The world’s major powers once agreed that Iran was no place for uranium enrichment or the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. United after 9/11 and the jarring revelation of the A.Q. Khan proliferation network, they worked to defeat nuclear proliferation and terrorism – and the nexus of the two in Iran – without military force. They launched criteria-of-supply negotiations in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG); a moratorium on transfers of enrichment and reprocessing technology to new countries in what was then the G8; passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1887, and others demanding Iran suspend its nuclear programme; a coalition for proliferation interdiction called the Proliferation Security Initiative; assurances of nuclear-fuel supply, fuel banks and spent-fuel return, in Russia and with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); and new treaties, as well as amendments to existing ones, designed to interdict and defeat nuclear trafficking.

The non-military non-proliferation deeds of the first decade of this century are now overshadowed by the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. The tools that succeeded beyond all other non-military means in changing Iran’s behaviour were the sanctions this deal abolishes. The innovation of those sanctions was that they were not only aimed at states proliferating to Iran, or designed to apply after an Iranian nuclear test. They targeted Iran’s crown jewels of oil and other natural resources, industries and their exports, financing, shipping and banking infrastructure – including people and corporate entities – to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The heart of the deal is the abolition of sanctions in exchange for extending Iran’s breakout time (the length of time it would take to produce material for a nuclear weapon) for a limited period. A better approach would have kept Iran at the table for years, with progressive waiving of sanctions and a corresponding continuation of limits Iran had agreed to extend a number of times already. A better approach would have aimed for more than a year’s breakout time – a duration of relevance to the negotiating countries too, should they need time to enforce an agreement with any means other than war. The sanctions that now remain will not be effective in changing Iran’s behaviour. Iran will be more able to engage in normal arms, nuclear and dual-use technology trade even while it continues its regional military campaigns, and ballistic- and cruise-missile programmes.

Iran did not stop enriching uranium even during the sanctions that brought it to the negotiating table. That does not mean we have to either capitulate or bomb Iran. Nuclear resistance is not only Iranian. It has been Iraqi, Libyan and North Korean, with varying responses in return. But all states intent on acquiring nuclear weapons, when caught, usually hold capability and bargain with it. The Iran deal – more formally, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – is a bad bargain. Because it ends the best sanctions and its nuclear concessions are too large, it will lead to more arguments among its negotiating parties, and other nations quite apart from Iran. Where it applies limits to Iran’s activities, it does so on a temporary and infirm basis. It will grow, not freeze or roll back, the problem.

Sanctions gone

The remaining US nuclear sanctions punish proliferation from one state to another, and can freeze all foreign assistance when a state detonates a bomb. The JCPOA unlocks supplies of technology and money to Iran, and old US laws are ineffective because they have the wrong target – proliferation to and from states, not, as now to be seen in Iran, within one. Even if these old laws are effective on occasion, they are unilateral, and the JCPOA, by permitting Iran access to dual-use nuclear, missile and military weapons technology – the coordinated relaxation so praised in the deal – will result in disconcerting global arguments over exports to Iran within the JCPOA’s Joint Commission, the IAEA and the UN Security Council.

The unblocking of accounts and unfreezing of US assets, as well as more generous terms for crude oil, will free up credit and hard currency for Iran. Considering just the funds the JCPOA’s sanctions abolition may repatriate to the Iranian Central Bank, almost $60 billion will come home to Tehran. That is nearly twice the total amount of worldwide US foreign economic assistance in 2012. If America tries to halt atomic progress in Iran, whether under the JCPOA, in the IAEA or in the UN Security Council, it will have a hard time doing so if its own laws are the basis for attempting international cooperation. 

Moreover, the American laws in which executive non-proliferation sanctions authority resides are inadequate. The US International Emergency Economic Powers Act, allowing the president to use emergency powers to keep executive-order sanctions and embargoes in place with few challenges in US courts, expired long ago and is continued on the basis of executive order. Because of US export-control reform, the American Arms Export Control Act and its implementing regulations are permissive: many items formerly controlled by the United States as significant military equipment and major defence equipment that are now designated as commercial military equipment will find their way from Europe to Iran. Even the Iran Sanctions Act is set to expire in 2016. The US Atomic Energy and Nuclear Nonproliferation acts date back to a time when America was a reactor supplier to Iran. Reform has relaxed export controls to Europe and China more than at any time since sanctions on proliferation were augmented under the US Enhanced Proliferation Control Initiative on states proliferating to Iraq in the 1990s.

Conceding ground

The deal’s primary concession is to permit Iran to have a national uranium-enrichment capability, which the JCPOA will allow to grow over time. Iran will never have been forced to abandon enrichment – neither before nor during the deal, and certainly not after it. Its enrichment capacity will dramatically increase in the JCPOA’s later stages. Iran retains a research and development programme to make faster and more reliable centrifuges, though monitored and not permitted to be for the purpose of enriching uranium. Iran would also have much more unseparated plutonium on hand if it were to jettison the Non-Proliferation Treaty, owing to deals with its existing reactor supplier, Russia, and new reactors from China – quite apart from that produced by the Arak heavy-water reactor, even as modified. In fact, Iran will add hundreds more significant quantities (bombs’ worth) of unseparated plutonium, annually, to the global stockpile of spent fuel. For now, most of that spent fuel will return to Russia, but reprocessing, while easier to detect than enrichment, is not barred by the NPT – and Russia is no longer a reliable international partner for the West.

The JCPOA, secondly, is a temporary limitation assumed by Iran only on a voluntary basis, thus increasing regional proliferation tension. The JCPOA gives this away with reference to the ‘broader conclusion’ about Iran’s programme that, if reached by the IAEA, would lead to the lifting of all European Union proliferation-related sanctions and Iranian ratification of the Additional Protocol. Who else might want a broader conclusion? Saudi Arabia has never clarified its own civilian nuclear aspirations, alongside the proliferation hints it has made in response to Iran.

Thirdly, the physical reduction of items and material, and the upper limit on the number of sites, facilities and locations in Iran where it can continue its nuclear activities and spin centrifuges, rely on what is already known about Iran’s programme. Access to undeclared (as well as decommissioned) sites is not ‘anytime, anywhere’, as had been expected. Even if an argument over managed access to an undeclared facility is confined to 24 days, what then? The JCPOA has built a month’s delay into an agreement that sets Iran’s breakout time at one year. Moreover, the managed-access provision harms, rather than helps, the Additional Protocol. That agreement’s ‘complementary’ access provision is a significant innovation over comprehensive safeguards agreements’ rarely used ‘special inspections’. All three of these mechanisms can be carried out in Iran, under its safeguards agreements and the JCPOA. But by delaying ratification of its Additional Protocol, Iran has made sure that access to military sites rests on voluntary agreements. For its most sensitive sites, this means only managed access.

Under the JCPOA, IAEA verification activities in Iran designed to resolve concerns about activities of a possible military dimension end on 15 October 2015. Depending on what happens on that date, Iran’s arrangements may not be substantially different than the voluntary-offer safeguards and additional protocols the IAEA has agreed with nuclear-weapons states. Moreover, even if a managed-access inspection at a decommissioned military site in Iran takes place, Iran can hide co-located installations within facilities and locations the IAEA cannot inspect. It appears, from what has been reported of Iran’s agreement with the IAEA on activities of a possible military dimension, that inspections could take place only to end up with ambiguous results, wrongly confirming, to Iran’s benefit, the absence of such activities.

What is more, blithe assertions of the United States’ (or another intelligence community’s) ability to detect violations ignore the fact that acting on information gained from covert or national-technical means relies on the credibility of the nation declassifying and leaking intelligence. As such, this information is prone to multilateral challenge from states that did not share in its collection. The United States attempted this kind of counter-proliferation with flawed intelligence about Iraq, and failed to convince. What makes the deal’s supporters confident that it would have the necessary credibility to stop Iran?

Lastly, Iran will have a reduced stockpile of 300kg of uranium hexafluoride and other chemical forms, enriched to 3.67% U235; 5,060 first-generation centrifuges; and its stockpile of triuranium octoxide enriched to 20% will be reduced and eliminated. These limits do not all occur at once, but over time – and then only for a limited period. These numbers result from negotiators prioritising the goal of a year’s breakout time, based on declared sites and using declared material. But, in failing to achieve in a binding way – before the deal comes into effect – an additional protocol, an IAEA ‘broader conclusion’ and resolution of the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme, the deal’s sequencing and mixing of voluntary and binding measures risks encouraging proliferation, in Iran and elsewhere in the region.

If Iran is again caught violating its nuclear obligations, this deal has created tripwires for war and virulent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. In the meantime, arms sales from the negotiating parties will assist their respective regional allies in fighting a number of ongoing wars. Russian arms sales to Iran, in particular, will increase. The current US president has threatened, if the deal is rejected (not if it is violated), a war that would be global in its consequences. Iran will be emboldened to entice that result with its weaker interpretations of the JCPOA.

What is suggested by all of this is, in all candour, risky. To undermine a deal like this imposes another set of challenges, even if the reasons for undermining it are sound. In this vein, the deal has produced uncertainty whether or not it is actually implemented. That uncertainty deters us, not Iran. And it encourages and assists Iran, not us. 

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

Thomas C. Moore was a Senior Republican Professional Staff Member for arms control, arms sales and non-proliferation in the United States Senate from 2003–13.

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