By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas
At a time when North Korea’s fast-paced missile development may soon hold US cities at nuclear risk, the world can take comfort that the once-looming Iranian nuclear crisis remains stopped in its tracks. Thanks to the balanced deal that six major powers and the European Union struck with Iran in July 2015, the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme remains fettered and tightly inspected.
While not perfect, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is working well – ‘delivering 100%’, according to Helga Schmid, Secretary General of the EU External Action Service, speaking at the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference on 20 October. The strong consensus among the 270 participants at the event was that since the deal is working, as attested to eight times now in quarterly reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there is no logic in trying to fix it.
US President Donald Trump’s new Iran strategy – involving working with allies to try to fix the deal – was treated with derision at the conference. Indeed, nearly every foreign partner who has spoken on the subject has opposed Trump’s 13 October decision not to certify Iranian compliance with the deal, despite overwhelming evidence that it is complying. Witness, for example, an extraordinary joint statement by the leaders of France, Germany and the UK expressing concern for the implications of Trump’s decision and expressing their commitment to maintain the deal.
World voices calling to preserve the JCPOA are directed at the US Congress, which by virtue of Trump’s decertification was empowered for 60 days to re-impose pre-JCPOA nuclear sanctions by a simple majority. Such a material breach of the accord would further isolate the US, spark a wholly unnecessary crisis and hamper Washington’s ability to deal with the real nuclear danger presented by Pyongyang.
How Iran would respond to such a blatant US violation is unclear. President Hassan Rouhani said his country remained committed to the nuclear agreement for the time being, ‘so long as it remains in keeping with our national rights and interests’. Yet Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told the Moscow conference that, in his personal view, without the US the deal will collapse.
If so, this would serve the purposes of some American JCPOA opponents such as former ambassador to the UN John Bolton, who advocated decertification as but the first step in a strategy to abrogate the deal. Some Congressional critics, such as Senator Tom Cotton, have indicated that killing the deal would be in service to the goal of regime change in Iran.
For the time being, however, Cotton has partnered with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker in drafting legislation with the avowed intention of ‘fixing’ the deal. The changes they propose, however – including permanent restrictions on enrichment capacity – are obvious deal breakers.
Iran simply will not accept limits in perpetuity that would apply uniquely to itself. It should be obvious that no sovereign state would accept such constraints, except at the point of a gun after unconditional surrender. It will thus be difficult for Cotton and Corker to collect the filibuster-breaking 60 Senate votes they would need to pass any such measure. Especially given the disarray in US diplomacy induced by the Trump administration, it is a fantasy to think that well-crafted talking points will be able to persuade Europeans to join in breaking JCPOA commitments.
Improving JCPOA implementation
Schmid exaggerated for effect in giving awarding the nuclear deal a ‘100%’ grade. JCPOA implementation can be improved, though not in ways that require renegotiation of the deal itself. The Joint Commission established under the JCPOA to address complaints and ambiguities should reach agreement on technical issues that were left undefined, such as the allowable scope of ‘mechanical testing’ of advanced centrifuges. Iran’s pressing of the envelope on such matters – which some critics falsely call a ‘violation’ – should be curbed. Likewise the matter of Iran’s production of more heavy water than is needed for domestic purposes. Exporting the excess to Oman for storage before eventual sale is not a JCPOA violation (the heavy water limits specifically apply to accumulation ‘in Iran’) but is an unnecessary encouragement to Iran’s nuclear-export dreams.
Perhaps most importantly, the Joint Commission should clarify the role of the IAEA in verifying the unprecedented restrictions that the JCPOA imposed on certain activities that would contribute to nuclear weapons development. These restrictions, specified in Section T of the accord, include computer models to simulate nuclear explosive devices and explosive diagnostic systems such as streak cameras.
IAEA Secretary General Yukiya Amano, in language winced at by aides, said the IAEA’s tools for verifying Section T need to be clarified. Applying their own standards, critics seized upon his statement as evidence of Iranian ‘violations’. Yet Amano was pushing against not Iranian, but Russian, intransigence. With legal illogic, Russia has taken the position, repeated by Foreign Secretary Sergey Lavrov at the Moscow confab, that the IAEA has no mandate to verify Section T. This argument flies in the face of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which asks the IAEA to verify the nuclear-related limitations of the JCPOA. The resolution does not exclude Section T from the JCPOA verification task.
There may be a bargain to be made here by the self-acclaimed dealmaker. If Trump could help steer Congress away from imposing deal-killing sanctions, maybe Russia would agree to strengthen JCPOA verification tools. The president could then claim, with some justification, that he had indeed fixed the deal.