The Iran nuclear deal: One year on

Tehran feels emboldened and is now better positioned to pursue its aggressive aims in the Middle East, including stepping up its presence in Syria and intensifying its ballistic missile activities.

A MILITARY truck carrying a missile and a picture of Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei drives in a parade marking the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war in Tehran (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MILITARY truck carrying a missile and a picture of Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei drives in a parade marking the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war in Tehran
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ALMOST A year has gone by since the Iran nuclear deal was presented to the world, and when assessing it, especially against the backdrop of Iran’s defiant behavior toward the US and aggressive conduct in the Middle East since then, one can hardly be complacent about what was achieved.
The original goal of the nuclear negotiation with Iran was to stop it from being able to produce nuclear weapons. In other words, to cause Iran to reverse course in the nuclear realm, hopefully reflecting a new willingness to cooperate and adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which it is a party. But the partial constraints imposed on its nuclear program – that Iran grudgingly agreed to in order to gain relief from economic sanctions – do not reflect what the P5+1 (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) set out to do; nor do they warrant surrendering the leverage over Iran afforded by the sanctions regime.
Iran’s behavior over the past year makes it clear that rather than embracing a more cooperative approach toward the international community, Iran is persisting with its abusive rhetoric and aggressive policies. With the P5+1 wary of anything that might endanger the deal, Iran feels emboldened, and, with the deal, is ironically better positioned to pursue its aggressive aims in the Middle East, including stepping up its presence in Syria and intensifying its ballistic missile activities. Indeed, Iran has been testing the resolve of the US and others to confront it, equipped as it now is with a new and quite effective deterrent to any determined Western response: its threat to walk away from the nuclear deal.
Reluctant to upset the deal (also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA), the US has refrained from pushing back against Iran. Instead, the Obama administration tends to minimize the significance of Iran’s aggressive rhetoric and actions, brushing them aside as intended merely to mollify “hardliners” upset by the deal.
Of particular concern over the past year has been the overly optimistic message coming from the American administration. According to US President Barack Obama the deal succeeded in completely cutting off all four pathways to producing a bomb, ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon.
Such sweeping statements simply cannot be guaranteed by the deal as concluded and are dangerously misleading. Assessing the deal is not about drawing up a balance sheet of achievements and drawbacks; it is no cause for celebration to temporarily keep Iran “half nuclear,” especially as it will be even better positioned internationally and on the ground to go the final mile in 10-15 years when the deal expires. Indeed, the fact that the deal legitimizes Iran’s uranium enrichment program for the long-term is a vastly more significant downside than the short-term benefit of placing a temporary cap (of 300 kg) on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium.
The immediacy of the Iranian nuclear threat has receded, but the threat of a nuclear Iran has not been eliminated. The only scenario in which a delay could be cause for celebration is if there were a clear prospect for a new regime in Iran, with leaders charting a radically different course. But there is no indication of that happening anytime soon.
Therefore, hinging such a critical deal on the hope that such change might come about is highly irresponsible. From the time Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013, Obama planted the idea that he was a moderate who would ease negotiations, and that the negotiations and the deal itself could very well engender further moderation in Iran. There has been a huge public debate in the US, sparked by a New York Times magazine profile in early May of close Obama adviser Ben Rhodes over whether the idea of such moderation was deliberately over played by the administration to help sell the deal to the US public last summer.
True, the recent elections in Iran were heralded by some as ushering in a new more moderate parliament. But 99 percent of reformist candidates were disqualified in advance from running and, at the end of the day, conservative Ali Larijani was reelected as speaker of the Majlis and Ahmad Jannati, a hard-line conservative cleric, now heads the Assembly of Experts, who will choose the next supreme leader.
Beyond the troubling reality that the deal will expire in 10-15 years regardless of whether there are clear indications that Iran has foregone its military nuclear ambitions, and over and above the fact that the deal legitimizes Iran’s uranium enrichment program and by implication its nuclear threshold status, the final text of the JCPOA makes additional P5+1 concessions which undermine its ability to ensure a non-nuclear Iran in the future.
The text of the JCPOA has wordy provisions for carrying out inspections at suspicious sites. But for all the intricate language, it does not set forth an unambiguous solution for gaining timely access to a suspect military site if an inspection is deemed necessary.
Iran’s leaders have said quite emphatically that they will never allow entry into a military site, and a threat to leave the deal will most likely deter the P5+1 from trying to force Iran’s hand. Iran is also allowed under the terms of the deal to continue R&D on a range of advanced generations of centrifuges, which will spin many times faster than the ones Iran has been using.
Moreover, Iran’s ballistic missiles were left outside the negotiations. They are currently only weakly covered by a watered- down UN Security Council Resolution which endorsed the JCPOA. This leaves the field open to Iran to vastly expand its missile program, an effort begun over the past year. Finally, the P5+1 in December 2015 inexplicably closed the file on the military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, after the International Atomic Energy Agency finally issued its definitive report on the “Possible Military Dimensions” (PMD), determining that Iran had indeed worked on a military nuclear program in a coordinated manner until 2003 and in a less coordinated manner until at least 2009.
The problems posed by Iran are truly global in reach, especially in light of its work on long-range ballistic missiles. Nevertheless, Israel must chart its own course. It should focus on the next five to perhaps even 10 years when the chance of Iran becoming a nuclear state is relatively low. Israel must use this “strategic breathing space” wisely to build up its defenses and capabilities, and to work on relations both with the US administration and with other like-minded Middle Eastern states that are similarly concerned about Iran’s growing power and the threat it poses to the region.
While the JCPOA places restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, it does not prevent Iran from ever achieving a nuclear weapons capability. At best the threat will be delayed. Over the next 15 years the deal purports to extend the time for a possible Iranian nuclear breakout from a few months to a year. But, as Iran will in the meantime enjoy the fruits of economic improvement with the lifting of sanctions, what tools will the international community have to pressure it if it then decides to move forward to a nuclear capability? Pressure is crucial for getting a determined proliferator back into the fold of the NPT. Where negotiations succeeded, such as in Libya, there were very unique circumstances.
For one, the fear of being next in line for US attack was definitely a strong factor in the then leader Muammar Gaddafi’s decision to scrap his nuclear program in December 2003. But in the case of North Korea, where sanctions were continually replaced by economic assistance, leverage was in short supply and the deals that were celebrated in 1994, and again in 2005, did not last. Today North Korea is a full-fledged nuclear weapons state, having conducted four nuclear tests over the past decade.
The Iran deal is currently not looking good. And if Iran senses that the P5+1 have lost the political will to push back against its aggressive moves, things could get a lot worse.
Dr. Emily B. Landau, a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), is director of the institute’s Arms Control and Regional Security Program.