The nuclear agreement reached on July 14 between Iran and its negotiating partners (the so-called P5+1 or EU3+3, with the European Union as a seventh) represents the culmination of years of diplomatic effort. The deal is officially entitled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and it received the unanimous endorsement of the UN Security Council by means of Council resolution 2231 within a week of its finalization. This is lighting speed for Security Council action and reflects the high priority that the international community attached to bringing to a close the longstanding dispute with Iran over the nature of its nuclear program.
This agreement sets out an unprecedented, comprehensive regime of constraints on the nuclear activities of a sovereign state. The closest parallel to it was the highly intrusive system of disarmament and verification that was imposed on a defeated Iraq after the first Gulf War.
Iran is an original signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and as such had, like the other 186 non-nuclear weapon states party to the treaty, foresworn the acquisition or development of nuclear weapons. Yet for well over a decade Iran has been in a protracted quarrel with the international community and its nuclear oversight agent, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), concerning aspects of its nuclear program. Each NPT state party is obliged to conclude what is called a “safeguards agreement” with the IAEA, the intent of which is to enable the Agency to verify the non-diversion of nuclear material into proscribed purposes (nuclear weapons). From 2003 onwards, the IAEA said that discrepancies in Iran’s declarations prevented it from providing the necessary assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. In September 2005, the Agency’s Board of Governors concluded that Iran was not in compliance with its safeguards agreement and in early 2006 the IAEA reported Iran’s non-compliance to the UN Security Council.
The same year, the Security Council passed the first of what eventually would be six resolutions applying sanctions on Iran and demanding that it halt its uranium enrichment action. Throughout this period, “on again off again” negotiations were held with Iran over the nuclear dispute that eventually took the form of the EU3+3 (the designation favoured by the EU as it highlights the early leadership role of the EU in negotiations) or P5+1 (the moniker preferred by the US, as it highlights the role of the Security Council’s five permanent members) group of states and Iran.
The negotiations were marked by tough bargaining, but also sustained engagement and a high degree of discipline on the part of all the states involved. An interim agreement was reached in November 2013, followed by the announcement in April of 2015 of agreed parameters for the JCPOA that was to be completed by June 30. That deadline was passed, like many before it, but finally a comprehensive agreement was reached on July 14.
As one observer recently noted, the good news is that it is a comprehensive deal and the bad news is that it is a comprehensive deal. The reality is that this 100-page-plus agreement sets out a complex system of constraints on an entire country’s nuclear activity, its close scrutiny by an external agency, and an elaborate process of sanctions relief. The overall oversight is to be carried out by a Joint Commission consisting of the negotiating partners and with the ultimate involvement of the Security Council. With all these moving parts and a lifespan of 15-plus years, this is going to be a challenging agreement to implement smoothly.
At its core, the deal restricts Iran’s capacities in what is known as the “sensitive nuclear fuel cycle” (the enrichment of uranium and reprocessing to produce plutonium, which represent the two routes to manufacturing a nuclear weapon) in return for receiving the lifting of sanctions, which had crippled the Iranian economy.
The constraints on Iranian nuclear activity under the agreement are impressive in magnitude, comprehensiveness, and duration. For 15 years, Iran will be allowed to possess no more than 300 kilograms of enriched uranium and the level of enrichment cannot exceed 3.67% (highly enriched uranium is considered uranium enriched to 20% or more). Iran must drastically reduce the number of its centrifuges (the equipment by which uranium is enriched) and can only operate the older and less productive models of these centrifuges. No nuclear material at all is permitted in the Fordow nuclear facility, the underground nature of which made it a particular concern. The almost completed Arak heavy water reactor, which had a potential to produce plutonium, is to be completely re-designed to reduce to a minimum its capacity for plutonium production. As a further guarantee to eliminate the plutonium production option, Iran agreed not to create any reprocessing capacity and to ship all spent fuel from its reactors outside the country.
These wide-ranging constraints are subject to an extensive verification regime to be carried out by the IAEA, which will augment its technical and human resources to fulfill these rigorous requirements. The Agency will be assisted by the fact that Iran agrees, as part of the deal, to apply the IAEA’s Additional Protocol. That agreement empowers the Agency to conduct more extensive verification than that provided under the basic safeguards agreement, especially with respect to possible undeclared nuclear facilities. The Joint Commission of the parties is established by the JCPOA and empowered to settle disagreements that might arise as to implementation of the accord and the verification of sites.
It is structured in such a way as to prevent Iran (even with possible support from Russia and China) from blocking any inspection action sought by the IAEA. Any party to the agreement can bring before the Security Council any issue deemed to constitute“significant non-performance of commitments under the JCPOA” and initiate a thirty-day period for resolution of the issue. In an ingenious reversal of the usual procedure for Security Council application of sanctions, the continuation of the termination of sanctions on Iran is subject to the adoption of a Security Council resolution to that effect. This procedure would enable the US (or any other P5 member) to veto such a resolution and thereby ensure the reimposition of the sanctions lifted by the JCPOA. This “snap-back” provision has been trumpeted by the US Administration as an effective deterrent on any possible Iranian non-compliance down the road.
Although the deal has its domestic opponents in both countries, not to mention certain foreign states, it is likely that it will go into effect after the 90-day period provided for in the Security Council resolution. The actual implementation of the deal (and the provision of the sanctions relief to Iran), however, only commences when the IAEA confirms that Iran has taken the steps required of it under the JCPOA. No time line is provided for this, but in all likelihood it could be anywhere from six months to a year. By that time any Congressional challenge to the agreement would have been dealt with and it seems, crunching the voting numbers on the Hill, that President Obama will be able to prevent a repudiation of the agreement by the US.
This of course does not mean that the agreement will not continue to be a source of partisan polemics in the US. Although the agreement seems to enjoy much greater consensual support in the other negotiating partners and Iran, future divisions could emerge, especially if issues of marginal noncompliance by Iran occur. To ensure that the gains of the JCPOA are realized will require ongoing high-level attention to the agreement’s implementation and sustained diplomatic management of the file internationally.
Like any negotiated deal, compromises were made by both sides and the results set out in the agreement will be less than the outcome originally envisaged by the parties. Diplomacy, however, is the art of the possible and, given the lack of realistic alternatives, the JCPOA does represent a credible and peaceful solution to an intractable problem that was eroding the nuclear nonproliferation regime and complicating the regional security situation. As such, it is also a salutary reminder that diplomacy can offer a way to make progress on even the most sensitive issues between even the most bitter of adversaries.
Paul Meyer is an Adjunct Professor of International Studies and Fellow in International Security at Simon Fraser University as well as a Senior Fellow at The Simons Foundation.He retired from the Canadian Foreign Service in 2010 after a 35-year career, including serving as Canada’s Ambassador for Disarmament (2003-2007).