This article provides an assessment based on the facts as of 10 September 2015

In July 2015, after more than a decade of back and forth, and 22 months of intense negotiating with the EU+3 (China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States), the Islamic Republic of Iran agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It was immediately heralded as major achievement capable of prompting a new beginning in the region. In light of the difficult past and present relations between Iran and its negotiating partners, this diplomatic success certainly deserves praise. However, whether it presents the claimed transformative moment is yet to see. Leading up to the scheduled U.S. Congress vote (expected on 17 September 2015) this editorial aims to provide relevant background information and an analysis of the potential positive and negative aspects of the JCPOA .

Lessons From The Past

Iran_nuclear_program_map-enA previous round of negotiations between the EU3 and Iran broke down in 2003, allegedly because the Bush administration had pressured the EU3 to pursue a hard stance on the topic of enrichment.[1] On the Iranian side these promising negotiations were led by Iran’s current president Hassan Rouhani, then National Security Advisor. Following the breakdown of negotiations the international community under U.S. leadership imposed drastic sanctions on Iran, to which the hardline administration of Mahmud Ahmadinejad responded with an even greater push for nuclear advancement. Almost simultaneously, a similar development was observed in North Korea.[2] Whereas North Korea’s nuclear program has not been a real priority of U.S. foreign policy and has lacked a cohesive strategy since President Clinton’s Agreed Framework,[3] Iran, partly because of its geo-political location, has received far more diplomatic attention. The JCPOA, if accepted and fully implemented, would last for 15 years and ostensibly block off all pathways to an Iranian nuclear arsenal.[4] Whilst blocking the paths to military grade material, the deal does not end all nuclear programs. Instead the deal reflects the reality that enriching uranium for non-military purposes was and still is such a vital interest for Iran that neither harsh economic sanctions, nor threats of war were able to stave the country off it.[5]

North Korea and its failed nuclear accords (Agreed Framework, Statement of Principles) present a number of important lessons for the Iranian deal and its implementation. First and foremost, it should caution the international community. Negotiating a deal and implementing it are too vastly different challenges. A negotiated agreement in itself is not enough to transform relations between countries. If the JCPOA is to fulfill its potential, a re-start of political relations with Iran might be necessary – even re-establishing a U.S. diplomatic presence (Iran is one of only three countries without an official U.S. consulate[6]), should be considered. This could go a long way in helping foster lasting, regional and international stability. Obviously, this is easier said than done and the implementation of conflict resolution measures faces numerous obstacles requiring a high level of attention.[7] Failing to implement a nuclear deal, in comparison to other international accords, carries the additional risk of a nuclear outbreak that most certainly will affect the international power balance. North Korea is a testament to this, as repeated implementation failures led to a nuclear outbreak that in all likelihood is irreversible.[8] Despite continuous sanctions, North Korea’s regime perseveres and is unlikely to collapse, rendering diplomacy and negotiations the only viable option to foster change.

Besides the limitations of sanctions and the dangers of a nuclear breakout, North Korea also illustrates that a breakdown in the implementation of the JCPOA could come from an unexpected side – the U.S. and its partners. As Robert Gard pointed out in a recent Foreign Affairs article, the U.S. kept moving the goalpost for North Korea after the negotiations had concluded.[9] Whilst North Korea upheld its side of the bargain, the five negotiating partners fell behind in fulfilling theirs, most notably in delayed fuel deliveries that were vital to the ailing North Korean economy.[10] Furthermore, the U.S. kept asking for a verification protocol before fulfilling its side of the bargain; a demand that had not been part of the original agreement.[11] For the JCPOA to work the U.S. has to keep its word. It has to uphold its commitment and must not repeated previous behavior of attempting to push for more concessions after the conclusion of negotiations.

Cornerstones of the JCPOA

Currently, Iran reportedly possesses 10,000 kg of enriched uranium, as well as 19,000 centrifuges and 1,000 more advanced centrifuges to enrich it beyond the 90 percent weapons-grade threshold. This stockpile and technical equipment theoretically enables Iran to build up to eight nuclear weapons, and at least one within a month.[12] Fully implemented, the JCPOA would reduce the stockpile of uranium to 300 kg, never enriched beyond 3.67%, and only 5,060 of the basic centrifuges, for at least 15 years.[13] The breakout time would be prolonged from currently approximately three months to a year. In addition, Iran has agreed to never have weapons-grade plutonium, to refrain from reprocessing spent fuel, and to ship spent fuel out of the country.[14] There will be IAEA inspectors around the clock at uranium mines, mills, and every part of the supply chain for 25 years and centrifuges will be monitored for 20 years.

The lifting of any sanctions is contingent on Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA and subsequent IAEA certification. And even after that the agreement includes provisions to ensure Iran does not stray from its path. Should the IAEA encounter anything suspicious, Iran has two weeks to discuss and resolve it with the IAEA. Failing to do so brings the matter before the eight member joint commission on which the U.S. and its allies have a 5:3 majority. The commission has seven days to consider the complaint, if Iran does not respond within three days, the U.S. can bring it before the United Nations Security Council to re-enact the international sanctions.[15] Additionally, any unilateral sanctions are at the discretion of the U.S. president. In light of the material and technology involved, any illicit activity is hard to hide and easily traced. Furthermore, should there be a violation of the agreement by the Iranians the time before sanctions snap-back is not enough to make significant headway.

Criticism and Its Origins

Iranian_Flag_Abshar_Park1The Iran deal faces opposition from two fronts, one nationally, one internationally, which are connected through financial links. On the national level the Republican Party supported by Israeli and Saudi Arabian lobby groups[16], has been vocally arguing against the Iran deal. Predominantly, Republicans fear that Iran will cheat and attempt to build a nuclear arsenal. The GOP calls the agreement appeasement and ultimately a threat to the security of the U.S. and Israel.[17] Critics particularly admonish that the IAEA inspection teams will not include any U.S. personnel and that there is a 24 day notification period before inspections. Iran’s insistence on both provisions can easily be understood if one knows how the U.S. abused the UN Special Commission in Iraq for espionage purposes.[18] Republicans, however, exhibit a selective memory by pointing to Iran’s allegedly bad behavior in the past 30 years while neglecting the U.S. repeated meddling in the country’s affairs.[19] Another popular argument against the deal commonly employed by Republicans is that the deal will work. Republicans suspect that lifting the sanctions on Iran will destabilize the region because they assume that Iran will use the additional resources to further fuel conflicts.

Internationally, Israel has been the most vocal opponent of the deal. Independent of party affiliation Israeli pundits and politicians have positioned themselves against the deal.[20] Israel fears that the deal compromises its national security and feels abandoned by the Obama administration. However, this opposition appears less unified than Prime Minister Netanyahu would like it to be. Not only do Jewish Americans seem to favor the deal[21], but even Israeli Jews including former high ranking military personnel, scientists, and subject matter experts ranging from Mossad to Physicists approve of the deal for protecting Israel and blocking all pathways to the bomb, calling it ‘“good for Israel”.[22] According to a recent Foreign Affairs article by Daniel Levy, the main reason for Israel’s opposition is that the agreement does not deal with Iran’s role in the region, but focuses on the issue of nuclear capability. Ironically, as Levy points out, this is what Israel had asked for when consulted by the U.S. and its partners.[23]

Saudi Arabia at first glance seems an unlikely co-financier of Israel and publicly the Kingdom appears to be supportive of the deal. However, statements given under promises of anonymity call this support into question.[24] The American Security Initiative has poured $6 million into TV ads to convince voters to call their senators to vote against the deal, its president, former Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn), is a registered lobbyist for Saudi Arabia.[25] Saudi Arabia’s lobbying against the Iran deal can be understood as an attempt to thwart what it perceives as a potential challenge not only to the regional hegemony of Sunni Islam, but also to Saudi Arabia’s dominance on the oil market. This antagonism between Iran and Saudi Arabia has also manifested in conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. These crises can be regarded as proxy conflicts with both countries supporting opposite sides.[26]

Besides this mostly ideologically based opposition there are foreign policy experts such as Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute, who appreciate the achievements of the current deal, but would like to see it improved.[27] Satloff has been engaged in a public debate attempting to amend the deal to cover perceived weaknesses by posing ten questions that he would like President Obama to answer.[28] Satloff’s questions were addressed, although not directly by the White House.[29]

Supporting the JCPOA

The JCPOA enjoys widespread support among Middle East and International Relations Scholars. In a statement published in August, over 70 distinguished scholars signed a letter endorsing the accord. Despite being aware that this deal will obviously not bring peace to the region automatically, the group of scholars believes that it “carries with it significant peace dividends by making diplomacy and dialogue available for conflict resolution”.[30] Considering the diplomatic deficit of the region, they perceive this deal as a vital step to encourage dialogue over proxy wars.

Even former critics such as Gary Samore, former president of the bipartisan advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran and executive director of research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, support the deal. Mr Samore, who resigned from his post at United Against Nuclear Iran over his support for the deal, would even take the deal “if [he] knew for certain that in five years [the Iranians] would cheat or renege”.[31] In summarizing the Iran deal, Mark Schneider from the International Crisis Group unequivocally calls it a “Watershed Non-Proliferation Agreement” and the best solution to keep Iran from building a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years.[32]

Weeks before the scheduled Congressional vote the deal appears to be safe and sound as  Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) publicly declared her support for the deal becoming the 34th senator to do so.[33] After all, there must be reason why not only Iran and the U.S. agreed to it, but also China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom. By any discernible measure the deal appears to be the best solution to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. This marks a significant accomplishment for diplomacy and provides a seed of hope for the future of the Middle East.

[1] Nader (2015) The Only Iran Deal Alternative Worth Considering. Rand Corporation. Accessible online: http://www.rand.org/blog/2015/08/the-only-iran-deal-alternative-worth-considering.html.

[2] Gard (2015) Keep Your Word – What the U.S. must do to keep the Iranian deal healthy. Foreign Affairs. Accessible online: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-korea/2015-08-24/keep-your-word.

[3] Delury (2015) Lessons from North Korea. Foreign Affairs. Accessible online: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-korea/2015-04-05/lessons-north-korea & Gard (2015).

[4] Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action (2015) Accessible online:https://medium.com/the-iran-deal/joint-comprehensive-plan-of-action-5cdd9b320fd.

[5] see footnote 1.

[6] The other two countries are North Korea and Bhutan. The U.S. has not had an official diplomatic presence in Iran ever since the U.S. embassy was captured and 52 U.S. citizens were taken hostage in 1980 following the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

[7] Stedman (2001) Implementing Peace Agreements in Civil War: Lessons and Recommendations for Policymakers. IPA. Accessible online: http://www.peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/ImplementingPeaceAgreementsinCivilWars_IPI2001.pdf.

[8] Delury (2015) Lessons from North Korea. Foreign Affairs. Accessible online: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-korea/2015-04-05/lessons-north-korea.

[9] see footnote 2.

[10] see footnote 2.

[11] see footnote 2.

[12] see footnote 4 & Schneider (2015) Why the Iran Deal is a Watershed Non-Proliferation Agreement. The Hill. Accessible online: http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/iraq-iran-gulf/iran/op-eds/schneider-why-the-iran-deal-is-a-watershed-non-proliferation-agreement.aspx.

[13] Ibid.

[14] see footnote 4.

[15] see footnote 4.

[16] Fang (2015) Wave of Ads Opposing Iran Deal Organized by Saudi Arabian lobbyist. The Intercept. Accessible online: https://theintercept.com/2015/08/20/wave-anti-iran-deal-tv-ads-organized-saudi-arabian-lobbyist/ and Faux (2015) Why Republicans Oppose the Iran Agreement: Follow the Money. Huffington Post. Accessible online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-faux/why-republicans-oppose-th_b_7905218.html.

[17] Rappeport (2015) Republican Candidates Express Strong Opposition to Iran Deal. The New York Times. Accessible online: http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/07/14/republican-candidates-express-strong-opposition-to-iran-deal/.

[18] Schwarz (2015) Why Is Iran’s Refusal to Allow No-Notice Inspections Legit?. The Intercept. Accessible online: https://theintercept.com/2015/07/15/irans-refusal-allow-notice-inspections-legit-u-s-history-iraq/

[19] Faux (2015) Why Republicans Oppose the Iran Agreement: Follow the Money. Huffington Post. Accessible online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-faux/why-republicans-oppose-th_b_7905218.html.

[20] Entous (2015) In Jerusalem, Israel’s Leader Confronts U.S. on Nuclear Deal. The Wall Street Journal. Accessible online: http://www.wsj.com/articles/israels-benjamin-netanyahu-protests-iran-deal-to-u-s-defense-secretary-ash-carter-1437495724.

[21] Gitlin & Cohen (2015) On the Iran Deal, American Jewish ‘Leaders’ Don’t Speak For Most Jews. The Washington Post. Accessible online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/on-the-iran-deal-american-jewish-leaders-dont-speak-for-all-jews/2015/08/14/988e577e-41d5-11e5-846d-02792f854297_story.html.

[22] Levy (2015) Israel’s Iran Deal Enthusiasts. Foreign Affairs. Accessible online: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/israel/2015-08-12/israels-iran-deal-enthusiasts.

[23] ibid.

[24] Fang (2015) Wave of Ads Opposing Iran Deal Organized by Saudi Arabian lobbyist. The Intercept. Accessible online: https://theintercept.com/2015/08/20/wave-anti-iran-deal-tv-ads-organized-saudi-arabian-lobbyist/

[25] ibid.

[26] Reardon (2015) Saudi Arabia, Iran and the ‘Great Game’ in Yemen. ALJAZEERA. Accessible online: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/09/saudi-arabia-iran-great-game-ye-201492984846324440.html.

[27] Satloff (2015) A Better Deal With Iran Is Possible. The Atlantic. Accessible online: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/08/iran-deal-congress-better-alternative/401222/.

[28] Goldberg (2015) 10 Questions for President Obama About Iran. The Atlantic. Accessible online: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/08/obama-nuclear-iran-robert-satloff/402478/.

[29] Goldberg (2015) 10 Responses to Iran-Deal Skeptics. The Atlantic. Accessible online: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/obama-israel-iran-questions/403105/.

[30] The Nuclear Agreement with Iran – A Plus for Regional Stability (2015) Statement From Middle East and International Relations Scholars. Accessible online: http://www.niacouncil.org/73-prominent-international-relations-and-middle-east-scholars-back-iran-deal/.

[31] Gordon (2015) Head of Group Opposing Iran Accord Quits Post, Saying He Backs Deal. The New York Times. Accessible online: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/12/world/middleeast/head-of-group-opposing-iran-accord-quits-post-saying-he-backs-deal.html.

[32] see footnote 12.

[33] Stein & Terkel (2015) Obama’s Iran Deal Will Survive As 34th Senator Announces Support. The Huffington Post. Accessible online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/obamas-iran-deal-will-survive-as-34th-senator-announces-support_55e64938e4b0c818f619b1b9.