Analysis: A Year After the Iran Nuclear Deal

August 10, 2016 1:07 PM
Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Geneva on January 14 for a bilateral meeting to provide guidance to their negotiating teams before their next round of discussions, which begin on January 15. US State Dept. Photo
Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Geneva on January 14 for a bilateral meeting to provide guidance to their negotiating teams before their next round of discussions, which begin on January 15. US State Dept. Photo

If measured only by the ton, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to as “the Iran nuclear deal,” would be considered a smashing success.

In the past year Iran has shipped more than 9 tons of low-enriched uranium to Russia, leaving only 660 lbs. for research programs. Iran also reduced its inventory of centrifuges from 19,138 to 6,104. Finally, along with regular inspections and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran’s single heavy-water reactor, at Arak, was dismantled and filled with concrete making plutonium production in Iran impossible. Experts note that the combined effect of those measures alone have increased Iran’s breakout time from 1–2 months a year ago, to more than a year. Despite those empirical facts the JCPOA remains a source of contentious political debate, and divisive public opinion, in the United States, Israel and Iran.

Proponents around the world have a shared belief that the deal has made the world safer by removing the materials and means for Iran to build a nuclear weapon. Supporters would also point to the level of access now granted to IAEA inspectors, and the election of more moderate candidates in Iran’s most recent election cycle as signs of real progress. Most important, observers, even critics, have noted that Iran has complied with its obligations under the agreement.

Proponents also point to Iran’s spending spree on international markets as a sign of positive progress. The big post-sanctions investments have been in infrastructure and commercial aerospace products. For instance, an order for 100 Airbus aircraft immediately followed the lifting of sanctions against Iran, and in late June of this year Iran placed an order for 80 Boeing airliners.

A secondary positive aspect of the deal is that it allows U.S. and Iranian forces to focus their efforts against Daesh (ISIS). The de facto cooperation of the West and Iran in fighting Daesh in Iraq and Syria is clearly a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” but the results in the fight against Daesh this past year have been tangible. If defeating ISIS is the true priority for the United States in the region, then the reduced tensions between the West and Iran, which the JCPOA facilitated, allow a more focused effort in the fight against Daesh. Middle East regional news sources have noted Iran’s instrumental role in helping the Iraqi army drive ISIS from the cities of Fallujah, Diyala and Tikrit.

Critics in the United States have not softened their criticism of the nuclear deal. Beyond the legitimate concern over what happens when the terms of the JCPOA expire in 10-15 years, and evidence that Iran still supports proxy forces opposed to the United States and Israel, many critics often appear to dislike the deal for purely political reasons.

For instance, the Airbus deal was initially panned by some U.S. critics as a sign that American industry was not benefiting from Iran’s post-agreement access to billions in frozen assets. However, just days after Iran announced its intent to spend $25 billion for 80 Boeing aircraft, those same critics passed a measure in the House of Representatives to block the deal. The amendment’s sponsor—Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL)—noted that “the aircraft could be used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard” as justification for blocking the sale. Boeing is challenging that action. Meanwhile headline’s in Airbus’s native France noted that it looks forward to the opportunity to fill the order for 80 more aircraft if Boeing’s efforts should fail.

Many other U.S. critics contend that the anticipated social reforms (e.g., freedom of the press) in Iran have not transpired, and Iran’s support for proxy groups in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen have not abated. That conclusion requires one to downplay, or overlook, the incremental progress in Iran’s most recent elections, and make a claim that more significant social reforms and improved international behavior should have been demanded from Iran. Such expeditious social reform is a tall order for any nation, especially one as large, complex, and politically fractious as Iran. Americans need only to look at their own tectonic pace for social and political changes to appreciate that Iran’s progress on those fronts will likely take more than a year to measure. A derailment of the deal would empower Iran’s militant right wing, and would most certainly make these desired changes far less likely to transpire.

For reasons such as those, the GOP candidate for president, Donald Trump, has repeatedly threatened to “tear the deal up” on his first day in office. One of his top advisers, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, has advised the same. Ironically, that proposed action is not just applauded by hardliners in the U.S., but also in Iran.

Why would the most militant members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps agree with Trump and Gingrich? Statements in Iranian press say that faction of militant Iranian leaders believe that the nuclear deal only benefits the United States, and complying with the concessions are a humiliation for Iran. One also must speculate that Iran’s staunchest militants would like to resume the halted enrichment activities and move beyond being a nuclear threshold state to full membership in the nuclear club.

Many average Iranian’s are also disillusioned by the lack of immediate improvements in their day-to-day lives. Iran’s economy suffered for years under the weight of international sanctions, and working-class Iranians hoped that the end of sanctions would deliver some measure of relief. Beyond social reforms, most Iranians just wanted better employment, higher wages, and opportunities for their families. For many of them, these basic tangible benefits were the anticipated reward for the humiliation of JCPOA compliance.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani’s JCPOA anniversary statements reflect the division in Iran. Khameni’s statement that the deal has not had, “any meaningful effect on the livelihood of Iranians” indicates his sympathy with the people. Yet President Rouhani “praised the deal for lifting the threat of war and giving Iran an open hand in the sale of crude oil,” implicitly indicating his clear support to stay the course.

Israeli opinions are as divided as those in the United States and Iran. Israeli news stories on the occasion of the one-year anniversary indicate that while many still worry about the day after the deal expires, a true measure of increased security has been achieved. One Jewish Journal headline on the one-year anniversary read, “A Year In: Iran is still bad, the deal is still good.”

The author, Avishay Ben Sasson-Gordis notes that all of the fearful predictions of pundits one year ago have failed to transpire, and the deal is providing real security for Israel while buying the time needed for discovering a solution beyond the 10-15 year period defined by the JCPOA.

Sasson-Gordis’ sentiment is an encouraging sign from the country that has the most to fear from a nuclear-armed Iran, but one poll taken by Jerusalem based Times of Israel on 5 August showed that 47 percent (lower than last year) of respondents still supported unilateral action against Iran “if such action was needed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

It is often said that “there is something for everyone not to like in a compromise.” That certainly seems to be the case with the JCPOA on its one-year anniversary. The trends are mostly positive, with full compliance, inspectors in place, Iran’s nuclear bomb breakout time rolled back 10 months or more, and the worst fears voiced by critics one year ago not having materialized.

Whether for or against the deal, a clear-eyed view of the facts leads one to conclude that the JCPOA has reduced the threat of war, or a nuclear arms race, in the region—for the time being at least. A swing to the right in United States or in Iranian politics would most certainly roll back the measurable progress of the past year, and raise the threat of war. “Tearing the deal up” would leave us all to wonder if time would have brought about long-sought changes in Iran’s civil and international affairs that would lead to a lasting peace to the region.

Cmdr. Daniel Dolan, USN (Retired)

Cmdr. Dolan teaches Strategy & War with the Naval War College’s Distance Education program, and history as an adjunct professor at the University of Maine. He is a former EP-3E/Special mission P-3 naval flight officer, and frequent contributor to USNI News and Proceedings. 

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