Understanding the Iran Nuclear Agreement: Managing risks in an era of dangerous rhetoric and provocations.

Margaret Williams is a 2018 master's degree candidate in International Policy Studies at Stanford University. This summer, she worked as a Freeman Spogli Institute Global Policy Intern at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. This blog post was written by Margaret and first appeared on the Stanford/FSI website.

In July 2015, the P5 + 1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.S., and the U.K.) and Iran finalized the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). At the time, I was working as a defense and foreign policy aide to Senator Angus King and the task of helping the Senator assess the agreement fell to me and my supervisor. After reading through its text, the Senator handed a copy of the JCPOA back to us with around forty questions scribbled in the margins. Our job was to track down the answers … most of which required expertise that far exceeded my own. Consequently, we took a deep dive into the issues surrounding the deal, which included meetings with former arms control negotiators, regional experts, sanctions specialists, and nuclear engineers. Ultimately, the Senator opposed a congressional resolution of disapproval that would have prevented the agreement from going into effect, but in doing so emphasized that strict implementation would be the true test of its strength.

Today, it seems the JCPOA is under pressure from dangerous rhetoric and provocations. While on the campaign, President Trump pledged to tear up the agreement, and since its enactment Iran has conducted numerous missile and space launches. To that end, many assert Iran’s ballistic-missile activity is “inconsistent” with the spirit of UN Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA and lifted certain sanctions, but merely “called upon” Iran not to undertake ballistic missile activities rather than prohibiting those activities as earlier resolutions had done. While these tests do not violate the terms of the agreement itself, they hold the potential to undermine its support and erode confidence in its effectiveness. According to media reports, last month, the President was reluctant to certify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, and some speculate he will refuse to do so in October. Additionally, following Iran’s most recent space launch, the U.S. imposed new sanctions against Iranian companies linked to its ballistic-missile program, and the U.K., France, and Germany joined the U.S. in a joint statement decrying Iran’s ballistic-missile activity.

The risk that these confrontations escalate and lead to a collapse of the JCPOA cannot be ignored. Thus, I find myself once again assessing this watershed agreement and its implications for the security landscape. To better my understanding of the current state of affairs, I recently sat down with NTI’s CEO and former Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, who was one of the JCPOA’s principal architects.

“It is going great,” he stated when asked for an overall assessment of the deal almost two years into its implementation. This optimism might come as a surprise to some, but is justified, he explained, because the IAEA inspectors responsible for collecting data on Iran’s nuclear activities are carrying out those duties unimpeded, and in doing so “they have found compliance.” Moreover, the conditions placed on Iran under the JCPOA’s unique verification requirements raises the bar so high “that they would be taking an enormous risk by engaging in [cheating] activity.”

In response to criticism that Iran’s other malignbut non-nuclearbehavior violates the spirit of the agreement, Secretary Moniz is quick to remind us that it is the nuclear threat [which] remains the existential one and so we negotiated to take that off the table in return for relieving related sanctions.” There is no denying that Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism, human rights violations, and ballistic missile testing are anathema to global peace and security, but the JCPOA was never intended to prevent those activities. However, that does not mean Iran gets a pass for its nefarious conduct. To that end, I was interested to learn that rather than viewing new U.S. sanctions and international condemnation of Iran’s recent space launch as a threat to the JCPOA, Secretary Moniz sees those developments as “exactly the right thing;” appropriate responses, carried out in the appropriate channels.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged that growing frustration with Iran’s destabilizing behavior carries risks and could lead “to an unwise decision … to end the agreement directly or by providing intolerable conditions for Iran.” He cautioned, however, that if the U.S. walks away from the JCPOA, that would leave us in “the worst of both worlds.” Iran would have increased flexibility on the nuclear side and the international community would have limited ability to recover meaningful sanctions.

In his new role outside government, Secretary Moniz continues to remain a fierce champion of the JCPOA, talking frequently about how it serves not only U.S. national security interests, but also those of our international partners and allies. Complementing that work, at the helm of NTI he is taking a long-term view at ways to enshrine some of the JCPOA’s core accomplishments after restrictions begin to lift in eight and a half years and completely lift in thirteen and a half years. While some predict that Iran will automatically resume its weapons activity at that point, Secretary Moniz isn’t convinced that is a forgone conclusionId rather get down to work on preparing for a good outcome.”

August 16, 2017
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Mimi Hall
Mimi Hall

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