Jump to a question:
- How did we know Iran was complying with the JCPOA?
- Doesn’t the deal expire or sunset? Can’t Iran just build a nuclear weapon then?
- Opponents of the JCPOA have said that Iran would be able to develop a nuclear bomb in 6 months under a restored deal, because of a shorter “breakout time” – is that true?
- Why doesn’t the deal impose “anytime, anywhere inspections?”
- Wouldn’t more sanctions and pressure force Iran to make greater concessions and accept “a better deal?”
- Why do some Israeli leaders oppose the deal and others support it?
- Can the US continue to confront and sanction Iran for other dangerous non-nuclear behaviors?
- Why are some Trump-imposed sanctions on members of the Iranian regime likely to be lifted as part of re-entering the deal? What about the IRGC’s Foreign Terrorist Organization designation?
- What is Russia’s role in the negotiations and implementation of this agreement? Does it benefit militarily from the agreement?
How did we know Iran was complying with the JCPOA?
Prior to former president Donald Trump’s violation and abandonment of the JCPOA, Iran had taken all the steps that they were required to take in order to block all pathways to developing a nuclear weapon. The core of the Arak plutonium reactor had been removed and filled with concrete. 25,000 pounds of enriched uranium had been shipped out of the country. 2/3 of installed centrifuges had been physically removed. Iran had provided inspectors access to its nuclear facilities and supply chain.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is tasked with monitoring and inspecting Iran’s nuclear facilities to ensure that they are complying with the deal – utilizing the unprecedentedly thorough and sophisticated inspections mechanisms and technology that the deal put into place. Prior to Trump’s unilateral violation of the deal, the IAEA had repeatedly certified that Iran was in compliance. In fact, Iran remained in compliance for about one year following Trump’s abandonment of the deal and reimposition of sanctions.
Doesn’t the deal expire or sunset? Can’t Iran just build a nuclear weapon then?
The JCPOA never expires or sunsets. The agreement contains some time-limited restrictions on certain Iranian nuclear activity, but its prohibition on Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon and Iran’s submission to an aggressive inspections and monitoring regime are permanent.
Specifically, the agreement establishes strict limits on advanced centrifuge R&D, testing and deployment in the first 10 years and, after the initial 10 year period, Iran must continue to limit enrichment to a level that is consistent with a peaceful nuclear program. Certain transparency measures last for 15 years, others for 20 to 25 years and some will last forever, namely its obligations under the IAEA Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol.
This deal in no way authorizes, allows or encourages future Iranian nuclear weapons activity, which will always be prohibited under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If Iran ever acts to pursue a nuclear weapon in violation of the agreement, the United States and its allies retain their ability to respond with any number of diplomatic and military options. And thanks to the agreement, America and its partners are now in a better position to thwart any break-out attempt, given the unparalleled understanding and awareness of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure that the deal has already provided.
Opponents of the JCPOA have said that Iran would be able to develop a nuclear bomb in 6 months under a restored deal, because of a shorter “breakout time” – is that true?
No, under a restored deal Iran would not be able to build a nuclear bomb in 6 months. Opponents who say this are obscuring a term known as “breakout time.” Breakout time refers to the length of time it would take to accumulate enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, not the length of time to obtain a deliverable weapon, which nonproliferation experts say would take many times longer. Currently, with no deal in place, the estimated breakout time for Iran is 2-3 weeks — and maybe less. A restored JCPOA would lengthen Iran’s breakout time to several months.
According to the nonpartisan Arms Control Association, even when a country reaches its breakout threshold, several additional and time-consuming steps remain to build a bomb. Thus, for example, a six-month breakout time would allow sufficient time for intervention in case of an Iranian enriched uranium build up. The bottom line: The deal puts nuclear weapons further out of reach, and gives the US more time for intervention.
To learn more about breakout time, see this report by the Arms Control Association.
Why doesn’t the deal impose “anytime, anywhere inspections?”
There is no such thing as ‘anytime, anywhere inspections’ – that is a term that does not exist in arms control circles or at the IAEA. There are currently no countries that grant “anytime, anywhere” inspections to the IAEA nor has any country ever agreed to such a condition. What is important is that inspectors have the access they need, when and where they need it, to ensure that steps are not being taken that could lead swiftly to the creation of a nuclear bomb. Critically, the JCPOA includes that kind of “what we need, where and when we need it” access for inspectors. In fact, the agreement includes some of the most stringent and sophisticated inspections and monitoring procedures ever included in a non-proliferation agreement.
Under the agreement, Iran’s declared nuclear facilities are monitored 24/7, including Natanz, Fordow and Arak. International inspectors have access to Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain – its uranium mines and mills; its conversion facility; its centrifuge manufacturing and storage facilities; and its other declared nuclear sites.
As a result, Iran would need to construct an entire covert supply chain to pursue a covert nuclear weapons program. The IAEA can also request access to any undeclared sites in Iran within 24 days, and Iran, Russia and China do not have a veto over that right, or over moves to punish Iran if it refuses.
Without a deal, international inspectors would be granted little or no access to any sites, while Iran’s nuclear program proceeds unmonitored and unrestricted.
Wouldn’t more sanctions and pressure force Iran to make greater concessions and accept “a better deal?”
No, quite the opposite. The historical record is clear: Donald Trump’s imposition of sanctions on Iran, maximalist demands, belligerent actions and other elements of his “maximum pressure” campaign not only failed to force Iran to make more concessions on its nuclear program and other threatening activities – it completely backfired and resulted in Iran ramping up each of these activities to the serious detriment of the security of the region and our troops stationed there.
The only means by which the United States has successfully restrained the entirety of Iran’s nuclear program is via diplomacy. That’s not just speculation or opinion – the events of the past 6 years prove it beyond a doubt.
To learn more about the failure of the maximum pressure approach, read this report by the International Crisis Group.
Why do some Israeli leaders oppose the deal and others support it?
Israel’s right-wing prime minister and many other government officials oppose the deal, but the Israeli security establishment overwhelmingly supported implementation of the agreement and opposed the Trump administration’s abandonment of it.
Tamir Pardo, former Director of Mossad, considered the U.S.’s withdrawal from the JCPOA as a “tragedy” and “strategic mistake” for Israel. Danny Citrinowicz, former head of the Iran branch in Israel’s Military Intelligence’s Research and Analysis Division, has characterized Trump’s maximum pressure strategy as a “catastrophe” that unshackled Iran’s nuclear development and increased the chances of armed conflict. Even the IDF’s current intelligence chief, Maj.-Gen. Aharon Haliva, told the Israeli cabinet earlier this year that a nuclear agreement with Iran is preferable to no deal at all.
Go here to see the many other members of the Israeli security establishment who support diplomacy.
Can the US continue to confront and sanction Iran for other dangerous non-nuclear behaviors?
Yes. The deal is designed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Non-nuclear behaviors are separate – which is why the US has and can continue to use a wide range of tactics and sanctions to confront and penalize Iran over its support for terror, human rights violations and missile development. In fact, Congress passed new non-nuclear sanctions on Iran prior to Trump’s violation and abandonment of the agreement.
It is important to note, however, that some proposed pieces of legislation in recent years have aimed to violate or undermine the JCPOA by reimposing key nuclear sanctions under the guise of confronting non-nuclear behavior. Some of these sanctions may be viewed as incompatible with US obligations under the agreement.
Why are some Trump-imposed sanctions on members of the Iranian regime likely to be lifted as part of re-entering the deal? What about the IRGC’s Foreign Terrorist Organization designation?
Many of the new sanctions imposed on the Iranian regime during Donald Trump’s time in office were largely performative and part of his failed “maximum pressure” approach. These sanctions were symbolic, not substantive, as none of the targeted individuals have assets in the US to be seized or would ever consider traveling here. Instead, these sanctions were primarily and deliberately imposed in order to make it more difficult for any future president to re-enter the JCPOA.
Similarly, lifting Trump’s designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) would have no meaningful impact. Iran and the IRGC would remain heavily sanctioned under other designations for terrorism, as well as other activities related to weapons proliferation and human rights violations. These sanctions isolate the IRGC far more than Trump’s largely symbolic FTO designation did. In fact, the FTO designation was so ineffective that the IRGC was actually able to increase it’s support for acts of terrorism — including launching missiles at US troops — following Trump’s move.
And it’s important to remember that scuttling the JCPOA over the designation would open the door to Iran having nuclear weapons — an unacceptable outcome that would embolden and empower the IRGC exponentially. The single most important way to counter the Iranian regime is to ensure that this can never happen. If the choice for the US is between patting ourselves on the back for looking tough or actually taking steps to roll back Iran’s nuclear advances, the decision should be simple.
What is Russia’s role in the negotiations and implementation of this agreement? Does it gain military benefit from the agreement?
Russia has been a necessary and unavoidable party to the JCPOA negotiations as one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the “P5” in “P5+1”). As part of the implementation of the original agreement, excess enriched Iranian uranium was sent to Russia in order to keep Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile only to 3.67%. Russia further provided materials and expertise necessary for Iran to downgrade – i.e. make less useful for military purposes – its most concerning nuclear facilities. In implementing the deal in 2016, the United States waived the application of certain sanctions to ensure that Iran could get this material and expert help from Russia and other countries – again, for the purpose of reducing Iran’s ability to use its facilities to produce fuel or other components for nuclear weapons.
Russia is once again a participant in the talks to restore the JCPOA. Because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States and other countries have imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Russia and its leaders. White House officials have confirmed that Russia-related sanctions “are unrelated to the JCPOA and should not have any impact on its implementation.” Russia will be allowed to fulfill its commitments under the Iran nuclear agreement, but will not be shielded from massive sanctions now being put in place by the United States and other countries in response to its invasion of Ukraine.
Nor will Russia benefit militarily from removing and storing Iran’s excess enriched uranium. That relatively small amount of almost entirely low-grade uranium is a tiny drop in the bucket compared to Russia’s existing nuclear stockpiles, which include thousands of advanced nuclear weapons and delivery systems. And if Russia were to attempt to return the enriched uranium to Iran in violation of the deal, the tough monitoring and verification measures put in place by the deal would detect it. Without the deal and those measures in place, Russia would have a much easier time supplying Iran with nuclear fuel and technology far beyond what it will take from Iran under the deal — essentially giving Vladimir Putin a much easier path to advancing Iran’s nuclear program if he decided to do so.
It’s also important to note that the JCPOA parties most eager to restore the agreement are among those nations directly on Russia’s doorstep and in the path of its military. The fact that our European allies see the agreement as increasing their security at a time of incredible crisis and instability is clear evidence that concerns about the deal somehow empowering Russia are misplaced or made in bad faith.