By AIC Research Associate Carrie O'Foran
MYTH: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or “Iran Deal,” is a “bad deal” because (1) it does not prevent Iran from creating a nuclear weapon; (2) the International Atomic Energy Association is not able to thoroughly inspect some facilities and Iran can easily cheat without repercussions; (3) the nations involved were required to remove all sanctions on Iran, providing an influx of money to be spent on terrorist organizations and other military engagements throughout the Middle East; and (4) documents recently revealed by the Israeli government prove that the Iran Deal was “built on lies.”
FACT: While the JCPOA has flaws such as the sunset provisions of certain clauses, the JCPOA on the whole is a strong deal that cuts off all pathways to Iran creating a nuclear weapon. It establishes clear restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program that are thoroughly verified by the International Atomic Energy Association to ensure Iran cannot cheat. The nations involved removed only sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program, keeping in place sanctions related to human rights violations and other issues. Finally, documents revealed by the Israeli government did not include significant new information regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s Nuclear History
On December 8, 1953, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech in which he sought to change the focus of atomic technology from a destructive force to an incredible source of peace and prosperity. In the wake of this speech, the United States created the Atoms for Peace program, which gave countries the tools to build civilian nuclear programs. In 1957, Iran became a benefactor of this program, and by 1967 had received one small reactor and enriched uranium to fuel it. In 1968, Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), allowing IAEA inspections and agreeing to never become a nuclear-weapons state. In 1974, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi announced plans for 20 new nuclear reactors in the next 20 years, and established the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). However, the 1979 Islamic Revolution put these plans on hold, as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power. Khomeini viewed nuclear development as a Western-imposed financial burden on Iran, and initially shut down Iran’s nuclear program. However, by 1984, Khomeini realized the power of having such a program in light of the ongoing Iran-Iraq war and numerous resulting power outages. Thus, seeking help from Pakistan, China, and Russia, Khomeini restarted Iran’s nuclear program and continued to slowly develop it throughout the 1990’s.
Over time the West became skeptical regarding the purportedly peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. In 2002, however, these concerns were confirmed after an Iranian opposition group revealed several sophisticated and undeclared nuclear facilities. In response to the resulting international outcry, in 2003, Iran agreed to suspend nuclear development and accept more thorough inspections from the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA). However, Iran failed to cooperate with the IAEA and continued to develop their nuclear program. In 2005, the IAEA proclaimed Iran in noncompliance with previous agreements to suspend nuclear activity, sparking heavy sanctions from the UN Security Council.
Just before the imposition of international sanctions, the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who heavily supported Iran’s nuclear program, was elected president. In the subsequent years, Iran continued to enrich uranium despite increased international sanctions by the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union. International discussions seeking a resolution to this issue took place during this period, without success. However, in 2013, with heavy sanctions taking a toll on Iran’s economy, moderate Hassan Rouhani was elected president. Under his leadership, by the end of 2013, Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, France, China, and the European Union negotiated a short-term agreement called the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), which limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the easing of sanctions while more specific negotiations could be finalized. Finally, in 2015, after extending the JPOA twice, the seven countries and the EU agreed on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which removes nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits that ensure Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful.
Myth #1: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or “Iran Deal”, does not prevent Iran from creating a nuclear weapon.
There are two pathways to a nuclear weapon: uranium and plutonium. Both pathways are blocked by the Iran Deal.
Natural uranium contains only 0.7% uranium 235 (U-235), the isotope required for a nuclear weapon. Thus, in order to use uranium for nuclear power or nuclear weapons, uranium must be enriched using centrifuges. For nuclear weapons, uranium must be enriched to 90% U-235 or more, also called high-enriched uranium or weapons-grade uranium. By contrast, uranium used for peaceful nuclear power purposes only requires enrichment to 3% - 4% U-235, also called low-enriched uranium.
The JCPOA agreement restricts Iran to only 5,060 centrifuges for the next 10 years, down from nearly 20,000. Moreover, it requires that these centrifuges be IR-1, the least sophisticated, “first generation” centrifuges that Iran developed. Finally, the Iran Deal limits Iran’s uranium to only 300kg of low-enriched uranium. Iran is not allowed to enrich uranium higher than 3.67% for 15 years.
Plutonium occurs very rarely in nature, and is usually created through reprocessing used nuclear fuel (uranium). The two most common types of nuclear reactors, light-water reactors and heavy-water reactors, have different implications for the creation of plutonium. While both types of reactors use water as a coolant around the reactor, they differ in their use of ‘moderators’ – substances that slow down and absorb neutrons released during the process. Light-water reactors use normal water as the moderator. By contrast, heavy-water reactors use water that has deuterium, or heavy hydrogen, making it denser. Heavy water absorbs fewer neutrons than regular water, leaving more neutrons in the system for uranium to absorb and to create more plutonium.
Another difference between the two reactor types is that spent fuel can be removed from heavy-water reactors without shutting down the reactor, making its existence difficult to detect by inspectors. By contrast, light-water reactors must be completely shut down in order for spent fuel to be removed.
Given these differences between reactor types, the JCPOA agreement forbids Iran from building any new heavy-water facilities; all new nuclear power facilities must be light-water reactors. As for its existing heavy-water facility, Arak -- all spent fuel from there must sent out of the country, and the reactor itself must be redesigned so that no weapons-grade plutonium can be created.
Furthermore, for the next 15 years Iran is not allowed to reprocess spent fuel, including for research purposes, nor can it build facilities to separate plutonium from spent fuel. The only exception is for production of radio-isotopes for medical and peaceful industrial purposes. Finally, the Iran Deal prohibits Iran from producing, seeking, or acquiring plutonium for 15 years.
Myth #2: Iran can easily cheat without repercussions, and the IAEA is not able to thoroughly inspect of some facilities.
Under the JCPOA, Iran agreed to allow the IAEA to expand access to any location it deems necessary to verify the terms of the agreement. The IAEA has immediate access to nuclear sites that are already declared, such as current enrichment facilities. If the IAEA wants access to undeclared sites, it must request it. Once the IAEA requests access to a location, Iran has a maximum of 24 days to agree. If Iran does not agree within those 24 days, the Joint Commission, made up of the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, France, China, the European Union, Iran, and formerly the United States, can vote on new sanctions or other punitive measures. Although Iran is included in this vote, it only requires a majority to pass. To date, the IAEA has confirmed both that Iran has provided access to every necessary location and that Iran has followed the terms laid out by the JCPOA.
Top Iranian officials have repeatedly and publically claimed that the IAEA will not have access to military sites due to national security risks. These statements are slightly misleading. The IAEA does not inspect military sites as part of its routine inspections. However, as laid out in the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which Iran has signed, the IAEA can request access to undeclared locations such as military sites if it has a reason to believe inspecting undeclared sites is necessary. While the verification process would be stronger if military sites were included in regular inspection, access to military locations is not as restricted as JCPOA critics and Iranian officials continue to state.
Other critics have incorrectly claimed that 24 days is enough time for Iran to cover up any trace of violations. The half-life of radioactive elements is the time it takes for radioactivity to drop to half its original value. This is vital for inspection purposes because it determines how long inspectors will be able to detect traces of radiation, even if nuclear materials are removed. Plutonium 239, the isotope used in nuclear weapons, has a half-life of 24,100 years and the half-life of Uranium 235 is over 700 million years. As a result, 24 days would not provide Iranian officials sufficient time to get rid of all traces of clandestine nuclear materials.
The JCPOA also lays out a mechanism to snapback sanctions in the case that Iran does not adhere to the deal. If one member of the Joint Commission claims that Iran is violating the agreement, the UN Security Council is required to take a vote within 30 days of the complaint on whether or not to continue lifting sanctions. This wording is vital because it means that instead of one member of the Security Council having the ability to veto reinstating sanctions, any one member of the Security Council has the ability to veto keeping sanctions off Iran. Such wording prevents Iranian allies such as Russia from blocking the reinstatement of sanctions if Iran cheats.
Myth #3: The nations involved were required to remove all sanctions on Iran, which provided an influx of money for Iran to spend on terrorist organizations and other military engagements throughout the Middle East.
While the Iran Deal requires the US, the UN, and the EU to remove sanctions on Iran imposed in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program, only the sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program must be removed. Sanctions placed on Iran’s government for supporting terrorist organizations or other foreign policy actions in the region remain in place. For example, the US kept sanctions barring US companies from investment in Iran pursuant to sanctions based on human rights violations. Thus, although the Iran Deal focuses on Iran’s nuclear program, it does not prevent the US, UN, or EU from responding to other negative actions by the Iranian government.
Another claim that US President Donald Trump and other critics of the deal have made is that the Obama administration illegally paid Iran $1.7 billion in cash. The JCPOA agreement did unfreeze billions in foreign assets as US, UN, and EU sanctions were removed, but this is not the money this claim is usually referring to. While the Obama administration did pay Iran the equivalent of $1.7 billion, it was not related to the Iran Deal nor was it illegal. Just prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran had purchased $400 million worth of military equipment from the United States, but it was never delivered due to the deterioration of the United States and Iran’s relationship. Following the conclusion of the hostage crisis, an international court called the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal was formed to deal with the unresolved matter. The court decision moved very slowly, but by US President Barack Obama’s term it was clear both that the United States would lose and that they would owe Iran a lot of money in interest. Hence, they made the decision to settle outside of court and the US agreed to pay back the $400 million to Iran plus $1.3 billion in interest. While these negotiations occurred during the same time period as the JCPOA negotiations, the two issues were unrelated.
Finally, many criticize the deal for providing Iran money to support terrorism in the region and other foreign policy decisions not supported by the United States. With the removal of sanctions, the Iranian government certainly gained increased access to funds from oil sales and foreign assets, some of which undoubtedly goes to fund Iran’s foreign policy, which the US opposes. However, opposing the Iran Deal for this reason suggests that any removal of sanctions would be suspect for its potential to help support Iran’s regional policy objectives. The Nuclear Deal was never intended to address Iran’s behavior in the region; it was intended only to handle the limited, but important goal of keeping Iran from having nuclear weapons. It is also relevant to note that although improvement in Iran’s economy and coffers may ultimately help Iran’s foreign policy, everyday Iranians also benefit from the removal of sanctions. Following the removal of sanctions in January of 2016, Iran’s economy grew by 12.5 percent in 2016 and 3.5 percent in 2017. The inflation rate also dropped below 10 percent throughout 2016 and 2017.
Myth #4: Documents recently revealed by the Israeli government prove that the Iran Deal was “built on lies.”
On April 30, 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a televised speech at the defense ministry in Tel Aviv allegedly providing evidence that the JCPOA agreement was based on false assumptions. The documents Netanyahu revealed were acquired in January, after Israeli intelligence retrieved them from a warehouse they had been surveilling in Tehran. Netanyahu did not claim these documents proved Iran cheated the JCPOA agreement, but rather that prior to the JCPOA, Iran had unstated plans to work towards a nuclear weapon, something Iranian officials have repeatedly denied (although which was widely suspected by the US and Israeli intelligence communities). The new information these documents provided were specifics regarding Iran’s nuclear plans. For example, the intelligence community did not previously know how many nuclear weapons Iran was planning to build.
As required by the JCPOA, Iran cooperated in discussing past grievances, including these plans, with the IAEA. However, some critics have argued that this was not sufficient and Iran should have destroyed all plans regarding previous nuclear weapons projects as a signal of peace. For example, in 1989, the president of South Africa dismantled their entire nuclear weapons arsenal along with related documents in order to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Nevertheless, keeping old documentation on previous plans for nuclear weapons does not violate the JCPOA agreement. As a result, Netanyahu’s speech did not reveal groundbreaking information regarding Iran’s cooperation with the JCPOA agreement. Rather, some have argued that the timing and theatrics of his speech indicate its purpose was instead to persuade Trump to withdraw from the deal. Others defend the speech saying it is possible Trump requested Israel to publically announce any relevant information they possessed.
There are numerous myths surrounding the JCPOA agreement due to its technical complexity. However, it is clear that the Iran Deal does not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. Furthermore, it puts into place strong restrictions and thorough inspections regimes that prevent Iran from cheating. While the agreement removed many sanctions, sanctions that are not nuclear-related remain in place. Finally, the documents recently revealed by Netanyahu that prompted Trump’s exit from the Iran Deal did not provide essential information or undermine the legitimacy of the deal.
The JCPOA agreement is not without flaws. While it provides a thorough solution for the present, some of the most important clauses within the agreement are temporary, expiring in 10, 15, 20, or 25 years. Thus, some critics argue this deal will only delay Iran potentially acquiring a nuclear weapon. Nevertheless, supporters of the deal say it is unlikely that Iran would have agreed to these restrictions indefinitely, given that the geopolitical arena is constantly changing. While flaws exist, there is success in creating a strong temporary solution while also forging stronger diplomatic ties for the future. It is also important to note that the clause stating that Iran will not seek nuclear weapons does not expire at any point. Furthermore, the thoroughly designed verification process is significant in the precedent it provides for creating future similar agreements with other nations.
On May 8, 2018, Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran Deal, leaving many wondering where the JCPOA agreement goes from here. Trump announced that the United States would be reapplying sanctions on Iran in an attempt to exert pressure for a better deal. By contrast, members of the Joint Commission criticized Trump’s decision and vowed to protect the agreement. Iran responded by stating they could stay in the agreement only if members of the Joint Commission would sufficiently counteract the effects of the re-imposed US sanctions. If that is not possible, Iranian officials have said they will back out of the deal and increase uranium enrichment. Iran is still a long-standing member of the NPT, so even if the JCPOA agreement falls apart, they are prohibited from building nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, at this point, both sides are posturing to maximize their position, and it remains to be seen whether or not the JCPOA agreement can survive without US support.
UPDATE: JCPOA in 2019
June 22, 2019
As 2019 progresses, it is becoming increasingly clear that the U.S.’ withdrawal from the JCPOA has had devastating consequences for both the agreement and regional stability. In addition to leaving the JCPOA, the Trump administration has re-imposed strict sanctions on Iran which have devastated its economy and exacerbated tensions between Washington and Tehran to heights unseen in decades. (For more information on the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran’s economy and current U.S.-Iran tensions, see AIC’s Industry Spotlight on Iran’s Oil and Gas sector and its official statement on current U.S.-Iran relations).
After having remained compliant with the JCPOA since the U.S. withdrawal, President Rouhani announced in May 2019 that Iran would no longer export its surplus enriched uranium, as required under JCPOA stipulations. Furthermore, Rouhani warned that unless the remaining members of the Joint Commission (the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) defy U.S. sanctions and resume trade with Iran within 60 days, Tehran would end observance of any limits on uranium enrichment. Although European leaders have stated that they would not tolerate any ultimatums, they have announced plans to soon launch INSTEX, a payment system meant to circumvent U.S. sanctions and facilitate trade between the EU and Iran. Furthermore, Russia announced that it is prepared to provide trade and banking assistance to Iran if INSTEX is not launched.
So far however, President Rouhani has made clear that he is not satisfied with the Joint Commission’s response to the U.S.’ withdrawl from the JCPOA, and the IAEA has said that although Iran remains JCPOA compliant as of May 2019, it has indeed already begun accelerating production of enriched uranium. On June 17, 2019, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran announced that the country’s uranium stockpile would officially exceed JCPOA limits within ten days.
When we first wrote on this subject in August 2018, we ended the piece by noting, “it remains to be seen whether or not the JCPOA agreement can survive without US support.” One year later, while the JCPOA has not entirely collapsed, it is clearly on its last legs. The answer to our question then is evident: Without US support, the JCPOA may not survive. Worse still, the consequences of the failure to support this diplomatic achievement, appear to be a spiraling towards military conflict.