Further Discussion on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

Congressman Sarbanes provides further discussion on a number of points related to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA):

Pulling Iran Back from the Nuclear Weapon Threshold

Currently, Iran has enough raw fissile material to produce ten nuclear weapons and it is estimated that its “breakout time” – the amount of time it would take Iran to convert that material to weapons grade status – is approximately two to three months. That means that today, Iran is a threshold nuclear weapon state. Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran must reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 percent – to 300kg – and maintain that reduced stockpile for 15 years. With this reduction, Iran will not have enough enriched uranium for even a single nuclear weapon. Furthermore, Iran must eliminate two-thirds of its installed centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, and must mothball all centrifuges other than the lowest level IR-1 type. The JCPOA also mandates that Iran limit its enrichment level to 3.67 percent, well below the 80 to 90 percent that is required for weapons-grade material. In addition, Iran must remove the core of its heavy-water reactor at Arak, which will block its plutonium path to a nuclear weapon. Experts agree that all of these various restrictions will likely increase Iran’s break-out time to a year and maintain that status for ten to twelve years.

Sanctions Relief and Snapback

Iran is not entitled to sanctions relief until it implements all of the uranium enrichment and plutonium production limitations outlined above and until it takes a host of other meaningful steps. For example, Iran must begin and maintain its adherence to the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, under which the IAEA may request access to any location where there is suspected undeclared nuclear activity. Iran must also address the IAEA’s satisfaction concerns regarding its past and ongoing nuclear weaponization activities (so-called “possible military dimensions”).

Once these and other requirements have been met, the economic sanctions that have been imposed on Iran based on its nuclear activities will be lifted. This will not affect the continued imposition of sanctions related to human rights abuses, terrorism and missiles. Even after the nuclear-related sanctions have been lifted, they can be snapped back into place if there is significant non-performance by Iran of its obligations under the Agreement. It is important to note that the United States can effect snapback with or without the agreement of the other signators to the JCPOA. Once the U.S. has exhausted the dispute resolution process in the JCPOA, and has proposed to the U.N. Security Council the reimposition of certain sanctions, it has the ability to veto any corresponding resolution that seeks to maintain sanctions relief. At that point, the sanctions snap back into place.

This snapback mechanism is in place for ten years, with a political understanding among the P5+1 to maintain it through Year 15. It is important to emphasize that if the United States determines at any time up through Year 15 or beyond that Iran is seeking to obtain a nuclear weapon, the availability of sanctions recourse does not preclude the U.S. from using force to curb Iran’s ambitions.

Some have advocated that the United States establish a set of intermediate penalties so that violations that fall short of “significant non-performance” will still be met with a pointed response. I agree that the U.S. should explore various ways of imposing hardship on Iran even for arguably minor violations. It is critical to set an early precedent that the international community expects the highest standard of compliance.

I am well aware that if Iran ultimately meets the requirements for sanctions relief, it will gain access to billions of dollars ($50B to $60B by most estimates) in currently frozen bank accounts and other financial assets. While most experts agree that the Iranian regime is likely to deploy the lion’s share of these dollars to repairing its domestic economy, some portion could be used to underwrite Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and other destabilizing activities in the region. This possibility has been present from the outset of the negotiations because any deal – even a better deal – was going to include sanctions relief.

The solution is for the United States, in concert with Israel and various other Gulf State allies, to step up its interdiction of Iranian weaponry and otherwise act to address the conventional and terrorist threats being deployed by Iran in the region. It bears remembering that in the absence of a deal, Iran would benefit from significant sanctions relief anyway because Russia, China and various European countries would likely begin to release their funds. That the Agreement is conditioning such relief on major concessions by Iran with respect to its nuclear program warrants the extra effort needed to address Iran’s activity in the region.

Inspection and Monitoring

Iran’s adherence to the various restrictions on its nuclear activity will be verified through an inspection and monitoring regime that has multiple levels of transparency. On a permanent basis – i.e., with no end date – the comprehensive safeguards regime that governs Iran’s nuclear program under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) gives the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) 24/7 access to enrichment facilities and reactors, and regular non-restricted access to all other declared sites. Additional layers of inspection range from 10 to 25 years. For example, international inspectors will have access to Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain – its uranium mines and mills, conversion facility, centrifuge manufacturing and storage facilities – for 25 years.

In addition, the IAEA can request access to any undeclared site with 24 hours notice pursuant to the Additional Protocol of the NPT. The Agreement establishes an unprecedented mechanism to ensure that any Iranian resistance to IAEA access at an undeclared site is resolved within 24 days, thereby preventing Iran from delaying inspections indefinitely.

Some have expressed concern that 24 days is too long because it would allow Iran to hide the evidence of nuclear weapon-related activities. Based on the briefings I attended, I believe it would be virtually impossible for Iran to avoid detection of prohibited activities. Many of the core facilities that Iran would need as part of a covert nuclear weapons program – such as an enrichment production facility or a high explosives chamber – could not be quickly dismantled or scrubbed of radioactive evidence. Even if it took the full 24 days to access a particular undeclared location, my understanding of the science is that IAEA environmental sampling would be able to detect microscopic traces of nuclear activities even after attempts to remove evidence. For these reasons, the 24-day outer limit for gaining access should serve as an effective verification tool with respect to Iran’s activities at undeclared sites.

The IAEA will also take steps to investigate certain past nuclear activities the Iranians may have undertaken with “possible military dimensions (PMD).” For example, the IAEA will be inspecting the Parchin military compound, which the United States believes was previously the site of nuclear weaponizing activity. For purposes of this review, the IAEA and Iran have entered into a confidential agreement, which is the standard procedure for certain kinds of inspections involving NPT member states. The agency’s experience is that confidentiality encourages a greater sharing of information, which in turn enhances accountability.

The confidentiality protocol in no way constrains the IAEA, once the inspection is completed, from reporting out to the international community its conclusions as to whether there is cause for concern. In fact, under the JCPOA, one of the conditions for sanctions relief is that the IAEA provide an assurance by December 15, 2015 that outstanding issues relating to PMD have been resolved. 

Press reports have suggested that, at Parchin, the IAEA might take the unusual step of allowing the Iranians to conduct certain parts of the inspection themselves, thereby rendering the inspection useless. To address my own concerns about this possibility, I requested a classified National Security Council briefing on the topic and came away confident that the inspection procedures likely to be employed at Parchin should enable the IAEA to make a sound judgment regarding “possible military dimensions.”

I recognize that across the board, concerns about detection intensify after Year 10 of the Agreement, when Iran will be permitted to accelerate its enrichment capacity to levels that significantly reduce the breakout time from the one-year benchmark. The issue then is whether the United States will have sufficient ongoing insight into Iran’s nuclear activities to discover an attempt by Iran to move quickly towards a nuclear weapon. I believe that the formal inspection and monitoring regime that will be permanently deployed, along with other U.S. and allied intelligence capabilities, will give the United States enough notice that we can thwart a breakout attempt using military means if necessary. If military action were required, the United States would benefit from the additional insight into Iran’s nuclear infrastructure that will come from the inspection and monitoring regime deployed under the Agreement.