviour in other policy fields. Better provisions can be imagined, of course, including those that were tabled and eventually traded away in order to persuade Iran to accept the very sharp limits and intrusive verification measures in the final document. ‘Give and take’ is the essence of negotiations. Along the way, Iran gave up many of its own demands. According to one Iranian critic, 19 of the redlines defined by Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei were crossed. I am still amazed that Iran agreed to let go of 98% of its enriched uranium stockpile, to keep this stockpile at less than 300kg for 15 years, to only use clunky first-generation centrifuges for ten years and to entirely forego producing weapons-grade plutonium for 15 or more years.

For critics now to demand a return to the opening-gambit US provisions and to impose other conditions is to engage in fantasy. There has long ceased to be any possibility that Iran would give up its enrichment programme altogether. Criticising the JCPOA because it failed to achieve this impossible goal is equivalent to arguing against any diplomatic outcome.

For reasons compellingly explained by Graham Allison, among others, there is no better deal now to be had because killing this deal would deprive US negotiators of bargaining power. Similarly, Robert Gates, who is not particularly fond of the JCPOA, recognises that once it was agreed by eight parties after two years of negotiations, it is now the only deal possible. If the US Congress blocks it, Iran will never trust another US negotiating team to be able to deliver on agreed terms. Nor will other countries meekly accept a return to imposing tough sanctions at America’s beck and call if Washington undermines the deal that European allies worked so hard to reach.

The valid comparison is between the JCPOA and the status of Iran’s nuclear programme that prevailed two years ago. This is the status quo ante that is likely to ‘snap back’ if the deal is torpedoed. In early autumn 2013, Iran had nearly 20,000 centrifuges in place, having learned to install them at a pace of more than 700 per month. One thousand second-generation models that were reportedly three times more effective appeared to be ready for operation and more of them were being prepared for installation. Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) was growing at an average rate of 150kg per month, and it had almost enough 20%-enriched uranium hexafluoride for a weapon, if further enriched. The deeply buried enrichment facility at Fordow was being readied to produce more 20% product. Meanwhile, the Arak reactor was nearing completion, perhaps soon able to produce one or two bombs-worth of weapons-grade plutonium per year. Iran was on the brink of being a nuclear-armed state.

Before the interim deal instituted daily inspections, which will fall away if the JCPOA is rejected, verification commitments were limited to ordinary safeguards. Inspections at declared sites took place about once a week at most, and the monitoring equipment was far from state of the art. There was no Additional Protocol providing rights of access to undeclared facilities, and Iran refused to accept provisions requiring declaration of new facilities until they were close to being operational.

The interim agreement that was struck in November 2013 and had been extended several times by early July 2015 brought Iran back from the brink. In the race between sanctions and centrifuges, sanctions finally got the upper hand. But Iran’s commitments under that temporary arrangement would fall away if the JCPOA were killed. Iran would be free to resume where it left off two years ago. Only this time the US would have very few partners willing to impose the tough sanctions that compelled the serious negotiations of the past two years. Not a single foreign nation besides Israel advocates starting over to try to negotiate a better deal. They know it would be daft.

NPT plus

The Iran deal is better than the NPT in several ways. In addition to committing to never produce nuclear weapons, Iran also committed to never engage in four kinds of development work related to nuclear weapons. These include neutron initiator development and multi-point explosive detonation, activities that the NPT does not forbid. This is also one of the ways in which the JCPOA goes beyond the Lausanne accord. The prohibited weaponisation development work also appears to be covered by the verification procedures of the JCPOA. This is a major breakthrough for the nuclear non-proliferation regime, which to date has never explicitly granted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the right to verify nuclear weaponisation work that does not involve nuclear materials.

The JCPOA is also better than the NPT in that it has no withdrawal clause. Most of the limits on civilian nuclear activities end after a period of time, but the obligations are indefinite, as are the key verification measures of the Additional Protocol and Iran’s commitment to exporting all spent fuel, making it unavailable for plutonium-based weapons. Among the ways the deal improves on the Additional Protocol is that maximum time periods are set for access to suspicious sites, 24 days in the worst case. The normal turnaround period for Iran to respond to an inspection request will be 24 hours. Adding an ultimate limit of 24 days is an improvement to the Additional Protocol, which provides for no such limit on delays. The US Department of Energy National Laboratories recently proved that even very limited quantities of uranium could not be cleaned up in this time. Experimental work using only non-nuclear components could probably be hidden, even in one day. But without the JCPOA, the IAEA would have no agreed right to even look for non-nuclear weaponisation work.

The limits on civilian nuclear capacity also have no equivalent in the NPT. Their expiration after 15 years, in the case of enrichment and heavy-water reactors, will not mean Iran is able suddenly and without detection to rush to build nuclear weapons. The IAEA will monitor production of key centrifuge parts for 20 years. All uranium oxide will be tracked for 25 years. Meanwhile, the major powers that were involved in the talks will have additional monitoring functions of their own, to review and approve various nuclear research and development plans and to review procurement of nuclear-related material and equipment. The JCPOA thus provides an extra means for detecting any suspicious build-up in Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The monitoring through the Joint Commission established by the JCPOA is in addition to the national technical means that states continue to employ to gather intelligence on Iran.

Perfect accuracy of intelligence cannot be guaranteed, of course, but Iran would have to assume that any significant cheating on its part would very likely be quickly observed. If so detected, the US and its allies will not give up any of the options they now possess to compel compliance. In fact, such options will be more robust in the latter years of the Iran deal because the technology for military options such as bunker-busting bombs will likely improve, as will the intelligence picture on Iran’s activities.

So while one can legitimately criticise the JCPOA for allowing Iran unlimited expansion of a civilian nuclear programme in 15 years’ time, this hardly paves the way for nuclear weapons, as some of the more bombastic critics charge. Rather, it buys 15 or more years of certified non-nuclear status – and the reassurance of not having to resort to war to stop the programme. Iran will have strong incentives to honour the deal during this time. Faithful implementation should give the IAEA the means to be able to draw the broader conclusion under the Additional Protocol that all nuclear material in Iran is exclusively for peaceful purposes with no indication of undeclared nuclear activities. If Iran could earn what in effect is the IAEA certificate of approval, there would be no sustainable reason not to allow the same rights as enjoyed by other IAEA members such as Germany and Japan, both of which have enrichment programmes.

Enemy of the good

I have written elsewhere about problematic aspects of the agreement. In addition to concerns about the sunset clause, there are unresolved questions about nuclear activity of a possible military dimension (PMD). The agreement obliges Iran to answer these questions but not necessarily to resolve the concerns. If the answers are unsatisfactory, the major partners will face a political decision in early 2016 about whether to lift sanctions anyway. If Iran fulfils its stated obligations under the JCPOA to remove centrifuges, LEU and the core of the Arak reactor but leaves the PMD issues hanging, I anticipate that the powers will swallow hard and decide that forestalling future weaponisation is more important than knowing what happened in the past.

Iran will have an ongoing incentive, however, to ensure that the file is closed on past allegations, because if in the latter years of the JCPOA the IAEA still had lingering doubts about weaponisation work, it would be difficult to draw the broader conclusion of exclusively peaceful uses. And if the IAEA were not able within 15 years to draw the broader conclusion, then many countries would not feel comfortable allowing Iran at that point to proceed with an unlimited enrichment programme. The nuclear crisis would resume. But the world would not be any worse off than would be the case if the US Congress were to torpedo the JCPOA this year, thereby lifting all constraints immediately.

Iran’s adversaries raise other reasons they dislike the deal, including the suggestion that it might abet regional adventurism. That is an open question; Iran’s behaviour might get worse, especially in the near term, but the deal also offers prospects for it getting better. Some criticise the lifting of the UN Security Council ban on missile development after eight years. This ban was adopted in the first place only to pressure Iran to enter negotiations. In any case, Iran will remain unable legally to import missile-related parts and technology because the voluntary constraints imposed by the Missile Technology Control Regime will remain in place for most exporting countries.

Iran’s dismal human-rights record is another issue offered as a reason to oppose the nuclear deal, although not by Iranian human-rights activists themselves, most of whom support the JCPOA. I remain angry that Iran continues to imprison Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and other US citizens on trumped up charges. I realise, though, that the hardliners who detained him are outside President Hassan Rouhani’s control and would like nothing better than if the US conditioned acceptance of the JCPOA on Rezaian’s release, thereby giving them a veto over the deal.

The JCPOA is a potential game changer in many ways, opening a path to better relations with Iran that has been closed for more than 35 years. For now, however, let it be judged on the merits of what the negotiations set out to achieve. On the issue of single-most importance to the national security of concerned states, the positive contribution of the JCPOA is dispositive. It makes it demonstrably less likely Iran will become nuclear-armed now and in the future.

This commentary will appear in the October–November 2015 issue of Survival.

Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the IISS Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme.

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