The Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) after one year

Jul 15, 2016

The Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) after one year

Update from AIJAC

July 15, 2016

Update 07/16 #04

One year ago this week, the Iran nuclear deal known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) was signed in Vienna. With all that has happened over the past year, much analysis is being written about the realities and implementation of various aspects of the agreement. This Update features just a few examples.

The first two examples come from an invaluable compilation of analysis articles on various aspects of the deal after one year published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. While all of the dozen or so articles collected are worthwhile, in addition to the two below, AIJAC particularly recommends Matthew Levitt on Iran’s increasing support for terrorism in the wake of the JCPOA, Dennis Ross on the need to signal to Teheran that “seeking nuclear weapons down the road will lead to forceful consequences” and Patrick Clawson on the real reasons Teheran has not derived as much economic benefit out of the deal as it expected.

However, below, we lead with a good general study of the JCPOA’s history over the past year from Simon Henderson, a Washington Institute scholar specialising in the Persian Gulf region who will be visiting Australia as a guest of AIJAC next month. He begins by reviewing the recent revelations about how the deal was reached – which appear to demonstrate that “President Obama wanted an agreement so much that he effectively gave Tehran a negotiating advantage.” Henderson then reviews the revelations about the limitations of the technical inspection regime that have come to light over the last year before concluding, “Washington’s confidence in the JCPOA’s continued success is highly optimistic.” For Henderson’s judicious and knowledgeable analysis in full, CLICK HERE

Next up is James Jeffrey, another Washington Institute scholar who previously served as the Obama Administration’s Ambassador in Iraq and Turkey, who focuses on the regional consequences of the implementation of the JCPOA. He notes that regional players had strongly emphasis ed the need to respond vigorously to empowered Iranian destabilisation efforts in the wake of the deal, with the US Administration insisting it had “gotten the message” – but not acting in practice like it has. Amb. Jeffrey warns the result is not pretty – with regional states responding in an incoherent and dangerous fashion in the absence of US leadership. For his full analysis of the regional consequences of the implementation of the deal, CLICK HERE

Finally, American thinktanker and former senior reporter Clifford May begins a discussion of  the state of the JCPOA by reviewing the US debate about a US$25 billion deal being urged by the US Administration whereby the US aircraft manufacturer Boeing will sell planes to the government-owned Iran Air. May argues that the JCPOA can be seen as an experiment, whereby Iran had a chance to gain economic prosperity by toning down its revolutionary ambitions – but accumulates considerable evidence that we can now conclude it is not going to work, including recent German intelligence revelations that Iran has been violating the JCPOA by clandestinely seeking nuclear technology. For his piece in full ,CLICK HERE. Another good piece on the Boeing deal and its implications come from experts Jonathan Schanzer and Amir Toumaj.


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Article 1

The Half-Life of the JCPOA

Simon Henderson

July 12, 2016
PolicyWatch 2653

In late June, an Iranian delegation visited the ITER international nuclear research institute in France. Afterward, Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi mentioned the possibility of his country joining the project, which focuses on nuclear fusion. The other nations involved in ITER welcomed the Islamic Republic’s prospective membership — in fact, this was just the type of Iranian behavior that supporters of last year’s nuclear deal hoped to see, namely, Tehran emphasizing peaceful nuclear research and seeking to work with other members of the international community. But for critics of the deal, the ITER visit represents the opposite — Iran becoming part of the international nuclear community despite continued suspicions and lack of transparency regarding its past nuclear weapons activity, its current nuclear research, its future intentions, and its threatening regional behavior.

Wrapped up in this debate is the extent to which President Obama wants to secure the nuclear deal as part of his legacy — and the extent to which his successor and Tehran will allow that bit of history to remain intact. Going forward, the JCPOA will face numerous political risks stemming from new revelations about the history leading up to deal, the oft-misunderstood technical factors behind its implementation, and the potential role of third-party nuclear powers.


As former deputy secretary of state William Burns remarked last week, the JCPOA was “not a perfect outcome but the best of the available outcomes.” With the passage of time, more will emerge on the agreement’s evolution and the degree of compromise made by each party.

For example, Mark Landler’s recently published book Alter Egos revealed the full extent of Oman’s role as a back channel to Iran in 2009. U.S. officials were told that Tehran was offering to negotiate, which probably tempered Washington’s response to the street riots and harsh crackdowns that rocked the Islamic Republic following former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent reelection that year. At the time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other officials met directly with the Omani intermediary, as did then-senator John Kerry, who made the unofficial but crucial offer of allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium in some capacity.

The talks gathered pace in 2013 after Obama’s reelection, Kerry’s appointment as secretary of state, and the election of perceived moderate President Hassan Rouhani in Iran. Yet the pre-2013 timeline is at odds with oft-repeated claims about Rouhani’s role in the deal — namely, that his election spurred the crucial breakthrough with Tehran, and that the JCPOA was partly intended to empower him and his political allies. It also raises questions about how much Washington has been prepared to tolerate Iranian misbehavior on nonnuclear matters in order to avoid endangering a signature foreign policy accomplishment for the president. Despite his words to the contrary, there is a general perception that President Obama wanted an agreement so much that he effectively gave Tehran a negotiating advantage.


Despite years of media coverage on the issue, woeful ignorance persists regarding some of the JCPOA’s key technical aspects. For instance, some commentators have made much of the fact that enrichment was halted at the once-secret facility at Fordow, yet Iran is still conducting enrichment activities at Natanz. According to a May 26 International Atomic Energy Agency report, “Iran has continued the enrichment of UF6 [uranium hexafluoride gas] at FEP [the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz].”

The IAEA also noted that “Throughout the reporting period, Iran has not enriched uranium above 3.67% U-235.” This may sound like a low figure, but the science suggests otherwise. Natural uranium contains 0.7% of the isotope U-235 and 99.3% of the isotope U-238, or a ratio of 7:993. To be used as a nuclear explosive, the proportion of U-235 has to be greater than 90%. Yet even at the JCPOA’s maximum allowable enrichment level of 3.67%, the resulting isotope ratio is 7:183, meaning that something approaching 75% of the work needed to produce weapons-grade material has already been done (for a fuller technical explanation, see the 2015 Washington Institute report Nuclear Iran: A Glossary, coauthored with Olli Heinonen). And while there are limits on the stockpile of this low-enriched uranium Iran can accrue, the country has no real need for any of it; for now, allowing the process to continue at Natanz simply gives Iranian scientists valuable lessons in how to improve their relatively rudimentary centrifuges.

In addition, despite promises of a rigorous inspection regime, Iran has been able to block full investigation of the Parchin site outside Tehran, where it is believed to have conducted tests on the design of an implosion device at some point during the pre-JCPOA years. Such devices are used to compress high-enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium into critical masses, prompting a nuclear explosion. Even under severe Iranian constraints, the IAEA was able to use soil samples from Parchin to discern the presence of “two particles that appear to be chemically man-modified particles of natural uranium.” On June 16, the Wall Street Journal reported that these particles were the first physical evidence — on top of satellite imagery and documents from defectors — to support the charge that Iran had pursued the development of a nuclear bomb at Parchin. The particles may have come from material used as a substitute for HEU in tests of atomic bomb trigger designs.

Moreover, on July 7, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon reportedly told the Security Council in a confidential document that the missile tests Iran has conducted since last year “are not consistent with the constructive spirit” of the nuclear deal. (Not to mention the fact that they are grossly out of line with international norms; for example, one missile tested in April had the words “Israel must be wiped out” printed on its side in Hebrew.) And a new German intelligence report revealed that Iran’s “illegal proliferation-sensitive procurement activities in Germany…persisted in 2015 at what is, even by international standards, a quantitatively high level. This holds true in particular with regard to items which can be used in the field of nuclear technology…Against this backdrop it is safe to expect that Iran will continue its intensive procurement activities in Germany using clandestine methods to achieve its objectives.” Theoretically, Iran has to use a UN-approved procurement channel for all purchases of nuclear and dual-use material and equipment, but the German report suggests it has been trying to evade controls.


Some analysts fear that Iran may be able to circumvent JCPOA restrictions by sending technicians to North Korea for training in enrichment and weapons design. In addition to its ambitious weapons program involving nuclear tests (most recently in January) and periodic long-range missile launches, Pyongyang uses Pakistani-type P-2 centrifuges that are comparable in design and capability to Iran’s IR-2 machines.

Indeed, Pakistanis are potential clandestine partners as well. Although Islamabad is unlikely to risk direct cooperation, Iran’s more numerous IR-1 centrifuges originally came from Pakistan through its now-disgraced nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan. Even in the absence of official cooperation, former Pakistani technicians and engineers with centrifuge experience could be tempted by lucrative job offers in Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

Another extreme but plausible scenario should not be dismissed: that of North Korea providing Iran with HEU or plutonium. Pyongyang has both materials, and precedent for such a transfer exists. In the 1980s, China provided Pakistan with enough HEU for two nuclear bombs and the design data to build the devices, greatly boosting Islamabad’s capabilities against their mutual rival India.


Washington’s confidence in the JCPOA’s continued success is highly optimistic. Tehran is resentful of continued restrictions on its efforts to expand trade; although these limitations are largely a consequence of nonnuclear sanctions and Iran’s own shortcomings (e.g., in the banking sector), the regime has nevertheless accused Washington of reneging on the deal. For their part, U.S. allies are skeptical of Washington’s ability to firmly enforce the agreement. In words attributed to a British diplomat at the UN and repeated by numerous others, “The United States is no longer feared by its enemies or respected by its friends.”

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute.


Article 2

The JCPOA’S Regional Impact: Sinking Confidence in the U.S. Balancing Role

James F. Jeffrey

PolicyWatch 2643,
July 5, 2016

Left to their own devices and faced with an Iran on the march in multiple theaters, regional states have responded to the deal in an incoherent and dangerous fashion.

July 14 will mark one year since the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement with Iran. This article is the first in a series of PolicyWatches assessing how the deal has affected various U.S. interests, to be released in the days leading up to the anniversary.

The JCPOA’s reverberations continue to echo throughout a Middle East that is arguably less secure than it was last July, in part because of the agreement. The problem lies not so much in the deal’s terms, which will complicate any Iranian effort to obtain nuclear weapons capability for at least ten years. Rather, the region perceives that its political effects have encouraged, even enabled Iran’s hegemonic quest, and there is enough truth in this view that the burden is on Washington to show it is not the case. Regional powers generally recognize this and have responded in various ways, from full-scale opposition by Saudi Arabia, to mixed approaches by Turkey and other Gulf states, to accommodation by Iraq and Oman. Coupled with what some perceive as weak U.S. leadership, this uncoordinated sloshing about risks a descent into greater chaos. 

Initially, states throughout the region (other than Israel, at least officially) welcomed the JCPOA, though the Saudis did so with at best tepid language. Arab populations were split on the agreement, according to the 2015 Arab Opinion Index, with 40 percent supportive and 32 percent opposed. Those opposed, significantly, cited the agreement’s potential to facilitate Iranian mischief-making. Dutifully, all the Gulf states that attended the U.S.-GCC Summit in Saudi Arabia this April signed onto language supportive of the JCPOA, but the lack of enthusiasm for the underlying American approach to Iran was palpable — a sentiment also evident in King Salman’s absence from both the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington and the first U.S.-GCC Summit in 2015 (three of the five other GCC heads of state skipped the latter as well).

It is those underlying effects — with the wind in Iran’s sails conjured by the deal — rather than any JCPOA specifics that so concern most regional states. These effects flow from two anticipated outcomes of the agreement. First, the deal has given Iran the means to expand its regional heft through diplomacy, money, surrogates, and violence, namely by allowing the regime to profit from the release of many tens of billions of dollars of previously blocked oil earnings and renewed oil exports, to leave the negotiating table flush with arguable “victories” (i.e., maintaining the right to enrich uranium and avoiding a confession about its weaponization program), and to become newly attractive as a global trading partner. Second, the Obama administration, bereft of diplomatic successes elsewhere, has become so indebted to Iran for the agreement that it has avoided challenging Iran and, worse, seems to view the agreement as a transformative moment with Tehran, a “Havana in the sand.” 

After the 2013 interim P5+1 agreement with Iran, when it became clear that a final agreement was likely, regional leaders and U.S. analysts focused on this second concern, highlighting the need to complement the JCPOA with renewed vigor in countering Iran’s aggressiveness. This focus was clear in the Iran Project’s July 2015 pro-agreement letter signed by over 100 former U.S. ambassadors, and in the June 24 bipartisan “Public Statement on U.S. Policy Toward the Iran Nuclear Negotiations,” released under the auspices of The Washington Institute. Regional states were more discreet, but reporting is all but unanimous that they emphasized this same point.

The Obama Administration claims it has “gotten the message” the Sunni Arab states have been sending about the need to firmly counter Iran’s destablising actions – but its behaviour suggests otherwise.

The U.S. government responded that it had “gotten the message.” Opposition to Iran’s “destabilizing actions” was highlighted in the final communiques of both U.S.-GCC Summits, and in Secretary of State John Kerry’s September 2 letter to U.S. senators, where he wrote: “We share the concern expressed by many in Congress regarding Iran’s continued support for terrorist and proxy groups throughout the region, its propping up of the Asad regime in Syria, its efforts to undermine the stability of its regional neighbors, and the threat it poses to Israel. We have no illusion that this behavior will change following implementation of the JCPOA.” Moreover, administration officials from the president on down kept emphasizing that the deal was “transactional” — a one-off “nuclear arrangements only” package, not a “transformational” Nixon-goes-to-China moment.

Unfortunately, administration actions and comments since then belie these commitments. This April, speaking with Jeffrey Goldberg in an interview for the Atlantic, President Obama stated that Saudi Arabia must learn to “share” the Middle East with Iran. The fact that he put the burden on Riyadh — a U.S. ally and, whatever its faults, a supporter of the American-led global status quo — rather than on Iran, an acknowledged opponent of that order, is striking.

Meanwhile, administration responses to crises generated by Iran since the JCPOA have been mixed, but certainly fall short of what it would take to persuade skeptical regional states that Washington is following through on Kerry’s commitments. In Iraq, the administration has applied enough power since mid-2015 to push back the Islamic State with government forces, reducing the role of Iranian-supported Shiite militias. The United States has also backed the GCC effort in Yemen, interdicted Iranian arms shipments, and sanctioned Tehran (mildly) for violating missile test provisions of the UN’s JCPOA implementing mechanism (Security Council Resolution 2231).

Yet Washington failed to deter Iran’s outrageous seizure of errant U.S. Navy crews this January, and in fact commended more than condemned the regime for its actions. And despite its commitments to GCC states, the government has held up aircraft sales to Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, key allies in fighting the Islamic State and deterring Iran. The United States has also done little to oppose Iran’s encroachment in Lebanon. And most important, Washington had little response to the Iranian-Russian alliance in Syria, sealed just after the JCPOA, which reversed the Assad regime’s fortunes, generated bilateral tension with Turkey and Arab states, and further weakened the U.S. commitment to anti-Assad rebels. In sum, for Ankara, Jerusalem, and most Arab states, Iran appears on the march in multiple theaters, without major U.S. pushback.

Absent a White House that is willing to “lead from the front,” regional players have acted individually. Saudi Arabia has been the strongest in opposing Iran, leading the Yemen campaign, supporting Bashar al-Assad’s overthrow, keeping its distance from Shiite prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s government in Iraq, and withdrawing its bank holdings from a Lebanon that it sees as trapped within Tehran’s sway. The United Arab Emirates and in some respects Qatar have followed similar strategies. Oman and Kuwait are on the sidelines. Jordan is worried about Iran but has more pressing threats. Egypt remains largely absent from the regional stage. Turkey supported a past Iranian nuclear deal (the 2010 “Tehran Agreement”), but it now sees Iran as a both a regional rival and trading partner, and it bitterly opposes the Assad-Tehran axis in Syria. As for Israel, many top figures, including leading military officials, recognize that the JCPOA has temporarily restrained Iran’s nuclear quest, though Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself has not conceded this point. Israel has simultaneously courted Moscow, remained generally neutral on Assad, and reacted to the Iran-Hezbollah alliance with fairly frequent military strikes in Syria.

The result of all this is not pretty. The administration mainly appears interested in preserving the accord and its new channels with Tehran while running its still-limited campaign against the Islamic State. Left to their own devices and faced with an Iran on the march, regional states are responding in an incoherent and dangerous fashion, including Turkish shootdowns of Russian aircraft, the intractable Yemen conflict, and Israeli strikes into Syria. To the extent the JCPOA enabled this, it has degraded Middle East security.

James Jeffrey is the Philip Solondz Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey.


Article 3

Obama’s Iran experiment


Clifford May

Israel Hayom, July 13

A hypothetical question: Suppose the Islamic State group wanted to buy some American airplanes, and promised not to use them to support terrorists — would you be OK with that? I’m guessing not.

Now suppose that the Islamic Republic of Iran wanted to buy some American airplanes, and promised not to use them to support terrorists. That is not hypothetical. It is something Tehran very much wants and President Barack Obama is eager to provide. Are you OK with that?

Boeing is controversially being urged to supply jets to Teheran in return for a promise not to use them to support terrorism.

Obama might argue that Islamic State and the Islamic republic are very different. I’d say, yes and no. Islamic State is a terrorist entity. The Islamic republic, as the U.S. government acknowledges, is the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism.

Islamic State slaughters Christians and Yazidis. The Islamic republic persecutes Baha’i but tolerates Christians, as long as they accept second-class status. Both Islamic State and the Islamic republic execute members of what they don’t call the LGBT community.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of the Islamic republic, has the intention, if not yet the capability, to bring “death” to America and Israel. The same is true of Abu Bakr-al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of Islamic State. Supporters of Islamic State have murdered dozens of Americans in America (while also slitting the throats of several in Syria). Iranian-backed Shiite militias have murdered hundreds of Americans in Iraq and Lebanon (though an Iranian attempt to blow up a Washington restaurant in 2011 failed).

There are, to be sure, stylistic differences between Islamic State and the Islamic republic. Jihadis for the former proudly take selfies while holding bleeding human heads by the hair. Jihadis for the latter probably find that gauche. Take Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, often described in the media as a moderate. He speaks impeccable English and you can bet he knows which fork to use when dining with Secretary of State John Kerry at expensive Viennese restaurants.

But two years ago, he laid a wreath on the Beirut grave of Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah commander responsible for numerous terrorist atrocities, including the 1983 Beirut bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines.

The current debate over whether to sell aircraft to Iran stems from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the deal Obama cut with Iran’s rulers one year ago, on July 14, 2015. He has repeatedly asserted that it prevents Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In reality, restrictions on Iran’s nuclear weapons program will disappear after eight years — assuming that Iran’s rulers don’t cheat (which they already are).

In exchange for Iran mothballing parts of its nuclear weapons program, many of the toughest American and international economic sanctions have been lifted. Iran’s rulers now have access to $100 billion in what had been blocked assets.

As expected, Iran’s economy is recovering. Nevertheless, Khamenei is dissatisfied. He recently charged that Americans were creating “Iranophobia so no one does business with Iran.”

In response, Kerry has been telling Europeans and anyone else willing to listen about all the marvelous investment opportunities available in Iran. Soon afterward, Boeing announced a $25 billion deal to sell and lease aircraft to government-owned Iran Air.

Iran’s rulers say the aircraft will be used only for civilian transportation. But it’s no secret that they’ve been running an illicit airlift of weapons and fighters to Syria where Hezbollah, their proxy militia, as well as elite units of their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, are taking part in the Syrian civil war — a conflict that has claimed as many as 400,000 lives and displaced millions.

Last Thursday, a House subcommittee held a hearing on “The Implications of U.S. Aircraft Sales to Iran.” Around the same time, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency revealed in its annual report that Iran’s “clandestine” efforts to illegally procure nuclear technology have continued “at what is, even by international standards, a quantitatively high level.” Among other things, Iran has been trying “to buy parts for missiles that could be fitted with nuclear warheads.”

Referencing the report, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the German parliament that recent Iranian missile launches were “in conflict” with a U.N. Security Council resolution. Reuters reported that a confidential report by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also had found Iran’s missile launches inconsistent “with the constructive spirit” of the JCPOA.

Hours later, the House passed, with bipartisan support, two amendments to block the sales of aircraft to Iran. We’ll see if the Senate follows suit.

Meanwhile, revelations about Iran’s behavior keep on coming. Over the weekend, based on “intelligence data and reports from the 16 German states,” my Berlin-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies colleague Benjamin Weinthal reported that “Iran’s illicit proliferation activities span eight German states and involve a range of activities to advance its chemical and biological warfare, as well as its nuclear and missile programs.”

Let’s be charitable and consider the JCPOA an experiment. If Obama showed Iran’s rulers respect, there was a chance they would respond by making an effort to “get right with the world,” toning down their jihadi rhetoric and revolutionary ambitions. Given an opportunity to make their country prosperous, they’d stop pursuing nuclear weapons and supporting terrorism. Feeling less threatened, they’d choose to peacefully coexist with their neighbors and ease repression on their citizens.

But that experiment has now been run. You know the results. Does Obama? Or does he consider the Iran deal so essential to his legacy that he can’t possibly acknowledge its failure? On Friday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said he had “absolutely no indication that Iran has procured any materials in violation of the JCPOA.” Are you OK with that?

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.



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