The first anniversary this month of the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), occasioned predictable assessments. Whether one thinks the deal is succeeding mostly depends on what one thought of the deal at the time. Those (like me) who applauded the agreement a year ago have expressed satisfaction that, so far, it has done exactly what it set out to do in effectively blocking any Iranian path to a nuclear weapon. Those who opposed the agreement, on grounds that it did not more tightly constrain Iran, point to continued troubling Iranian behaviour as evidence the deal is not working.

Let's look first at the positives. Three reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) so far this year confirm that Iran has met all the required conditions. The uranium stockpile has been reduced by 98% to less than 300 kg. The Arak reactor has been disabled. Nearly two thirds of the centrifuges have been removed. Fordow is no longer an enrichment facility. Intrusive inspections are taking place.

There is no more talk of war. Before negotiations began, an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities appeared to be close to a 50-50 proposition. Israeli security officials no longer raise public concerns about an Iranian nuclear threat.

Communication channels established in the negotiations are working well at all levels, providing structured space to address issues in a workmanlike way. The Procurement Working Group established by the JCPOA, for example, meets every three weeks, as planned. Cooperation in implementing the JCPOA is good both among the major powers, including Russia and China, and with Iran.

Not all is smooth sailing, to be sure. The procurement channel that was established to allow for legitimate trade in nuclear and dual-use materials has yet to be utilised. Meanwhile, unidentified German intelligence officials are reported to have said that Iran continued illegal procurement efforts past the date in January 2016 when the JCPOA came into effect. The Wall Street Journal report on the matter did not describe the procurements, but judging from German counter-intelligence reports of Iranian procurements in 2015, most of the purchase attempts in 2016 are likely to be related to Iran's missile programme, which was not covered by the JCPOA.

US and German government spokesmen have said, for the record, they have no information about any procurements that violate the deal. They may have information, however, about questionable procurement attempts. The Institute for Science and International Security reported that Iran has sought to obtain carbon fibre, which has both nuclear and missile – as well as civilian – applications. Dual-use goods like this can be obtained legally only through the Procurement Channel. Iran's claim that raw materials such as carbon fibre are not covered by the procurement channel rules is risible.

Troublesome Iranian behaviour in other non-nuclear areas is also problematic. Tehran continues to prop up the murderous Assad regime, to support Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups that employ terrorist tactics, and to send arms to Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iran’s human rights record has gotten even worse, judging by the surge in state executions, for example. Iran’s extra-judicial detention of several foreigners with family ties in Iran, including the seizure this month of a San Diego man, Robin Shahini, who was visiting his ailing mother, are highly provocative.

Most worrisome are Iran’s continued ballistic missile test launches. In a report this month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said they ‘are not consistent with the constructive spirit’ of the nuclear deal. The missiles have a range and throw-weight that makes them intrinsically capable of delivering nuclear weapons. There is thus a logic behind efforts in the US Congress to impose new sanctions over the missile launches.

Any new measures, however, must be applied in a way that does not violate the JCPOA clause that prohibits re-application of the sanctions that were lifted under the deal. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei claims that ‘new sanctions on any level with any excuse … will be considered a breach’ of the agreement and that Iran accordingly would break the restrictions on its nuclear programme. Concerned states must not be intimidated by this bluff. They should use sanctions judiciously when Iran has violated international norms. They should also realise, however, that most of Iran’s troubling behaviour is at the hands of conservative forces who themselves would be all too happy if the JCPOA were to fail.

As German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schäfer put it, forces in Iran that oppose President Hassan Rouhani ‘may be tempted to undermine and to torpedo’ the JCPOA. French Ambassador to Washington Gerard Aroud, who is no softie on Iran, said in a recent interview that provocative behaviour was predictable: ‘I was expecting the Iranians to harden their position on the other issues after this nuclear deal, in a sense to show or to send a message that they have not caved in front of the West’.

‘Caving in to the West’ is a charge repeatedly laid on Rouhani by his internal critics, whose case is strengthened because Iran has yet to benefit from sanctions relief to the extent anticipated. This is not the fault of the US government, which has fully carried out the sanctions relief required of it under the JCPOA. Much of the reason Western banks remain cautious about dealing with Iran is because of the nation’s non-transparent banking practices and by the opaque nature of the involvement in the Iranian economy by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which remains under US sanctions.

The Obama administration helped Rouhani counter the charges when it facilitated a $25 billion deal for Boeing to sell 80 passenger airplanes to Iran and to lease 29 others. Legislation passed by the US House of Representatives to block the Boeing sale would appear to violate the provision of the JCPOA that commits the US to ‘allow for the sale of commercial passenger aircraft and related parts and services’ for ‘exclusively civil aviation end-use’. The administration insists it has the means to ensure that the airplanes are not used to ferry arms to Syria and Hezbollah. Obama would veto any such bill that came to him for signature, but the Senate did not pass similar legislation before it broke for the summer vacation.

If Iran were to use the planes for any military purpose, that surely would disrupt the JCPOA. There are many other ways the nuclear accord could still go wrong. For now, however, it is working fine.

Mark Fitzpatrick is Executive Director of IISS–Americas and head of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme. This commentary is drawn from the author’s 14 July 2016 webinar on ‘Nuclear Proliferation Success and Failure: Iran and North Korea’.

Back to content list

Politics and Strategy Homepage

The Survival Editors' Blog

Ideas and commentary from Survival editors and contributors

Latest Posts

  • Politics and Strategy
    08 November 2017

    The increasing likelihood of war with North Korea

    War involving North Korea is a 50/50 proposition over the next year, says Mark Fitzpatrick.

  • Politics and Strategy
    31 October 2017

    How will the Islamic State endure?

    The credibility of the Islamic State may be undermined, but the security threat it poses should not be underestimated.

  • Politics and Strategy
    26 October 2017

    Deja Vu in Kenya?

    A decade after deadly election violence swept Kenya, another presidential vote has brought fresh unrest. Jonathan Stevenson says an improved voting process would ease the country's underlying ethnic and political tensions.

  • Politics and Strategy
    25 October 2017

    Pitiful North Korean diplomacy

    Military conflict over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes is a serious possibility, writes Mark Fitzpatrick.

  • Politics and Strategy
    23 October 2017

    Fixing an Iran nuclear deal that ain’t broke

    The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is not perfect, and its implementation can be improved. But the US Congress must avoid taking actions that would kill the deal.