Nuclear Deal with Iran: The Devil in the Details?

While the deal is truly remarkable, there are key details to sort out, including how to proceed on sanctions relief. By Paul Meyer.
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April 8, 2015

It was a protracted process, complete with last minute extensions and several cliff-hanging episodes, but finally the P5+1 negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have yielded tangible results.

What was to have been a “framework agreement” ended up as “Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” a text that surprised most observers with the extent of detailed commitments it contained. The parameters describe the most comprehensive and intrusive intervention, albeit on a cooperative basis, in the nuclear affairs of a sovereign state ever achieved. Its only parallel that comes to mind would be the major disarmament and verification regime imposed on a defeated Iraq by the UN Security Council after the first Gulf War. It may be prudent to keep this model in mind in appreciating the magnitude and challenges of the task ahead.

The deal translates into a massive restriction over a 15 year period on Iran’s capacity for developing the fissile material required for nuclear weapons, although the Iranian regime has long asserted that it never has had such an intention. Uranium enrichment levels will be maintained at under four percent consistent with the low-enriched uranium (LEU) used in civilian power reactor fuel and well below the 20 percent threshold for Highly Enriched Uranium, not to mention the 90 percent range of weapons-grade uranium. No new enrichment facilities will be built for 15 years and no enrichment will occur at all in the existing Fordow facility, which had drawn special concern given its underground location. The number of centrifuges permitted under the deal will drop from 19,000 to 6,104 and they will be limited to the older, first generation model (IR-1). Iran has also agreed to reduce its current stock of 10,000 kgs of LEU to a mere 300 kgs.

Similar restrictions will apply to the Arak heavy water reactor under construction in a manner that will preclude weapon grade plutonium being generated. Iran also commits indefinitely not to undertake any reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, a necessary step in extracting plutonium, as well as agreeing to ship all of its spent fuel out of the country for the reactor’s lifetime. A further guarantee that reprocessing cannot occur, but also a major concession of sovereign rights that was considered by many a “red-line” that Tehran would not agree to.

All of these constraints on the sensitive elements of the nuclear fuel cycle will be subject to an extensive verification program implemented by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran will grant the IAEA additional monitoring powers through implementation of the Additional Protocol (a voluntary agreement authorizing the Agency to verify the existence of possible undeclared facilities as well as declared ones). In some cases the intrusive monitoring will exceed the general 15-year time frame of the deal, for instance, inspectors will have access to Iran’s uranium mines and mills for 25 years. A further innovation would be the establishment of a dedicated procurement channel for Iran’s nuclear program, empowered to monitor and approve every sale or transfer of nuclear-related and dual use materials and technology to Iran. Such a mechanism would constitute an important measure of control, but one that will entail considerable work to develop and to provide with acceptable political oversight.

A similar challenge to the negotiations as they proceed to their June 30 deadline for a final accord will be finding mutually acceptable arrangements for the management of the sensitive issue of sanctions relief for Iran. The “Parameters” document refers in general terms to Iran receiving, in return for acceding to this program of constraints, relief from the heavy sanctions regime imposed on it by the UN Security Council and additional measures imposed by some states. How exactly this sanctions relief is to be calibrated and sequenced will require further careful elaboration and could well prove a complicating factor in concluding the comprehensive accord due by the end of June. Whether major powers will be content to leave verification and compliance determinations regarding Iran having taken “all of its key nuclear-related steps” exclusively to the IAEA remains to be seen.

The text suggests that the U.S. nuclear-related sanctions will provide for “snap-back of sanctions in the event of significant non-performance”, but how this process will be harmonized with the UNSC lifting of sanctions and/or IAEA verification is not clear. Despite the provision for a dispute resolution process, the details of this are still to be worked out and even a deal optimist can foresee the potential for differences amongst the P5+1 over judgments as to future Iranian compliance and appropriate responses.

Other undeveloped aspects of the deal include addressing outstanding concerns the IAEA has regarding past “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s program. These less-fleshed out elements could prove problematic in the efforts to finalize the accord and the opening paragraph of the current document affirms that sobering maxim of multilateral diplomacy that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. Capitals and their negotiators will need to keep their eye on the ball and not relax their engagement until the final accord is achieved.

While the “devil in the details” will need to be confronted and mastered by the diplomats, the popular and political endorsement the “Parameters” have received in leading states augurs well for sustaining the negotiations to a positive conclusion. Supportive statements by Presidents Obama and Rouhani respectively, point to an executive branch determination to counter domestic opponents of the deal (especially salient in the Republican-controlled Congress).

Cooperation on the high-profile nuclear file might even provide an impetus for an improvement in bilateral relations more broadly, between Iran and those Western states, such as the US, UK and Canada, which have lacked or terminated diplomatic ties in recent years. After criticizing the effort to find a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear dispute, the Canadian Government has at last made a positive contribution to the enterprise by promising to provide $3 million to the IAEA to help with its verification tasks.

More broadly, the nuclear deal with Iran injects some much-needed positive news into the generally dark context for global nuclear non-proliferation. The once in five years Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) is to convene in a couple of weeks in New York. This cornerstone treaty for global nuclear governance has been under great strain of late, with compliance failures affecting both its disarmament and non-proliferation pillars. Perhaps this example of cooperative problem-solving on sensitive nuclear disputes may carry over into the deliberations of the NPT states parties which will have to agree on a consensus outcome before the conference concludes in late May.

Finally, in a region that has witnessed more than its share of bloodshed and intractable conflicts, it is heartening to witness the apparent diplomatic resolution of a lengthy and dangerous dispute. As Iran is an influential player on several of these enflamed regional conflicts, a cooperative arrangement arrived at with the leading powers of the international community could possibly be leveraged to encourage a more constructive role for Iran in conflict resolution and prevention in future.

A version of this article appeared first in Embassy News.