We are nuclear nonproliferation experts Sharon Squassoni and Ariane Tabatabai, taking your questions on the Iran nuclear deal, its implementation over the past year, next milestones, and more!
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, was signed almost one year ago, on July 14, 2015. We’re here to answer your questions about what’s happened in the past 12 months of the deal and what is to come in the future. We’re also happy to try to clear up any lingering questions about what the text of the deal actually contains, Iran, or nonproliferation more generally!
Here’s a bit about us: Sharon Squassoni: I am a Senior Fellow and Director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C. Previously, I have worked as a senior specialist in WMD at the Congressional Research Service, as well as in the Nonproliferation Bureau at the State Department and in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. My work focuses on all aspects of nonproliferation, but I am particularly interested in the spread of fuel cycle technologies (enrichment, reprocessing). Proof: https://twitter.com/CSIS_PPP/status/751417810388123648 and https://www.csis.org/programs/international-security-program/proliferation-prevention-program
Ariane Tabatabai: I am a Visiting Assistant Professor of Security Studies at the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, and a Senior Associate with the Proliferation Prevention Program at CSIS. I write a column on the JCPOA and Iranian nuclear and defense policies for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Before joining Georgetown University, I was a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow and Associate at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. I am also in Washington, D.C. Proof: https://twitter.com/ArianeTabatabai/status/751426928100466692
We look forward to your questions!
EDIT: We'll be wrapping up for the evening- thank you all for your great questions!
In some respects, the ambiguities regarding Iran's responsibilities were quickly wrapped up in the Roadmap obligations that the IAEA and Iran conducted with lightning speed between July 2015 and December 2015. I think you are correct in that going forward, there may be fewer ambiguities there, except perhaps in the procurement chain.
While Iran may be dissatisfied with the raft of U.S. sanctions that are still in place, there is language in the JCPOA that acknowledges that limitations of the executive branch (e.g., regarding Adoption Day, "The United States, acting pursuant to Presidential authorities,"). The US can prove that it has revoked the specified executive orders and licensed certain activities. From an economic perspective, Iran would do better to focus on the influx of European and Asian investment, although the possibility that U.S. actions could provide an excuse for Iran to walk away from the deal is still a real one.
Thanks for taking questions! There's been a lot of debate about the fundamental question of whether or not Iran will be able to still acquire nuclear weapons, despite the deal's restrictions. From what you can tell over the past year, does the deal have adequate measures in place to prevent this from happening (or detect it if it does)?
Thanks for your question. Let me answer it in two parts:
1. Are JCPOA measures adequate to detect acquisition of nuclear weapons and 2. What is the experience of the last year?
1. Among nonproliferation experts, it’s well known that a country determined to get nuclear weapons can’t really be prevented from acquiring them – we can just make it more difficult, costly, and painful (in terms of sanctions or other related punitive measures). The JCPOA adds additional obligations to those that Iran is obliged to meet as a non-nuclear weapon state under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The JCPOA obligations limit how close and how fast Iran can come to a nuclear weapons capability. You may have read about concerns about "break-out" capability, which means how quickly Iran could put together the elements of a nuclear weapon once it decided to really go for it. The JCPOA measures were specifically designed to lengthen the time that Iran would need to develop a nuclear weapon from a few months to one year. Experts debate exactly how you calculate the break-out time and there are a lot of assumptions involved, but basically the JCPOA limits the material Iran can stockpile (Iran can only have < 300 kg of low-enriched uranium and no highly enriched uranium), limits the production capabilities (e.g., no enrichment of uranium at the underground facility at Fordow and only about 5000 first-generation centrifuges spinning), and requires modifications to the Arak reactor so that it can’t produce bomb-grade plutonium. In addition to monitoring Iran's compliance with those measures (and I haven't been entirely comprehensive because we need to keep this concise), there are technologies to continuously monitor enrichment levels, to monitor activities at uranium mines and mills, at component manufacturing sites and there is an entire procurement chain that is being monitored. Also, Iran has agreed to allow other kinds of access to facilities under the IAEA Additional Protocol which it has not allowed in the last ten years or so. This is much more comprehensive than what was in place before, so there is significant confidence in the ability to detect irregularities. 2. On the experience of the last year, we have to keep in mind that about six months were devoted to preliminary steps; we have had only about 6 months of implementation of the JCPOA. As the second question in this reddit chain suggests, however, verification that Iran is meeting technical milestones is fairly easy to determine. More broadly speaking, it's important to remember that many of the JCPOA restrictions will be lifted in ten years' time, so we have a deadline for ensuring in the future that Iran sees no benefit in having these risky capabilities.
Thank you both for your responses. Sharon, in your response you mentioned the need to ensure that Iran sees no benefit to restarting its weapons program after the deal expires. Will continued sanctions relief be enough? Are there other carrots that you think will be necessary down the road to incentivize Iran to not pursue sensitive technologies, even if not a full-on weapons program?
In today's nuclear market, neither enrichment nor reprocessing is particularly cost-effective. (There's a big debate about the costs of reprocessing, but let's not get into that here). On enrichment, the conventional wisdom is that only when a country has 15-20 nuclear power plants does it make sense to have a domestic enrichment capability. Japan had 54 commercial power reactors and was never able to enrich enough uranium for its own use. It's important to remember that no one gets rich from enriching and that the commercial international market is dominated by about 3 companies. It's a classic oligopoly -- the costs ($ and technology) are high to get into the market and there are only a few competitors.
Economic reality aside, I think Iran is likely to keep its "boutique" enrichment capability. The question is whether Iran will expand it, spend a lot of money on improving it, and actually try to make a commercial-scale go of it. What I would hope that we spend the next ten years doing is convincing Iran that it has more to gain by being a part of the nonproliferation regime than it has by returning to an outlier status. Sanctions relief is likely not enough there. I'll let Ari handle the Iran-specific carrots, but I think the nonproliferation regime has to stop pretending that there isn't a problem. These technologies, and the ability to stockpile material present real risks. One approach is to try to universalize the JCPOA limits, which is expressly prohibited by the JCPOA. Another approach would be to work on universal limits that strengthen the nonproliferation regime. These may not necessarily be the same as those of the JCPOA. Iran may find it easier to adhere to widely accepted norms than to take a path that only a few have trodden (some of the unwillingly).
What impact do the deal's enrichment limits have on Iran's nuclear weapons capabilities? Could Iran justify enriching uranium after the deal ends under the guise of peaceful nuclear energy?
Thank you for your question. Let me start with why enrichment is so important to a nuclear weapons program. The fundamental dilemma in nuclear energy is that the same technologies -- uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing -- can be used to make fuel for peaceful purposes or to make the essential element in a nuclear weapon -- fissionable material. This dual-use nature makes it impossible (or improbable) to ban these technologies, even though it is clear that a country that pursues enrichment or reprocessing has an essential capability useful for nuclear weapons. In fact, most nonproliferation experts consider that the hardest part of making nuclear weapons is acquiring the fissile material. This is why they assume that once enough material is acquired, it is merely a matter of time before a country can assemble all the other elements for a relatively crude weapons. Not only can states legitimately pursue uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing as members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but they can also stockpile as much fissile material (including weapons-grade Highly Enriched Uranium --HEU -- and separated plutonium) as they like. The JCPOA has several different limits: Iran cannot keep any uranium enriched above commercial grade (3.67%), and may only keep < 300 kg of commercial grade uranium. This means that should the deal end, it would not have a ready-made stockpile of material that it could feed into centrifuge cascades to make weapons-grade material quickly. Likewise, the limit of 5060 P-1 centrifuges ensures that it will have to add to its capacity significantly to be able to produce weapons-grade uranium. Iran is still enriching uranium, albeit at low enriched levels (3.67%) and without accumulating a stockpile. Iran intends to continue enriching uranium for commercial or research purposes. The big question is whether Iran would seek to enrich to highly enriched levels (>20%) for use in research reactors or naval reactors. Once the JCPOA ends, it could legally do so under the NPT. There has been a lot of effort under the Nuclear Security Summits to minimize the use of HEU in the civilian sector for this reason, and it may be time to think about restricting the use of HEU for naval reactors for this reason. Presently, no non-nuclear-weapon state under the NPT uses HEU in military reactors; only the US, UK, Russia and India use HEU in their naval reactors. The US recently decided to research whether LEU could be used in some naval reactors.
What role did India play in conclusion of this deal?
India, as far as I know, played little to no role in concluding this deal. The primary negotiators were Iran, UK, France, Germany (known as E3) and the US, China and Russia. However, as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, India did vote on IAEA Board of Governors' resolutions regarding Iran's noncompliance.
There have been numerous criticisms of the deal including Iran's self-inspection of facilities, Iran's continued development of nuclear payload capable missiles, and the recent revelation that Iran is still pursuing nuclear material (in Germany). Do you consider any of the many criticisms of the deal significant, and what exactly would Iran need to do at this point for snapback sanctions to take effect?
Thanks for this question. Some of the criticisms of the deal are valid and should be taken seriously but others are not. On missiles, I think it's a bit of sophistry for Iran to say it's not developing nuclear-capable missiles because its nuclear program is captured under the JCPOA. What makes a missile nuclear-capable is a somewhat arbitrary decision about range and payload ( 300km, 500 kg). That said, the JCPOA doesn't address missiles in a comprehensive way, which is why U.S. government officials say it violates the spirit of the agreement rather than the letter. I'm not sure we've ever been successful in tying nuclear limits to missile limits with any country. Even arms control agreements with the Russians focused on actual weapons, not capabilities. On the self-inspection, that was really a part of completing the Roadmap to clarify past activities. Some things were left in the hands of the IAEA and it's not clear why the IAEA agreed to that. On Iran's continued pursuit of dual-use materials, it's hard to say. Parties to the JCPOA may have to consider whether these are attempts to undermine the agreement or whether these efforts are directed by the Iranian government. In any case, the JCPOA refers to "substantial non-performance" and includes several mechanisms for resolving the issue before it all goes back to the UN Security Council for snapback. Specifically, Iran must not engage in activities, including at the R&D level, that could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive decide and Iran must cooperate and act in accordance with the procurement channel of the JCPOA.
Parties to the JCPOA may have to consider whether these are attempts to undermine the agreement or whether these efforts are directed by the Iranian government.
Is there reason to believe that these were attempts to undermine the agreement and who do we believe would be the underminer - Iranian hardliners who want to undermine the deal (but who weren't directed to procure by the government) or other parties making claims about Iranian procurement that may not be supported by fact?
If these were directed by the Iranian government would that be sufficient to find Iran in violation of the JCPOA?
Thanks for the follow-up. Right now, the press reports stem from a German domestic security office that issued a report entitled "2015 Annual Report on the Protection of the Constitution: Facts and Trends." The period covered is all of 2015, and JCPOA implementation did not begin until January 2016. Honestly, it's not an intelligence document and among all its topics it includes a report on the growth of Scientology in Germany. Even so, officials who examine information regarding potential violations of any agreement almost always need to consider whether actions performed are with the consent/acknowledgement/direction of government leaders or not. With an agreement as controversial as this one is, it would not be surprising to have individuals or entities act to sabotage the agreement. Of course, there are times when governments do feign ignorance of an activity in order to escape blame. For example, the the United States did not levy sanctions on Pakistan for the proliferation activity of A.Q. Khan presumably because the Pakistani government feigned ignorance of his activities. In the case of Iran, my guess is that potentially significant incidents would need to evaluate whether or not these actions were sanctioned by the Iranian government. A finding that they were would be necessary but not sufficient to find a violation; it would also have to be considered to be significant non-performance and only after efforts to rectify the situation had failed.
What do you see as the principle obstacles to encouraging other nations to adopt the monitoring procedures outlined in the Iran deal?
How could policy makers be encouraged to adopt or pressure other nations to adopt this type of expansive IAEA access?
The additional monitoring procedures have only been possible to reach because Iran was in noncompliance with its NPT/IAEA safeguards agreement and in violation of UN Security Council resolutions for years. Even then, the parties were unable to get Iran to completely stop enriching uranium as the UNSC resolutions required. The short answers to your question: sovereignty and cost. However, if the Iran deal prompts some soul-searching within the nonproliferation regime about how to strengthen monitoring and all countries agree to add such monitoring measures to their safeguards agreements with the IAEA, that might be one way.
How did you get into this line if work? Have you been passionate about the subject since you were young, or is it something you discovered later?
I became intrigued by scientists saving the world from nuclear annihilation in the dark days of the Cold War -- that is, my college years. I discovered the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists by accident doing some other research and I was hooked. (I am now on their Science and Security Board). I interned in the German parliament in the fall of 1983 when Germany was considering whether or not to station Pershing and cruise missiles, which brought home the real human concerns about these weapons. And I worked in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and State Department on nuclear nonproliferation, followed by advising Congress on weapons of mass destruction. I can't seem to get rid myself of fascination for this topic, but having visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few years ago, I remain committed to trying to make a change. Thanks for being interested!!
Iran’s recent parliamentary elections seem like a positive indication that the moderates are gaining power and credence, but we’ve also thought that the moment had come for "reformers" multiple times before. From what you can see going on in Iran in the past year, has the deal had positive (from the US perspective) impact on the country? Do you think that we will have a changed Iran by the time the deal expires?
And, unrelated, what impact might the Iran deal's relative success so far have on a potential agreement with North Korea? Would they be willing to accept similar restrictions on fuel cycle capabilities and be willing to submit themselves to an intrusive inspection regime?
Thanks for more good questions. On DPRK, I find it hard to imagine they would accept similar restrictions and a intrusive inspections regime. The DPRK never came into compliance with its IAEA safeguards agreement and certainly doesn't have an Additional Protocol. Beyond that, the DPRK already has nuclear weapons and shows no signs of wanting to negotiate them away. Would we want an agreement that just limits their fuel cycle capabilities? What kind of confidence would we have in their material declarations? At least in the Iran case, the stockpiles of material produced had been under IAEA safeguards but with North Korea, we'll be back to where we were in 1994, trying to figure out if they were clandestinely holding back material. The first step is having a partner that wants to negotiate and it doesn't look like we are there yet.
This isn't exactly related, but do you think that LFTR's are a good thing?
For those who don't know, LFTRs are liquid fluoride thorium reactors, also known as molten salt reactors. Better to ask a physicist than a political scientist. :)
How can we assure countries that their sovereignty and borders will be respected without nuclear weapons after the Budapest Memorandum just fell through so spectacularly?
Most countries don't have nuclear weapons (US, UK, France, China, Russia inside the NPT; India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea outside the NPT) and most countries are not invaded. Of course, the US extends its deterrence to many countries, including those in Europe but increasingly this is based on conventional superiority, not nuclear weapons. The Obama administration has reduced reliance on the nuclear component of deterrence overall. There are many scholars who have addressed the "what if" regarding Ukraine but few have concluded that Ukraine would have been better off keeping the Soviet nuclear weapons on its own soil in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Will nuclear weapons laws raise the price of nuclear energy?
Directly/indirectly? ; how?
I believe this will be the basis for whether or not many of the engineers/tech/science people on Reddit agree with you.
Great question. Nuclear energy needs no help from nuclear weapons laws to make it expensive. Most of the costs from nuclear energy come from their financing and construction, not operating costs. And inspections would add to the operating costs. But, nuclear is just one way to make electricity, and its expense ultimately depends on what access a country has to other resources, and how it subsidizes those resources. By "nuclear weapons laws," I understand you to mean those regulations that require inspection for security and nonproliferation purposes. Treaties that address nuclear weapons themselves (like New START) have no impact at all on nuclear energy. In the United States, our nuclear power reactors are generally not inspected for safeguards purposes but listed on what they call an "eligible facilities list." The IAEA can choose to inspect them, but rarely does because it serves no nonproliferation purpose in a nuclear weapon state. Elsewhere, for example, in non-nuclear-weapon states that are NPT members, nuclear power reactors are inspected for nonproliferation purposes. The cost is pretty small compared to the cost of those power plants -- the annual budget of IAEA safeguards (globally) is $140M.
Thank you both for taking the time to answer questions. From what I understand, there have been several more or less permanent steps to dismantle Iran's nuclear program that were required, like filling the reactor core with cement. While Iran could build another reactor, it seems as though it was rendered impossible for it to revert to using the now-cement-filled one. To what extent is the deal permanent from a political perspective? Could any of the P5+1, or Iran itself, take steps to undo the progress of the deal? Should we take the threats of political candidates seriously, that the deal could be "torn up"?
The deal itself is not permanent and that is why it's important to nurture its success. At the Arak reactor, that particular calandria can't be reused, but Iran could (with difficulty) build another calandria for the reactor to produceweapons-grade plutonium if the deal were to fall apart. While it would be starting from scratch on acquiring enriched uranium (because it no longer has stockpiles of material), it could put more sophisticated centrifuges on-line within a certain timeframe. The way to make the deal more permanent and thus lock in the progress we have made is to build confidence over time that both sides are complying.
That said, the notion that we should tear up the deal and renegotiate a better one is dangerously simplistic. There is no better deal to be made, and certainly if the United States pulls out, it will not be able to find partners in any new deal.
Hello, thank you for holding this AMA.
One of the core flaws of the JCPOA, in my opinion, is the difference in the ability to track and manage the obligations of the various parties to the agreement. For example, it's a straightforward process for Iran to demonstrate compliance to the JCPOA because of the material nature of its obligations: reduce the number of centrifuges by x amount, limit the stock of enriched uranium by y amount, and so on. Whereas the ability to track and manage the lifting of sanctions, particularly by the US, is a lot more conceptual, in that there is no real metric by which compliance can be measured, other than to determine whether or not the US is abiding by the 'spirit of the deal'.
This problem is coming to the fore today: while Iran believes it has stuck to its obligations, and can materially demonstrate so, it is proving far more difficult to determine whether the US is sticking to its own obligations. Frozen assets have been unfrozen, yes, but so too has the US passed new laws and regulations seizing such assets (for example the ruling to pay victims of Iran's 'terror'). The recent move by Congress to block the sale of Boeing and Airbus planes to Iran, on the basis that these planes would support Iranian 'terror' and violate non-nuclear related sanctions, is another perceived slight on the JCPOA, which actually undermines one of the core selling points of the deal (to revive Iran's ailing and dangerous airline industry). Along with refusing Iran access to dollar trading, these restrictions hardly appear to be abiding by the 'spirit of the deal', although the US can rightly argue that it is not violating its obligations.
To what extent do you believe Iran can withstand and navigate these difficulties? Are there better ways to track US compliance to the JCPOA? In hindsight, would you have negotiated the JCPOA differently?
Thank you again for your time.
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