Samuel Schwartz
Samuel Schwartz
Scholar of International and Intercultural Relations

What Would a Bad Iran Deal Look Like?

Many analysts claim that in light of the concrete steps that Iran has taken towards building a nuclear weapon over the last six months, the international community must orchestrate an immediate return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of Action (JCPOA).

The official US position has been that the JCPOA blocks all pathways to an Iranian nuclear bomb (https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/issues/foreign-policy/iran-deal), and as such, President Joe Biden has supported an immediate return to the deal. However, both he and his Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, have expressed US aspirations that the return be immediately followed by “a longer, stronger and broader” agreement that would also address Iran’s long range missile development and regional destabilization efforts (https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-with-wolf-blitzer-of-cnns-the-situation-room/ ). From this, we learn, that President Biden sees an independent value to returning to the JCPOA, as it was written (otherwise, he would demand the “longer and stronger” agreement immediately). In addition, he presumably believes the original Iran Deal was not strong enough, hence the importance of negotiating the longer, stronger and broader agreement.

In contrast to the Biden Administration, Israel, including its newly sworn in left-right-center coalition, opposes a return to the deal (https://www.ynetnew s.com/article/rJQsijNod), contending that the JCPOA only delays Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons until the end of this decade, and at the same time, ensures that when the deal’s nuclear clauses reach sunset, starting in 2029, Iran will be able to quickly construct multiple nuclear weapons, unimpeded. President Barak Obama said as much in his 2015 interview with NPR when he noted that “in year 13, 14, 15, [of the Deal, meaning 2028, 2029, 2030] they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero” (https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2015/08/1 1/431652556/obama-iran-will-face-longer-breakout-time-though-not-indefinitely). Israel believes that if the deal’s end game is for Iran to get a nuclear weapon, there is no point in an agreement, like the JCPOA, which would allow Iran access to hundreds of billions of dollars now. They will use this money to further increase their efforts to destabilize the Middle East and make any attempt to pre-empt its nuclear capability both more difficult and costly.

If, for the sake of argument, one accepts the logic of the US administration–that a deal that temporarily delays an Iranian nuclear bomb while immediately providing it with access to hundreds of billions of dollars is critical because of Iran’s proximity to getting the bomb today–is there any version of the deal that would be so one sided so as to not be in the US interests? What Iranian demands could make a deal worth rejecting according to the standards set by the current US administration?

One way to think about this question is to highlight the intolerable elements in the original JCPOA. While President Biden has noted his desire for a “longer, stronger and broader” deal, it is clear to him that once Iran receives sanctions relief it will no longer have any incentive to lengthen, strengthen or broaden the JCPOA.  This is why the major US sticking point in the current Vienna negotiations is the negotiators’ demand that Iran commit itself in writing to discuss extending the deal to cover the original JCPOA’s problematic lacunae (https://www.nytimes.com/20 21/06/19/world/middleeast/iran-nuclear-deal-Ebrahim-Raisi.html). These blind spots include:

  • Sunset Clauses.

The biggest problem with the JCPOA is that its sunset provisions phase out restrictions and oversight at the end of this decade creating a situation in which Iran could construct multiple nuclear weapons at will and have delivery vehicles ready to launch them. Any return to the agreement that leaves these sunset clauses in place, especially those which have already lapsed like the prohibition on buying and selling conventional weapons, is unacceptable.

  • Oversight and Inspection.

As former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren notes, of the JCPOA’s 159 pages, only half a page deals with preventing Iranian weaponization with no provisions for international intervention (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas /archive/2021/01/case-against-iran-deal/617755/ ). The JCPOA does provide for the examination of enrichment facilities. However, as interpreted by Iran, and as accepted by the US, the Deal blocks inspections intended for sites classified as “military” by Iran.

  • Ignoring Iran’s Previous Nuclear Weapons Efforts.

One of the major flaws of the 2015 deal was that, as part of its negotiation, the US prompted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to close the “Possible Military Dimensions (PMD)”  investigation into Iran’s previous weaponization work (https://www.newsweek.com/despite-us-concessions-iaea-can-take-tehran-task-opinion-1596539 ). Iran claims this as an exoneration of all accusations regarding the military aspects of its nuclear program.  However, the Mossad’s discovery of the Iranian Nuclear Archive in 2018 indicated that Iran was actively preserving its enrichment and weaponization efforts. As a result of the details Israel published, the IAEA has opened new inquiries. Unfortunately, Iran’s negotiating partners have conspired to keep the findings under wraps https://www.reuters.com/article/iran-nuclear-iaea-int-idUSKBN2AW10U. The fear is that a renewed JCPOA will make the same critical mistake as the original—closing all current investigations and dismissing the evidence collected.

  • Missile Development.

Current Iranian attempts to build intercontinental ballistic missiles, the vehicles that will deliver its nuclear bomb, are prohibited by UN Security Resolution Resolution 2231 (https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/content/2231/ballistic-missile-related-transfers-and-activities ). The JCPOA will lift this embargo in 2023.

  • Requiring Parties of Deal to Protect Iran’s Nuclear Program.

Annex 3, Article 10.2 of the JCPOA requires the parties to engage in “co-operation through training and workshops to strengthen Iran’s ability to protect against, and respond to nuclear security threats, including sabotage” (https://eeas.euro pa.eu/archives/docs/statements-eeas/docs/iran_agreement/ann ex_3_civil_nuclearcooperation_en.pdf ) The language of the deal literally requires the US to work with Iran to prevent Israel from taking action to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. In practice, top figures in Israel’s current and former security establishment believe that after returning to the deal, the US will limit Israel’s freedom of military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure .(https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.HIGHLIGHT-a-severe-iran-warning-landed-on-bennett-s-desk-1.9916942 ).

In sum, according to President Biden’s own criteria, if the return to the JCPOA does not include an Iranian commitment to extend the length, strength and breadth of the deal to cover the above issues, as the US is currently demanding in Vienna, it can be considered a failure.

Another way of assessing the deal is to identify additional concessions to Iran that were not present in the 2015 accord.  According to news reports coming out of Vienna, the US representatives have already agreed to provide all the sanctions relief prescribed by the JCPOA. The reason that the Vienna negotiations have not concluded is that Iran is trying to discover how many concessions, above and beyond the original Iran Deal, it can extract from the US representatives.  These concessions include:

  • Repealing all US sanctions on Iran, even those not connected to the nuclear deal. Currently, the US maintains other sanctions on Iran due to its engagement in human rights violations, missile development and terrorism, that Iran wants removed, without changing its behavior. President Obama promised that while the 2015 deal would not require Iran to make concessions on issues outside the nuclear sphere, “the United States will maintain our own sanctions related to Iran’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program, and its human rights violations” (https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/ 09/03/remarks-vice-president-eizenstat-lecture).  It appears that the Biden Administration is about to break this promise.  Rob Malley, the chief US negotiator said that even sanctions instituted based on a sound “evidentiary basis” in the fields of terrorism, human rights or missiles can be removed if the US deems them “not consistent” with the JCPOA (https://www.state.gov/briefing-with-senior-state-department-official-on-ongoing-u-s-engagement-in-vienna-regarding-the-jcpoa/ ).
  • Guaranteeing that the US won’t abandon the deal. (https://www.politico.eu/article/iran-nuclear-talks-take-break-sticking-points/ ). This is important to Iran because the presumption of the deal’s longevity is a pre-requisite for potential investors. However, should the US deem the JCPOA is no longer in its interests or that Iran was not complying with it, a new administration could leave the deal, in the same way the President Obama cancelled the previous administration’s agreement to station defensive radar and missile interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic https://www.nytim es.com/2009/09/18/world/europe/18shield.html ). The Biden administration has the option of locking in the deal by presenting it to the Senate for approval as a treaty. President Biden will not do this, however, because he knows that it cannot get the two-thirds majority vote that treaty approval requires.
  • Allowing Iran to mothball and not destroy the advanced centrifuges it constructed in violation of the JCPOA.

These centrifuges can be used to enrich uranium much quicker than Iran’s more primitive IR-1 tubes and were constructed/put into use following the US decision to leave the deal. There are a number of other technological developments regarding advanced enrichment capability and reduction in supervision over nuclear research and development that are in violation of the original JCPOA and need to be reversed as well.

In sum, if the Biden administration allows Iran to extract any of these concessions, not found in the original JCPOA, then the return to the deal can be seen as a failure, from the US point of view.

Iran’s recent election of Ebrahim Raisi, who according to Amnesty International should be “investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture” (https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/amnesty-calls-investigation-into-irans-raisi-crimes-against-humanity-2021-06-19/ ) may complicate or slow down the nuclear negotiations.  However, it still appears certain that the US and Iran are on their way to returning to the JCPOA.  Now we have a scorecard. Even if one accepts the deal’s premise of delaying Iranian development of a nuclear weapon until the end of this decade in exchange for granting access to hundreds of billions of dollars, there are elements, that if included in the final draft of the deal, should make it unacceptable. If any of the above-mentioned Iranian demands, that were either glossed over in the original JCPOA or which were added in the 2021 negotiations, make it into the agreement, it can be judged as a failure, and an even greater failure than the 2015 deal, even according to the standard of the Biden Administration.

About the Author
Samuel Schwartz, Ph.D., M.P.P., is a Senior Lecturer and Assistant Dean of Students at Ono Academic College. He was a Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center and at Harvard University’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East. As Spokesperson at the Consulates General of Israel in Boston and Los Angeles, he led numerous conflict resolution projects in twelve U.S. States.
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