Quick Hits: The Iran Nuclear Deal

During the third and (thank goodness!) final debate, Republican candidate and now President-elect, Donald Trump called the Iran nuclear agreement “the stupidest deal of all time.”  Objectively speaking –– and it is possible to be objective when it comes to Donald Trump –– there are a lot of people who agree with him.  So what exactly is going on with the Iran nuclear (pronounced nyoo-klee-ar!)  program and the deal?

1. What is the history of Iran’s nuclear program?

Iran’s interest in a nuclear program is not new.  Starting in 1967, under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi before he was deposed in the 1979 Revolution, Iran purchased reactors from the West –– including the United States –– and sent nuclear scientists abroad, ostensibly to develop a nuclear energy program.  The Shah seems to have been intent on eventually building a nuclear bomb, something the United States disapproved of, though apparently not enough to completely block Iranian nuclear development at the time.

When the monarchy was overthrown in 1979, the new Islamic government initially put the nuclear program on hold.  But in 1989, after the death of the leader of the Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, development of the nuclear program resumed.  This time, given the antagonistic relationship with the U.S., Iran met stiff American opposition to its nuclear program.  In 2006, following a less-than-stellar report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran for failing to suspend its enrichment activity.  These sanctions, which were gradually increased in 2008 and again in 2010, remained until the deal.

2. What the heck happened in the Iran nuclear negotiations?

Sometimes, it feels like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or JCPOA) came out of left field.  The truth is, the United States and Iran have tried to figure out the Iranian nuclear problem in the past, but this is the first time they have ever successfully come to an agreement.  Back in September 2013, when U.S. officials began a round of secret negotiations with Iran.  And when Hassan Rouhani, a more moderate and pragmatic politician than former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected president, President Obama initiated the first contact between the two leaders since 1979.

By November that year, Iran and the P5+1 (meaning Germany, France, China, Russia, the UK, and, of course, the U.S.) reached an interim deal that limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a small amount of sanctions relief.  The implementation of the deal was a little rocky, but on July 14, 2015, the parties sealed the deal on the historic agreement.

3. So how does it the JCPOA work?

Officially, the JCPOA “will ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful, and mark a fundamental shift in [the involved parties’] approach to this issue.”  According to the White House, the JCPOA cuts off all of Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon for at least the next decade.  Iran will no longer produce Highly Enriched Uranium (or HEU) at either of its two primary nuclear facilities, the Natanz or the Fordow facilities.  It also will redesign its heavy-water reactor at Arak so that it won’t produce plutonium that could be used for a nuclear weapon, and the new, more intrusive inspections regime that Iran has agreed to will help prevent Iran from covertly building a bomb.

In exchange, and only after Iran has met all of the terms of the JCPOA, the United States, the international community, and the UN will lift sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program.  This doesn’t touch any of the other sanctions on Iran, and the U.S. has plenty of reasons for putting sanctions on Iran, including sponsoring terrorism and human rights abuses.  And even the repealed sanctions can be easily slipped back into place if Iran violates the agreement.

4. Does this mean Iran won’t get a nuclear bomb?

For the next ten to fifteen years, probably.  The restrictions on Iran have increased its breakout time –– the amount of time it would take for Iran to build an actual, fully functioning nuclear bomb –– from only 2-3 months to at least a year.  The new inspections, too, will hopefully keep Iran from secretly building a bomb as long as the deal is in place.  Now, in ten or fifteen years, that might be a different story.  A lot of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would delay an Iranian nuclear bomb by a decade or so, leaving the possibility of a future nuclear-armed Iran open.  However, as President Obama put it, “Ten to fifteen years from now, we [will] have a much better idea about what it is that their program involves.”

5. That sounds pretty good.  What do critics say are the problems?

The problem, critics say, is that we gave away too much control when we signed the deal.  The JCPOA does (temporarily) limit Iran’s nuclear activity, but it also lets the Iranians build more nuclear facilities and accumulate low enriched uranium, all of which could be weaponized fairly easily after the deal expires.  It’s a short-term deal, in many ways, since it doesn’t permanently end Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions, and many critics think that what we have done is allow Iran to buy time.

Others worry that the JCPOA has given Iran confidence to act more aggressively in the region.  For the past several years, we have seen the emergence of a regional “Cold War” between Iran and Saudi Arabia played out in Syria.  Iran’s support for the government of Bashar al-Assad has undoubtedly helped to prolong the conflict, and its success at negotiating the deal with the United States may prompt it to act more aggressively in its own interests.  And that’s not even accounting for the fear that this deal might start a regional arms race, which, (un)surprisingly, would not exactly do wonders for the current (in)stability.

Finally, many critics see the deal as a betrayal of Israel, which has been staunchly against the agreement since people first started talking about it.  Israel understandably sees Iran as an existential threat, and since the deal doesn’t completely eliminate the threat of a nuclear Iran, the Israeli government is less than pleased about it.  On top of that, Iran’s alliance with Hezbollah is always a problem for Israel.  Even Secretary of State John Kerry admits that some of the sanctions relief Iran is getting from the deal is probably going to sponsor terrorism.