Atomic Pulse

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

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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 malign
but
non-nuclear
behavior 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 conclusion
Id
rather get down to work on preparing for a good outcome.”

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