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January 19, 2011

Trump Faces Risks With Iran Sanctions

March 2017

By Kelsey Davenport

As the Trump administration says it is weighing additional sanctions on Iran, some of the measures reportedly being considered could endanger the landmark nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers and hurt U.S. national security interests. 

An Airbus A321, shown arriving January 12 at the Tehran Mehrabad International Airport, is the first of 100 planes ordered by Iran Air from Airbus after sanctions were lifted as part of the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. (Photo credit: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran accepted limits on its nuclear activities and increased monitoring to ensure that its nuclear activities are entirely peaceful. Iran is complying with its obligations, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano said Feb. 14. 

In return, Iran received sanctions relief from the United States, European Union, and United Nations. Washington lifted certain nuclear-related sanctions and committed under the terms of the agreement not to reimpose those measures and to refrain from passing any new nuclear-related sanctions “acting consistent with the respective roles of the president and the Congress.” Thus far, Washington has abided by these obligations. 

To continue to fulfill its responsibilities under the deal, which was negotiated between Iran and six countries known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), the United States will need to continue to waive sanctions if Iran remains in compliance. A key decision point comes in late May, when the Trump administration for the first time will need to reissue the sanctions waivers that carried over from the Obama administration. 

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who coordinated the P5+1 position during negotiations and now oversees implementation for the group, met with officials at the U.S. State Department and White House in early February. Afterward, she told reporters that “the United States is committed to the full implementation” of the nuclear deal. 

Yet, statements by President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly denounced the agreement as “one of the worst deals” ever negotiated, and some members of Congress call Washington’s commitment into question. 

Revolutionary Guards

There are reports that the administration is considering whether to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s most powerful security and military organization, as a foreign terrorist organization. 

Certain IRGC individuals and elements already are subject to sanctions for activities outside the scope of the nuclear deal, such as missile proliferation and support for terrorism. In August 2015, Adam Szubin, acting U.S. undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, testified to Congress that the nuclear accord did not relieve such sanctions against the IRGC “or any of their subsidiaries and senior officials.”

A decision by the Trump administration to designate the entire IRGC organization, which wields major economic and political influence in Iran, would complicate U.S. goals in the Middle East and have ramifications for the nuclear deal. 

Although the United States retains the ability under the deal to impose further sanctions for activities such as support for terrorism or ballistic missile development, Washington committed to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran.” If the IRGC is designated a foreign terrorist organization, anyone conducting transactions with an entity in which the IRGC holds an interest, which covers many areas of the Iranian economy, would be subject to U.S. sanctions. 

 A European official from one of the states that participated in the nuclear negotiations told Arms Control Today in a Feb. 21 email that designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization would “likely kill the deal, as investment and trade with Iran would be increasingly difficult given that the IRGC holds interests in so many sectors of the Iranian economy.” 

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters in Moscow on Feb. 6 that “new obstacles, specifically new sanctions and banking obstacles” imposed by the United States, are not acceptable to Russia. Ryabkov’s comments followed a meeting with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, a senior nuclear negotiator. 

Beyond endangering the nuclear deal, a broad sanctions designation against the IRGC could have damaging regional implications, including in neighboring Iraq, which relies on military help from the United States and the IRGC and where the IRGC could become a renewed threat to U.S. forces. Some analysts warn that further U.S. sanctions could strengthen hard-liners heading into the May 2017 Iranian presidential elections, as well as complicate international efforts to resolve conflicts in places such as Syria and Yemen, where the IRGC is active. 

Ballistic Missile Sanctions

These factors, which do not rule out the application of further sanctions, highlight that that close consideration will be needed to the consequences of additional measures and to possible alternatives. Twice since the deal was fully implemented in January 2016, the United States has issued new designations on individuals and entities involved with Iran’s ballistic missile program. 

The nuclear deal, does not cover ballistic missile tests; but UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the deal and lifted most UN sanctions, “called” on Iran to refrain from testing ballistic missiles “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” 

Despite this inclusion, Iran has continued to test ballistic missiles. Its most recent test on Jan. 29 involved a missile with a range and payload that fits into the definition of nuclear capable, meaning it can deliver a 500-kilogram payload a distance of more than 300 kilometers. That test drew rebukes from Washington and European capitals, asserting the test was inconsistent with the spirit of Resolution 2231. Iran countered that the missile is permitted because it is not “designed” to carry a nuclear warhead. 

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini at the State Department on February 9. (Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)Following that test, the United States issued designations on individuals and entities under Executive Order 13382, “which targets proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery and supporters of such activity,” according to the Feb. 3 Treasury Department press release. A senior official in a White House-arranged call to reporters said that the designations were made “outside” of the nuclear deal and that the United States “continues to implement its commitments” under the deal. 

The official, who spoke under terms requiring anonymity, affirmed that none of the entities designated on Feb. 3 were on the list of individuals and entities the nuclear deal delisted. Relisting entities could constitute a violation of Washington’s commitment not to reimpose certain sanctions. 

President Barack Obama issued similar designations in response to ballistic missile activities in January 2016, the day after the nuclear deal was fully implemented. The Obama administration, however, retained communications with Iran after the negotiations were completed and was able to communicate directly that, despite the designation actions, Washington remained committed to the agreement. 

Talk from the Trump administration about scrapping or renegotiating the nuclear agreement sends mixed signals to Iran about the intentions of additional sanctions. “One of the worst deals I’ve ever seen is the Iran deal,” Trump said in opening remarks at a White House news conference Feb. 15 with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “My administration has already imposed new sanctions on Iran, and I will do more to prevent Iran from ever developing—I mean ever—a nuclear weapon.” 

It also sends mixed signals to anxious allies, whose support is needed in dealing with Iran. Washington’s P5+1 partners and Iran cannot “learn about Trump’s policy toward the deal over social media,” the European official said in his email. He urged the new administration to maintain close coordination with the P5+1 partners and to establish clear lines of communication with Iran to “prevent mixed messages” about U.S. intentions toward the agreement.

The administration so far is sticking with U.S. obligations under the nuclear deal denounced by the president. 

The P5+1 And Iran Nuclear Deal Alert, February 17

Israel and EU Talk Iran During Washington Visits Neither U.S. President Donald Trump nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advocated for abandoning the nuclear deal with Iran during a Feb. 15 joint news conference in Washington, DC. But both leaders called for additional sanctions on Tehran and Netanyahu said he welcomed Trump’s “challenging Iran on its violations of ballistic missiles.” There are no prohibitions on ballistic missile activity in the July 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but continued testing of certain ballistic missile...

Iran’s Ballistic Missile Test: Troubling But Not Cause for Provoking Confrontation

Without question, Iran’s decision to continue testing ballistic missiles is unhelpful and inconsistent with the spirit of a key 2015 UN Security Council resolution. But the Trump administration and the Congress should measure their response to Iran’s missile test and refrain from actions that will provoke escalation or unnecessarily endanger the nuclear deal. Implementation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom) and Iran blocks Tehran from building nuclear weapons for more than a decade. Keeping the deal...

The P5+1 And Iran Nuclear Deal Alert, January 17

Iran Deal Hits One Year Milestone Jan. 16 marked one year of full implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal. Around the anniversary, key U.S. and Iranian figures issued contrasting comments about the future of the deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On ABC News’ This Week program, President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus did not directly answer a question about whether Trump was still committed to tearing up the deal. Priebus said the deal is on “life support,” but that he is “not here to declare one way or the other...

U.S. Congress Extends Iran Sanctions

January/February 2017

By Kelsey Davenport

Iran denounced U.S. congressional action to extend sanctions against the country as a violation of the nuclear deal it negotiated with the United States and its partners. 

The sanctions, set to expire at the end of 2016, were extended for 10 years. As part of the nuclear deal, Washington is waiving certain sanctions on Iran, including provisions of the Iran Sanctions Act, in return for limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, shown in this December 2016 photo, attacked the sanctions extension as a “gross violation” of the nuclear accord and said that Iran would “firmly respond.” (Photo credit: Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty Images)Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attacked the extension as a “gross violation” of the nuclear accord and said that Iran would “firmly respond.” 

The nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, prohibits the United States from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions on Iran or reintroducing sanctions that were lifted as part of the deal. Proponents of the extension assert that extending the existing sanctions does not constitute new restrictions. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the sponsor of the extension legislation, said on Dec. 15 that adoption “ensures the U.S. retains its ability to hold the [Iranian] regime accountable.”

The Obama administration maintained that the 10-year extension of the Iran Sanctions Act was unnecessary, but said the action does not violate U.S. commitments under the nuclear deal. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the extension was not necessary for accountability to the nuclear deal and that, had the act had expired, the administration “would continue to have all the authorities” needed to reimpose sanctions quickly.

Despite President Barack Obama’s assurance that the measure was not needed to snap sanctions back into place in the event of an Iranian violation of the deal, Congress overwhelmingly supported the extension. The legislation passed 419-1 in the House of Representatives on Nov. 15 and 99-0 in the Senate on Dec. 1. 

The bill officially became law on Dec. 15, after Obama in a symbolic move chose not to sign it. When Congress is in session, the president has 10 days to sign or veto any legislation sent to the White House. If the president takes no action during that period, as in this case, the bill becomes law.

Kerry said that the extension “does not affect in any way the scope of the sanctions relief” nor the ability of companies to do business in Iran consistent with the nuclear deal. Kerry said he renewed the sanctions waivers required by the nuclear deal on Dec. 15, even though the existing waivers were not impacted by the Iran Sanctions Act renewal, “to ensure maximum clarity and convey to all stakeholders that the United States will continue to uphold our commitments” under the deal. 

President-elect Donald Trump will need to continue waiving sanctions on Iran to meet U.S. commitments under the nuclear agreement. Waivers typically last 120 or 180 days, but can be reissued early. If Kerry does not reissue the waivers before Obama leaves office, the earliest the Trump administration would need to reauthorize the waivers is mid-April. 

Trump has not articulated his approach to the Iran accord since being elected president, although he criticized the “disastrous deal” on the campaign trail. His advisers have expressed a range of opinions, with some calling for scrapping the deal and others for vigorously enforcing its provisions. (See ACT, December 2016.)

Despite assertions by Obama and Kerry that the extension of the Iran Sanctions Act is consistent with U.S. obligations under the deal, Iranian officials called it a violation and took steps to respond.

Iran on Dec. 16 called for a meeting of the joint commission established by the nuclear deal to discuss the implications of the U.S. action. Any participant in the nuclear deal (China, the European Union, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) can request a meeting of the commission at any time, and the coordinator has one week to convene the participants. That body has a working group on issues related to lifting sanctions. 

Rouhani announced on Dec. 13 that Iran would begin researching and developing nuclear propulsion for marine vessels. Specifically, he called for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to “plan the design and construction of a nuclear propeller to be used in marine transportation.” White House Spokesperson Josh Earnest said the announcement “does not run counter” to the deal. 

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the AEOI, said he discussed the plans with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano during Amano’s visit to Tehran on Dec. 18. Salehi said the work on marine propulsion will be conducted within the framework of the nuclear deal and consistently with IAEA safeguards. 

Salehi said he spoke with Amano about how the project will fit within the IAEA framework. The IAEA statement on the meeting confirmed that Amano sought clarification about Iran’s plans for marine nuclear reactor research. 

Under the nuclear deal with the United States and other world powers, Iran is prohibited from enriching uranium to a level higher than 3.67 percent for 15 years. Naval nuclear reactors typically require fuel with a higher level of uranium enrichment. China, for instance, operates naval reactors with uranium enriched to 5 percent, and the United States uses weapons-grade enriched uranium (greater than 90 percent) for its naval reactors.

Iran’s president calls the action a “gross violation” of the nuclear accord.

The P5+1 And Iran Nuclear Deal Alert, December 22

The Iran Deal Under Trump President-elect Donald Trump has yet to clarify his administration’s policy toward Iran and the July 2015 multilateral nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But he will need to move quickly as Iranian news outlets are reporting that the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said a meeting of the nuclear deal's Joint Commission will take place in early January and include members of the Trump team. Trump’s advisors, however, have voiced conflicting views about the agreement. The presumptive National Security Advisor,...

Dismantling the Iran Deal Would Be Dangerous and Unwise



Volume 8, Issue 7, December 13, 2016

When President-elect Donald Trump takes office Jan. 20, he will inherit an array of foreign policy challenges. But unlike his predecessor, the list will not include the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran—unless Trump pursues a reckless plan to dismantle the nuclear deal or allows it to fall apart.

As a result of the historic agreement negotiated between the United States, its partners, and Iran in July 2015, Tehran’s nuclear activities are strictly limited and subject to intrusive monitoring for over a decade. The comprehensive set of restrictions in the deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has increased the time it would take for Tehran to obtain enough enriched material for a bomb from 2-3 months in 2013 to over 12 months today. In return, Iran received relief from nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations.

Troubling Signs

Then-candidate Donald Trump spoke at a rally against the Iran nuclear deal in Washington, DC, Sept. 9, 2015. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)Though Trump has not to date provided specifics on how he will approach the nuclear deal and relations with Iran, his rhetoric on the agreement during the campaign was dangerous and ill-informed.

In a March 21, 2016 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Trump said his “number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” On the campaign trail, Trump frequently called the agreement the worst deal ever negotiated and said he would seek to renegotiate it.

Possible cabinet members and advisers who have strong views on the agreement could also influence Trump’s policy toward the nuclear deal. The presumptive National Security Advisor, former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and presumptive CIA Director, Congressman Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), have both been critical of the Iran deal.

On the other hand, former General James Mattis, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Defense, described the deal as an “imperfect arms control agreement,” and said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in April that “there is no going back” on the deal “absent a clear and present violation” by Iran. Mattis stressed that the United States would be alone if we did so and “unilateral economic sanctions from us would not have anywhere near the impact of an allied approach.”

The Deal At Risk

There are two plausible scenarios by which Trump could unravel the nuclear deal with Iran.

First, the new president could pull the United States out of the deal by unilaterally renouncing the agreement, ceasing U.S. implementation of its commitments under the deal. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said Iran's commitment to the deal will not waiver, despite any action by Trump to threaten the agreement. But it remains unclear if the deal can survive without the United States. 

A second scenario, which is perhaps more likely, is that Trump and the Republican-led Congress could slowly chip away at the agreement and create an escalatory dynamic that eventually provokes Iran into taking action that leads to the deal’s collapse. In this scenario, Washington would rigorously enforce the deal, leveraging legitimate ambiguities in the text against the spirit of the agreement, and prejudicially declare technical issues to be intentional violations.

Separately, Washington could impose sanctions apart from the deal under the label of human rights violations, ballistic missile activity, or support for terrorism. If such sanctions were imposed as a means of skirting U.S. commitments not to impose new nuclear sanctions under the deal, Iran would likely respond by challenging provisions of the agreement more aggressively or by taking steps in other areas that would heighten tensions between Tehran and Washington. This escalatory spiral could eventually cause the agreement to collapse.

Before putting the United States on one of these paths, President-elect Trump should evaluate the potential loss of nonproliferation benefits ensconced in the deal that contribute to U.S. security interests, and the likely obstacles to renegotiation.

Loss of Nonproliferation Benefits

When fully implemented, the nonproliferation benefits of the Iran deal are clear—the combination of limits and verification measures block Tehran’s pathways to nuclear weapons. If the deal is dismantled, and the United States no longer feels obligated to its implementation, it is safe to assume that Iran may no longer feel the need to adhere to its limits either.

The deal created a multilayered inspection regime that covers every step of Iran’s fuel cycle. When combined with national intelligence means, it provides the highest possible guarantee that any deviation from the limits would be quickly detected. 

If the deal falls apart, the losses in the enhanced monitoring and verification of Iran’s nuclear activities would be particularly significant. The international community would lose the following tools for verifying that Iran’s nuclear activities are peaceful:

  • Continuous surveillance of key sites. The deal put in place continuous surveillance at Iran’s uranium mines and mills (25 years) and centrifuge production areas (20 years). This additional transparency would be lost if the deal falls apart. 
  • Real-time monitoring of Iran’s enrichment activities. The agreement provides real time monitoring of Iran’s uranium enrichment levels for 15 years to ensure that Tehran is enriching uranium only to reactor-grade levels, or 3.67 percent uranium-235.
  • Provisional application of the additional protocol. Under the deal, Iran is applying the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. This gives the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors enhanced access to information and nuclear sites in Iran. Without the additional protocol, inspectors will have access to fewer sites and lose their ability to conduct shorter-notice inspections.
  • Oversight of Iran’s procurement of materials applicable to nuclear activities. The deal puts in place a procurement channel that provides approval or denial of Iranian requests to import materials or technologies relevant to nuclear development.
  • Time-bound access to military sites to investigate concerns. Under the deal, if IAEA inspectors have concerns about illicit Iranian behavior relevant to developing a nuclear weapon and Iran refuses to grant access, the Joint Commission—created by the deal to resolve compliance concerns—can direct Iran to comply with the request or be found in violation of its obligations.

Since the deal's adoption, the enhanced monitoring and verification system has already demonstrated its effectiveness. IAEA inspectors have unprecedented access to Iran's nuclear facilities and report quarterly on Iran's compliance. On two occasions Iran slightly exceeded the limit on its stockpile of heavy water, a material produced by Iran to moderate certain types of reactors. This did not pose a proliferation threat, but inspectors noted the breach nonetheless and the Joint Commission was able to quickly deal with the issue.

Since the nuclear deal was adopted, it has significantly rolled back and restrained Iran’s nuclear program. If the deal ends, Iran could:

  • Move over 13,000 centrifuges, including 1,008 advanced IR-2 centrifuge machines, from monitored storage and begin using them to enrich uranium. When combined with the 6,104 first generation IR-1 centrifuges Iran was allowed to keep under the deal (of which 5,060 are operating), Iran could operate nearly 20,000 centrifuges.
  • Build up its stockpile of enriched uranium. As a result of the deal Iran blended down or shipped out 98 percent of its uranium stockpile and now keeps less than 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent. With a larger stockpile of enriched uranium, Iran could move more quickly to a significant quantity of weapons-grade uranium (25 kilograms of greater than 90 percent uranium-235).
  • Enrich to levels higher than 3.67 percent. Under the deal, Iran is limited to enriching uranium to 3.67 percent for 15 years. If the deal falls apart, Tehran could resume enrichment to 20 percent or possibly higher.
  • Resume enrichment at Fordow. Iran transformed Fordow, a facility built deep into a mountain near the city of Qom, from a uranium-enrichment site to an isotope production area for 15 years. Iran could resume enriching uranium at Fordow if the deal falls apart.
  • Resume development of advanced centrifuges. Iran’s research and development of more efficient centrifuges is limited to single-machine testing for eight and a half years.

Without the deal, Iran would no longer be subject to this enhanced monitoring and verification nor to strict limitations on its nuclear activities. Tehran could ramp up its uranium enrichment activities and move back to where it was in 2013 – capable of producing enough bomb-grade material for a nuclear weapon in 2-3 months or less. Tehran also agreed to permanently forgo certain types of experiments with explosives relevant to developing a nuclear weapon, an agreement that would likely be rescinded if the deal falls apart.

Without the deal, Iran would still be legally bound not to pursue nuclear weapons by its ratification of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. While it is unlikely that Iran would move quickly to pursue nuclear weapons, Tehran could move to a position where it could have enough weapons-grade material for a bomb in a matter of weeks. This would raise tensions with the United States and increase the chances of conflict in the region.

The Futility of “Renegotiation”

If Trump walks away from the deal, or attempts to increase the pressure on Iran to negotiate better terms, it is extremely unlikely that he will have sufficient diplomatic support from our negotiating partners—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom—for new sanctions that could generate enough pressure to secure Iran’s agreement.

In addition to currently supporting the deal, these countries played a key role in enforcing sanctions that pressured Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program in the first place. Support for U.S. sanctions along with UN and EU restrictions created a web of sanctions that ratcheted up the pressure on Iran’s economic activities and incentivized Tehran to make a deal.

Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief and head of the group of countries that negotiated with Iran, reminded the international community of the multilateral nature of the agreement and said that its implementation is her responsibility. In remarks to the press Nov. 13, Mogherini emphasized that the deal is a multilateral agreement and said that it is in the “European interest” to “guarantee that the agreement is implemented in full.”

Other leaders also voiced their support for the deal. French President Francois Hollande also told reporters reporters Nov. 16 that the agreement “gives us all security” and that the “absence of the accord would be very serious.”

The Responsible Path Forward

Rather than dismantle the deal or seek its renegotiation, the Trump administration should pursue continued implementation of the agreement and ensure that the IAEA has sufficient inspectors on the ground and the necessary resources to keep Iran’s nuclear activities under close observation.  

It should also look for opportunities to strengthen the deal in the years following the end of core nuclear limitations set by the JCPOA. This could include extending the limits on uranium enrichment activities, building out the innovative monitoring mechanisms, or negotiating separate restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile programs. As the deal continues to prove successful, the administration could look to regionalize certain restrictions in it. Trump could sell this as a ‘renegotiation’ package, building on the understanding among all parties that the original nuclear deal remains in place and is fully implemented.

Trump does not have to face the challenge posed by a nuclear weapons program in Iran—unless he brings it on himself. The consequences of the deal falling apart due to Washington’s actions would be significant. Abandoning it could open the door to a nuclear-armed Iran sooner rather than later and increase the prospect of a costly war in the Middle East. By walking away from the international agreement, Trump would also be sending a dangerous message that United States cannot be trusted to honor its agreements and that the opinions of negotiating partners do not carry any weight in Washington. Under such circumstances, Iran would not be likely to enter into a new agreement with the United States.  

KELSEY DAVENPORT, director of nonproliferation policy

Note: An earlier version of this referred to General Mattis as "brigadier general." We apologize for the error. 


Trump should pursue continued implementation of the agreement and ensure that the IAEA has sufficient resources to keep Iran’s nuclear activities under close observation

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Iran: A Precarious Outlook for a Landmark Accord

December 2016

By Dina Esfandiary

It was President Barack Obama’s 2009 Prague speech that set the tone for his utopian vision of a world without nuclear weapons. As part of this vision, he sought to ensure that Iran would not go nuclear. Obama also set diplomacy and dialogue as his administration’s main foreign policy tools. With the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, he accomplished both aims. Today, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action curbs Iran’s nuclear program and prevents it from dashing for the bomb. In his Prague speech, Obama declared that his administration would use dialogue “based on mutual interests and mutual respect” to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. The 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review reiterated that bolstering the global nuclear nonproliferation regime and curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions were at the top of his administration’s agenda. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on April 22 in New York, continuing a diplomatic relationship that developed during their negotiations on limiting Iran’s nuclear activities. (Photo credit: Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)Obama’s first major milestone toward that end was to open direct talks between Iranian and U.S. officials in Oman. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei agreed to the talks in 2011, but it was only in 2013 that they began to gain traction, with reportedly nine or 10 secret meetings between March and November 2013. This initiative made dialogue between Iran and the United States the norm rather than the exception.

The Obama administration also recognized the state of affairs: Iran had an extensive uranium-enrichment program that it would not simply give up. Tehran did not want a deal badly enough for that. In a push to find mutually acceptable grounds for a deal, U.S. officials explored whether acceptance of limited enrichment on Iranian soil would persuade Iran to address the desires of the United States and its P5+1 negotiating partners (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) for an accord that blocks all Iranian pathways to the bomb. This made negotiations on a final agreement possible. 

Unilateral and multilateral sanctions were intended to punish Iran for its activities. Yet, the Obama administration began to view sanctions as a negotiating tool rather than an end unto itself. In other words, the U.S. administration earnestly explored using the threat of further sanctions and, perhaps more importantly, the carrot of sanctions relief as a bargaining tool to win Iranian concessions. Although the United States was still severely constrained because of the need for congressional approval to remove existing sanctions, this change in approach allowed the P5+1 to get greater concessions from Iran on its nuclear program.

Another noteworthy achievement of the Obama administration is the building of a working relationship on multiple levels, including the highest levels of government, after 35 years without dialogue between the United States and Iran. U.S. officials leveraged this channel to diffuse non-nuclear crises. In January 2016, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards navy seized two U.S. Navy patrol boats as they entered Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf. The new direct channel between the United States and Iran allowed Secretary of State John Kerry to call Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif directly in order to swiftly negotiate the sailors’ release. Channels between the United States and Iranian security organizations allowed both countries to successfully negotiate a prisoner swap, which saw Iran release four American-Iranian prisoners, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. 

The nuclear agreement ensures that Iran’s potential pathways to the bomb are effectively blocked and its nuclear program is subject to the most intrusive verification measures to date. It was a success for dialogue and diplomacy. Yet with the victory of President-elect Donald Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to scrap what he labeled a “disastrous deal,” the durability of Obama’s most significant nonproliferation accomplishment is potentially at risk. 

Dina Esfandiary is a MacArthur Fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London.

With the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Obama ensured Iran would not go nuclear and also set diplomacy and dialogue as his administration's main foreign policy goals.

Trump Election Puts Iran Deal in Doubt

December 2016

By Kelsey Davenport

European leaders were quick to voice support for the nuclear deal with Iran after Donald Trump’s election raised concerns about the future of the agreement. 

Trump has made a range of comments about how, if elected, he would approach the July 2015 nuclear deal that the United States and its P5+1 partners (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) negotiated with Iran. In a March 21 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel group, Trump said his “number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” He has also described the agreement as the worst deal ever negotiated and said he would seek to renegotiate it.

An Iranian man holds a November 10 newspaper with front-page news about the election of Donald Trump, who pledged during his political campaign to end the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. (Photo credit: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)The agreement, which has been in force since January, limits Iran’s nuclear activities and subjects the program to intrusive monitoring. In exchange, Iran received relief from nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union, and UN Security Council. 

Trump has not provided any details on how he would renegotiate the deal, an effort that European allies have already signaled they will resist. 

In remarks to press on Nov. 13, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini emphasized that the deal is a multilateral agreement and said that it is in the “European interest” to “guarantee that the agreement is implemented in full.” French President François Hollande also voiced his support for the deal after Trump’s election, telling reporters on Nov. 16 that the agreement “gives us all security” and that the “absence of the accord would be very serious.” 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran intends to continue abiding by the agreement, despite remarks made by Trump. In Nov. 9 remarks, Rouhani described the deal as an agreement between a group of countries approved by the UN Security Council and said that “there is no possibility that it can be changed by a single government.” 

The UN Security Council endorsed the agreement in Resolution 2231, which was passed unanimously in July 2015. 

Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, a military aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reportedly told state television on Nov. 15 that it would be a “strategic mistake” for Trump to pull out of the Iran deal. Safavi noted that presidential candidates often make statements while campaigning that do not reflect their positions in office. 

U.S. Commitments

Although the deal is a multilateral agreement, Trump could decide to unilaterally pull out of the agreement or stop implementing U.S. commitments. 

Under the terms of the deal, U.S. sanctions relief comes from presidential waivers during the initial years of the agreement. Trump, as president, will need to periodically reissue those waivers to continue sanctions relief. 

The passage of the additional nuclear-related sanctions by the United States would violate Washington’s commitments under the agreement. 

Donald Trump at a campaign rally October 18 in Grand Junction, Colorado, with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who has been named to become White House national security adviser. (Photo credit: George Frey/Getty Images)In personnel announcements Nov. 18, Trump selected vocal Iran-deal opponents to fill two key national security posts. He named retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a former director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, to be his national security adviser and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee and a tea party favorite who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, to head the CIA.

“I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” Pompeo wrote on Twitter a day before the announcements.

If Trump does decide to take action to dismantle the Iran agreement, he may face opposition from members of Congress who initially opposed the agreement. 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told MSNBC on Nov. 16 that the agreement should not be discarded immediately and that “the beginning point is for us to cause them to strictly adhere” to the deal. Corker opposed the agreement during the congressional review of the deal last year. 

Corker noted in the interview that Washington has lost its leverage with Iran because it has already provided relief and the United States needs to “keep the Europeans and others with us in this process.” 

Both opponents and supporters of the deal acknowledged the critical role that international support for sanctions played in pressuring Iran to return to negotiations over its nuclear program. Mogherini made clear that if the United States leaves the agreement, she will continue working to implement it. 

Nicholas Burns, who was U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008, said that efforts by Trump to reimpose sanctions or kill the deal would poison relations with key nations. “It would be an act of diplomatic suicide by the United States,” he said Nov. 10 at an Asian Society forum in New York.

Excess Heavy Water

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) quarterly report on Iranian compliance with the conditions set out under the nuclear deal noted that Tehran slightly exceeded the heavy-water stockpile limit of 130 metric tons. The report said that Iran had 130.1 metric tons on Nov. 8. 

Under the terms of the agreement, Iran can continue heavy-water production, which is used as a moderator in some nuclear reactors, and store up to 130 metric tons of the material. Iran can sell any excess. The IAEA report said that Iran notified the agency of its intention to ship out five metric tons in a letter dated Nov. 9. 

The concern about heavy water, which contains an isotope of hydrogen called deuterium, reflects the fact that it can be used as a moderator for reactors that are particularly well suited for producing weapons-grade plutonium. Iran was building a heavy-water reactor at Arak that would have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium annually for about two nuclear warheads, but that reactor is being modified as part of the deal. It will now produce negligible amounts of weapons-grade plutonium and ship out all of the spent reactor fuel. 

Prior to Iran exceeding the limit, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano expressed concern about Iran’s stockpile of heavy water after inspectors noted on Oct. 25 that Tehran had exactly 130 metric tons. 

At the agency’s Board of Governors meeting Nov. 17, Amano urged that Iran strictly comply with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear accord’s formal name. “It is important that such situations should be avoided in the future in order to maintain international confidence in the implementation of the JCPOA, which represents a clear gain for nuclear verification in Iran,” he said.

Laura Holgate, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, at the meeting called on Iran to “complete without delay its plan to resolve the issue.” Her Nov. 17 statement also said that Iran’s notification to the international community that it is willing to sell heavy water does not fulfill Tehran’s commitments under the deal and that “any excess heavy water cannot remain in Iran.” 

Reza Najafi, Iranian ambassador to the IAEA, pushed back against describing the excess heavy water as a breach of the deal’s limits. He told reporters at the IAEA on Nov. 17 that the text of deal says that Iran’s heavy-water needs are “estimated” to be 130 metric tons and that does not create a clear limit for the stockpile size. 

On Nov. 20, state-owned Press TV quoted a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran as saying that Iran had transferred an unspecified quantity of heavy water to Oman and that more would be sent there in the future.

This is the second time that Iran has exceeded the heavy-water limit. The IAEA quarterly report in February noted that Tehran had 130.9 metric tons. Since that excess was reported, Iran had sold heavy water to the United States and Russia to remain under the limit.

European leaders were quick to voice support for the nuclear deal with Iran after Donald Trump’s election raised concerns about the future of the agreement. 

Russia Completes S-300 Delivery to Iran

December 2016

By April Brady

Russia completed delivery of the S-300 air defense missile system to Iran last month, concluding an $800 million deal signed between the two states in 2007, state-run Russian press agency RIA Novosti reported. The S-300 mobile surface-to-air missile system can counter multiple aircraft at a range of 195 kilometers and ballistic missiles at a range of up to 50 kilometers. 

In September 2010, following pressure from the United States and Israel, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suspended the agreement in compliance with a stricter UN arms embargo passed in June of that year. (See ACT, October 2010.)

An Iranian military truck carries parts of the S300 missile system during an annual military parade in Tehran on September 21. (Photo credit: Chavosh Homavandi/AFP/Getty Images)Iran protested the decision, filing a $4 billion lawsuit against Russia’s defense export agency and embarking on the manufacture of its own long-range, mobile air defense system, the Bavar-373, which President Hassan Rouhani unveiled in August. 

After Iran and the six-country group known as the P5+1 agreed on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to constrain and roll back Iran’s nuclear program in July 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin lifted the ban on weapons sales to Iran and signed a new agreement with Tehran, sending the first shipment of parts in April.

Despite classification of the S-300 system as defensive, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly raised objections with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the transaction, said State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau during a May 10 press briefing. “[W]hile we’re opposed to the sale, it is not a violation” of the Iran nuclear deal or UN Security Council Resolution 2231, she said. That resolution formally endorsed the accord.

Since the conclusion of the S-300 system’s sale, Russian state news services have reported that Iran and Russia plan to negotiate a $10 billion deal to supply arms to Iran, which is expected to include artillery systems, helicopters, planes, and T-90 tanks.

Russia completed delivery of the S-300 air defense missile system to Iran last month, concluding an $800 million deal signed between the two states in 2007.


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