Lessons from the Interim Agreement with Iran

By Dana Schwarz

As the P5+1 attempt to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with Iran that limits its nuclear program, it is worth drawing some lessons from the interim agreement they signed last November. Known as the JPA, or “Joint Plan of Action”, it is a good illustration of Iran’s shrewd negotiating strategy of extracting as many concessions as possible while minimizing its own concessions to actions that can be reversed or counteracted in the future. Additionally, critical components of the nuclear program such as military nuclear activities were not covered by the agreement. The Iranian regime has been able to use the ambiguous language of the agreement to continue advancing centrifuge research and development, a factor that could greatly speed up and increase their output of enriched uranium.

Firstly, the Iranian regime is benefiting from extensive sanctions relief and a much improved business atmosphere because the P5+1 drastically underestimated the sanctions relief they decided to give to Iran. While estimated at $6-7 billion, the actual relief is closer to $20 billion. This miscalculation was mainly due to a failure to consider the role that expectations play in economics, as well as the benefits of a stronger currency value.Oil revenues have increased dramatically, as have economic activity and job creation in the auto and petrochemical industries as well as the numerous associated small industries. In the future, the P5+1 will need to be more astute in their predictions of sanctions relief, and remember to take into account market psychology. In addition, sanctions relief should be back-loaded so that the strongest sanctions are lifted after the biggest Iranian concessions have been implemented.

Secondly, the Iranian regime succeeded in extracting highly significant and irreversible concessions from the P5+1. The JPA states that any comprehensive agreement will be limited in duration, and, that after it expires, Iran will be treated like any other Non-Proliferation Treaty member. Moreover, the JPA indirectly recognizes that Iran has a right to enrich uranium up to 5{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd}, which contradicts several UN Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to suspend all enrichment. Although it is doubtful that Iran would agree to any comprehensive agreement that completely forbids uranium enrichment, moving closer to Iran’s negotiating position even before negotiations for a comprehensive deal began may have contributed to an image of weakness in the eyes of Iranian leaders.

On the other hand Iran has only committed itself to concessions that can be relatively easily reversed. Under the JPA, Iran halted production of 20{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} enriched uranium, is diluting half of the existing 20{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} enriched stockpile to 5{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} and converting the other half to oxide. This may seem like a significant concession but Iran is still maintaining its much larger stockpile of 3.5{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} enriched uranium, which is enough for at least 3 bombs. It is important to note that enriching uranium to 3.5{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} takes 75{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} of the total time required to transform natural uranium into weapons-grade uranium. Additionally, the facilities and centrifuges that were utilized to enrich to 20{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} are not being dismantled or left idle, but are now being used to enrich uranium to 3.5{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd}, although this new stockpile must also be turned into oxide.

Moreover, although the Obama administration’s summary of the JPA stated that oxide is “not suitable for further enrichment,” oxide can in fact be turned back into uranium hexafluoride stock and can then be re-enriched. Currently Iran does not have a facility at which to carry out this conversion, but the regime has the resources and skills necessary to build such a facility in just a few months. In fact, Iran’s total amount of uranium oxide (300kg), if reconverted and then enriched to 90 percent, could be sufficient for one nuclear explosive device.  According to the recent agreement that extends the negotiations for another 4 months, Iran will receive access to $2.8 billion in previously frozen assets in return for diluting this uranium oxide further into nuclear fuel, which is more difficult, though not impossible, to transform back into hexafluoride. This concession is still reversible.

Furthermore, the JPA did not require Iran to address the possible military dimensions of the program, so the development and manufacturing of nuclear explosive devices and warheads is likely continuing during implementation of the JPA, although the IAEA continues to demand answers to its concerns. Of particular concern is the Parchin military complex, where the IAEA believes that Iran has conducted experiments with explosives for use in a nuclear weapon.

Thirdly, although the JPA prohibits Iran from installing new centrifuges, the language of the JPA is vague enough to allow Iran to interpret it as permitting them to continue to engage in centrifuge R & D, so long as the numbers or types of centrifuges in Natanz or Fordow are not increased. Thus Iran can advance new centrifuge technology that will help them enrich uranium 3-5 times faster and more efficiently than before, in the event that they decide to break out to produce a bomb. This factor renders the P5 +1 accomplishment of getting Iran to halt production of 20{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} enriched uranium and dilute half and convert the other half to oxide somewhat insignificant. With improved centrifuges, Iran will be able to make up for lost time rather quickly. In fact, advances made in centrifuge R & D could undermine the small delay (less than a month or so) in breakout time that the JPA accomplished.

An argument can still be made that Iranian progress towards nuclear weapons may have proceeded even more rapidly in the absence of the JPA. Nevertheless, the interim deal is an essential lesson in Iranian negotiating tactics. The principle negotiating strategy of the regime is to maximize the amount of concessions they receive from the P5+1, while limiting Iranian concessions in such a way that the regime preserves its core nuclear capabilities particularly with regards to uranium enrichment and plutonium production. In line with this strategy, no centrifuges were dismantled and no uranium was shipped out of Iran under the interim agreements. Moreover, Iran continues to insist on an industrial scale nuclear program. While the P5+1 insist that Iran scale back its centrifuges to a number in the low thousands, in a recent speech this month, the Ayatollah Khamenei insisted Iran envisions having 190,000 centrifuges in the future. An agreement is unlikely to be concluded due to Iranian recalcitrance to limit their nuclear infrastructure. The Iranian regime may then seek to extend the flawed JPA indefinitely. Therefore, added leverage against Iran is needed to facilitate an agreement. Passing crippling sanctions that would go into effect after 4 months have expired and no agreement has been reached, could force the Iranian regime to change course.

The experience of the JPA illustrates that the Iranians have been able to use loopholes, reversible compromises, and ambiguous language to avoid making serious concessions, all the while appearing conciliatory and gaining significant sanctions relief.

Looking to the future, it must be understood that failing to cover certain significant aspects of the Iranian nuclear program such as potential military dimensions and ballistic missile development is tantamount to acceding to the status quo. If not dealt with in the comprehensive agreement, it is highly unlikely that these issues will be resolved in the aftermath, after sanctions have been lifted.  In order to avoid the pitfalls of the JPA, the P5+1 should not be fooled by Iranian compromises that seem like concessions but are actually easily reversible paths to producing a bomb. Finally, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure including its centrifuges and stockpiles should be dismantled and limited to such an extent that Iranian breakout time is extended by years rather than months, in order to give the international community enough time to discover an attempted Iranian breakout and coordinate an effective response before a nuclear weapon is produced.

Dana has a bachelor’s degree in International Studies from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in Security and Diplomacy Studies from Tel Aviv University. In the past she has coordinated State Department-sponsored professional exchange programs. She is currently an intern on Capitol Hill, and has expertise in Middle East affairs and nuclear non-proliferation.

Banner photo: EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, from left center, prior the talks between the E3+3 (France, Germany, UK, China, Russia and US) and Iran, Tuesday, 17. June 2014 in Vienna, Austria.’  Credit: Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs, https://www.flickr.com/photos/minoritenplatz8/14464223293/in/photostream/