JCPOA Anniversary: Has Iran complied with the nuclear deal?

Has Iran complied? Has the West? From what we know, all sides are abiding by the agreement. But we are in early stages yet.

Iran launches missile from undisclosed location (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran launches missile from undisclosed location
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON -- Next week, international powers mark one year since the announcement of the most sweeping diplomatic agreement in decades: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, colloquially known as the Iran nuclear deal.
But has Iran complied? Has the West? From what we know, all sides are abiding by the agreement. But we are in early stages yet.
Iran's obligations
The Iran deal outlines a multi-phased action plan to govern Iran's nuclear work over fifteen years, and we remain in the very first stage of that plan.
While powers are marking the JCPOA's one year anniversary, the deal has technically been in effect for only six months. That's because, while the deal was adopted last July, 'Implementation Day' was first declared in January after Iran had completed a series of requisite tasks.
Before implementation, Iran was compelled to reduce its uranium stockpile to less than 300 kilograms, neuter its plutonium heavy-water reactor, cease nuclear enrichment operations in its mountain facility in Fordow, disconnect and store two thirds of its centrifuges, and allow for international inspectors to set up new monitoring systems in its declared facilities.
So to Western governments, many of the most urgently troubling dimensions of Iran's nuclear work were actually addressed before the agreement formally began. And all of these tasks were verified as complete in January.
To remain in compliance, Iran now must maintain those levels of enrichment, number of active facilities and size of its nuclear infrastructure throughout several years– the number of years depending on the sunset clauses for each specific provision.
While some broad terms of the agreement are indefinite, most provisions in the deal end in either ten or 15 years. And many of those provisions address highly technical aspects of Iran's nuclear program: From its acquisition of nuclear-related materials to its experimentation or use of those materials, and everything in between.
And some of Iran's actions are easier to verify than others, which makes it impossible to state with absolute confidence that Iran is abiding by the agreement in its entirety. This is a source of many critical concerns, although the architects of the deal say that no perfect deal could have been achieved.
Iran has thus far abided by its commitment to keep its enrichment of uranium under 3.67 percent, for example, and it is operating only with the agreed-upon 5,060 1970s-era centrifuges. Higher enrichment levels achieved in more efficient and advanced centrifuges would drop the time Iran would need to acquire enough highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, effectively to zero.
What is more difficult to verify is whether Tehran is producing or acquiring plutonium or uranium metals or their alloys, or conducting R&D on plutonium or uranium metallurgy, in violation of the agreement, from purchases on the black market and in undeclared research facilities.
The inspection regime in the JCPOA is hailed as the most advanced ever achieved through diplomacy, but it still governs only Iran's declared nuclear supply chain: The uranium mines, mills, storage facilities and enrichment facilities that Tehran chooses to tell the UN about. Thus, UN declarations that Iran is in compliance in actuality refer to Iran's compliance to the terms of the JCPOA within those facilities.
The deal does include a well-known clause that allows UN inspectors to request access to undeclared sites it suspects are hosting nuclear-related activity. Iran may object to such a request, which would start the clock on a litigation process that can last no longer than 24 days. This mechanism has yet to be tested.
Iran was also required to welcome in country between 130 to 150 inspectors– a team unprecedented in size– within nine months of Implementation Day. That is on track.
Iran is still required within one year of implementation to ship out of country all of its spent fuel from its lone plutonium reactor in Arak. Tehran says it is working with Beijing on a scheme to redesign this heavy-water IR-40 reactor– another obligation of the deal.
​​International powers and bodies– chiefly the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, which polices the deal– have declared Iran in full compliance up until this point, and no formal party to the deal has challenged this.
Nor has Israel questioned whether Iran is in following the letter of the UN Security Council law in public, although it remains possible that classified intelligence suggests otherwise.
But the concerns of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year, when he publicly fought the agreement, were twofold. He firstly worried that Iran would violate the deal in undetectable ways– through undeclared channels and facilities, too sophisticated for the inspections regime to pick up on. But he secondly feared that Iran would abide by the agreement to a tee; That the agreement would allow Iran to glide toward an internationally legitimatized, industrial-sized nuclear program once several of these sunset provisions expire. And the political ramifications of this second concern will not reverberate for several more years.
​Western obligations​
​​On Implementation Day, January 16, President Barack Obama signed all relevant executive waivers to relieve US sanctions on Iran passed specifically to target its nuclear program. And the UN Security Council, the European Union and its financial agencies and regulators followed suit.
Iran's government generally seems content that its partners on the other side of the negotiating table– the US, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany– are in compliance with their sanctions-related commitments. But there have been at least three instances in which they have explicitly accused the US of violating the deal.
The first instance came after the president signed a bill restricting the travel of Iranian dual nationals, or of foreign nationals who had recently visited Iran, who previously had access to the US visa waiver program. No citizens of or recent visitors to Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan are able to travel to the US visa-free anymore, including those living, working or also enjoying citizenship in Europe.
That new law infuriated Iranian officials, who accused the US of seeking to hamper new business in Iran by restricting the travel opportunities of potential investors. US Secretary of State John Kerry swiftly wrote to his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, assuring him that the bill would do no such thing and that the State Department has the power to offer frequent waivers.
Secondly, Iran is now warning the US Congress not to attempt to halt its $25 billion purchase of American-made Boeing aircraft, which Tehran maintains is necessary to upgrade its dangerously aging domestic fleet.
Doing so would violate the agreement, Iran contends, pointing to a provision of the JCPOA which commits the US to "allow for the sale of commercial passenger aircraft and related parts and services" for "exclusively civil aviation end-use."
But it is that last part– "exclusively civil aviation end-use"– that has some members of Congress convinced the Boeing deal can legally be halted, in compliance with the JCPOA. That's because the US Treasury Department, State Department, and intelligence agencies all assess that Iran Air and its subsidiary, Mahan Air, are complicit in illicit arms transfers to Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah or in the assistance of Syria's embattled president, Bashar Assad.
Tehran's third effort to cast the US in violation amounted to a broader critique, delivered by no less than Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on June 21.
Khamenei tweeted of a "US betrayal in #JCPOA"– referring generally speaking not to any technical violation of the accord, but to his impression that the US is seeking to undermine the spirit of the deal by dissuading business investment in Iran.
He questions whether Treasury Department officials are truly sending the message to international investors that their assets are safe in the Islamic Republic. US officials say that they cannot control the will and business decisions of investors, who may continue to view Iran as a long term risk.
But Khamenei's critique represents a political challenge to the agreement– one of several sure to arise with increasing veracity in the years to come.