Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: A New Standard for Safeguards Agreements

There is an old joke about two elderly women at a Catskills resort. One says: "Boy, the food in this place is really terrible." And the other one says: "Yeah, I know. And such small portions."

That's the same complaint raised by opponents of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. Donald Trump called it, "one of the most incompetently drawn deals I've ever seen." And Rex Tillerson explained that, "in particular, the agreement has this very concerning shortcoming that the President has mentioned as well, and that is the sunset clause."

Such a terrible deal. Yeah, and it ends so early!

Far from being incompetently drafted, the JCPOA imposed a number of important limits on Iran's nuclear energy program to create a wider gap between Iran's nuclear energy programs and a bomb. Second, the JCPOA greatly strengthened Iran's safeguards arrangements to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, to verify that gap. And it does not have a single sunset.

Prior to the JCPOA, Iran had built a large and capable uranium infrastructure that would have allowed Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a nuclear weapon in a matter of weeks if Iran chose to do so. Iran had nearly 20,000 centrifuges, including nearly 3,000 located in its deep underground facility near Qom.



View the PDF version of the infographic.

Iran was also developing new, more advanced generations of centrifuges including the IR-8 which is reportedly 20 times more efficient than the IR-1 models that made up most of Iran's supply of centrifuges. Iran was also on the verge of completing a heavy water reactor that would open a second route to the bomb, using plutonium.

The JCPOA imposed a number of limits, some lasting ten years, while others last fifteen, twenty or twenty five years:

  • For 10 years, Iran agreed to have no more than 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) enriching uranium. Iran also agreed to limit in the number and type of more advanced centrifuges that may be tested over this period;
  • For 15 years, Iran agreed not to enrich uranium above the low level of 3.67% and not to stockpile more than 300 kg of low enriched uranium (LEU);
  • For 15 years Iran agreed that uranium enrichment would occur only at Natanz FEP under advanced safeguards technologies;
  • Under the agreement, the deeply buried enrichment plant near Qom is being converted to other uses for at least 15 years;
  • Iran agreed not to reprocess spent fuel for at least 15 years;
  • Iran agreed to extraordinary monitoring of its production of crucial parts of its centrifuges – the rotors and bellows – for 20 years, and monitoring of its uranium ore production for 25 years.

Many other provisions never sunset – they last in perpetuity. Iran will remain a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which prohibits the development of nuclear weapons. The JCPOA also provides for Iran to ratify the Additional Protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement and implement the modified Code 3.1 in its subsidiary arrangements, improvements to safeguards on Iran that will remain indefinitely. And Iran also agreed to an indefinite prohibition on research that could contribute to the development of a nuclear weapon. And finally Iran replaced its heavy water reactor at Arak to prevent it from producing a significant amount of weapons usable plutonium over the course of its lifetime. The old reactor vessel is now filled with concrete.

If the JCPOA were to collapse, all of these constraints on Iran's nuclear energy program would disappear with it:

  • Iran could build and test an unlimited number of advanced centrifuges at an unlimited number of sites with little notice and without any restrictions;
  • Iran could enrich uranium to any level and stockpile as much as it chooses;
  • Iran could build a heavy-reactor to produce plutonium and a reprocessing facility to extract the plutonium from spent fuel.

Most importantly, Iran would be able to do all this without the extraordinary scrutiny of the IAEA provided through the JCPOA. With no monitoring of centrifuge workshops or uranium mines, Iran could much more easily attempt to build new nuclear facilities in secret. And without the JCPOA, Iran would be in a much stronger position to stonewall the IAEA if it tried to investigate any allegations of covert sites.

The JCPOA is a strong agreement that imposes important limits to ensure that Iran's nuclear energy program remains peaceful. It provides the IAEA much better tools for monitoring those limits.

But the opponents are right about one thing – we should be working energetically to extend the innovative safeguards measures in the JCPOA as long as possible. The best way to do that is to work to make the JCPOA become the standard for all safeguards agreements, not just in Iran. That's why a group of eminent scientists recommended that the United States, "work with the IAEA to gain agreement to implement some of the key innovations included in the JCPOA into existing safeguards. … Thus in the future, when Iran is treated the same as all non-nuclear weapons states with nuclear energy programs, all such programs will be more stringently constrained and verified."

Before the JCPOA, Iran was in a position to do everything that North Korea is doing today and more. Fortunately for the international community, Iran made a different choice.

The JCPOA isn't a rubber chicken dinner in the Catskills. It's something entirely different: a carefully constructed agreement that prevents Iran's Supreme Leader from looking over the menu, peering over at Kim Jong Un's table and telling the waiter: "I'll have what he's having."

November 15, 2017

A new infographic and article on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which takes a look at the strengths of this safeguards agreement and its potential for strengthening future deals.

Jeffrey Lewis

Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program, Center for Nonproliferation Studies

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2019.