Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

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Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

Frequently Asked Questions About The Iran Deal - Part Two



Volume 7, Issue 11, September 3, 2015

The following is an excerpt from the Arms Control Association's newly updated report, "Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action."  The questions and answers were split into two separate Issue Briefs. Read part one online.

In response to the many inquiries we have received about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) over the course of the past several weeks, the Arms Control Association has compiled the following brief responses to the most frequently asked questions.  

4. The Impact of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s Nuclear Capabilities

Will the JCPOA block all of Iran’s nuclear weapons pathways? 

Yes. This comprehensive agreement will effectively block Iran's uranium and plutonium pathways to the bomb for 15 years or longer. Among other features, the agreement establishes verifiable limits on Iran's uranium-enrichment capacity and its stockpiles of enriched uranium. Under the JCPOA, the time it would take Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb would increase to 12 months or more. It will also dramatically cut the output of plutonium at the Arak heavy-water reactor and eliminate Iran’s ability to pursue plutonium-based nuclear weapons.

The JCPOA will also put in place additional measures to ensure that any covert program is deterred or quickly detected. These measures will build on the additional monitoring and verification under the interim agreement, which expanded international oversight of Iran's nuclear program through increased IAEA access to sites. 

In addition, Iran is required to implement and ratify its additional protocol as part of the JCPOA. Specifically, the additional protocol gives the IAEA expanded rights of access to information and sites. With the additional protocol, the agency will continuously monitor Iran's entire fuel cycle, including facilities such as Iran's uranium mines, centrifuge production facilities, and its heavy-water production plant. This will make it extremely difficult for Iran to siphon off materials for a covert program without prompt detection.

The additional protocol also helps the IAEA check for any clandestine nuclear activities in Iran by providing the agency with greater authority to carry out timely inspections in any facility, civilian or military, that the IAEA has reason to believe is engaged in noncompliant activity. 

How does the JCPOA limit Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity after 10 years?

During the first ten years of the JCPOA, Iran may not enrich uranium to more than 3.67 percent U-235 and it may only do so with 5,060 first generation (IR-1) centrifuges at its Natanz site. 

During the first eight years Iran will be permitted to conduct testing with uranium on a single IR-4, IR-5, IR-6, and IR-8 machines. Enriched uranium will not be extracted. 

After eight and a half years, Iran will be permitted to test up to 30 IR-6s and 30 IR-8s, again without withdrawing any uranium. The Joint Commission must approve any changes to the research and development plan, which must be submitted well in advance.

While Iran will be able to manufacture IR-6 and IR-8 machines after eight years, it will only be permitted to produce 200 of each type of machine per year and will not be permitted to produce the rotors. During this time Iran’s centrifuge production manufacturing will still be subject to continuous monitoring. 

After ten years, Iran will be permitted to produce complete machines but production levels must be consistent with Iran’s civilian enrichment needs, which will be low. 

In years 11–13, Iran can deploy more advanced machines, but it will need to remove the equivalent capacity of the operating IR-1 centrifuges so that the overall enrichment capacity remains the same. Excess centrifuges will be stored under IAEA seal.

As stated in annex I, section A, “Iran will begin phasing out its IR-1 centrifuges in 10 years. During this period, Iran will keep its enrichment capacity at Natanz up to a total installed uranium-enrichment capacity of 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges.” 

For 15 years, Iran may not possess more than 300 kilogram of low-enriched uranium, which also helps to limit its potential breakout capacity.

For years 14–15, Iran could increase its uranium-enrichment capacity, but Iran would still remain several months away from accumulating enough material, and if it tried to do so, it would promptly be detected in sufficient time to stop or delay such an effort.

What is an additional protocol and is it permanent?

An additional protocol is an expansion of a country’s comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA. All countries that are members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty are required to have a safeguards agreement in place. The additional protocol is optional, but strongly encouraged, and once ratified it is binding. The necessity of the additional protocol became clear after the Iraq and North Korean cases of the 1990s demonstrated that traditional safeguards are not thorough enough. 

An additional protocol broadens the scope of the IAEA’s monitoring to all facilities related the country’s nuclear supply chain and allows for short-notice inspections. It also allows for the IAEA to request access to undeclared sites, including military areas, if there are concerns about illicit nuclear activities. 

Once ratified an additional protocol is permanent. Iran negotiated an additional protocol and voluntarily implemented it between 2003–2006. As part of the JCPOA, Iran must update and implement its additional protocol before sanctions are suspended and it must seek to ratify its additional protocol no later than eight years after implementation day.

What is Code 3.1?

Code 3.1 is an extension of a comprehensive safeguards agreement. When Iran begins to implement this provision as required by the JCPOA, the IAEA will receive information about any plans Tehran has to expand its nuclear program much earlier than it would under the existing safeguards agreement. Under Code 3.1, Iran must notify the IAEA when it chooses to build a new facility as opposed to six months before the introduction of nuclear material. Iran would also be obligated to share any design changes to existing nuclear facilities in advance.

In 2003, Iran accepted modified Code 3.1 but reneged unilaterally in March 2007. The JCPOA commits Iran to implement Code 3.1 indefinitely.

Does the JCPOA provide the IAEA with "anytime, anywhere" access to suspected nuclear sites? 

The JCPOA provides timely access to any site, military or civilian if there are concerns about illicit nuclear activities. The IAEA must identify specific questions to be resolved and identify specific locations where it wants to send its inspectors. Providing the inspected party, in this case Iran, with this information will not provide it with information that helps Iran evade detection or stall the investigation.

There are 121 countries that have an additional protocol in force and 78 complementary access visits were carried out last year. Only in Iran is there a process to ensure timely access. 

Under the JCPOA, the request by the IAEA triggers a 24-day clock under which Iran and the IAEA have 14 days to come to an agreement on access. If not, the Joint Commission, created by the JCPOA, has seven days to make a determination on access, and if at least five of the eight members vote to allow the IAEA to investigate, Iran has three days to comply. 

If Iran tries to stall access beyond 24 days, there are consequences. If just one of the P5+1 countries is not satisfied with the decision of the Joint Commission on access, it could take action to re-impose earlier UN Security Council sanctions on Iran.

It is possible that there will be no delay, and in response to a request for urgent access by the IAEA, Iran will open the site for immediate inspection. 

If there is a delay, the IAEA will be closely watching a site once it becomes suspicious by ordering satellite imagery, perhaps continuing through the investigation, and by seeking corroborating information, especially from states willing to share intelligence information. 

Could Iran cover up illicit activities at a suspect site within in 24 days?

Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran is required to provide inspectors access to undeclared facilities (military or civilian) if the IAEA requests it under the terms of Iran’s additional protocol. Under an additional protocol, the IAEA can request explanations for suspect activity and access to a potential covert site to investigate evidence of undeclared nuclear-related activities.

Critics of the JCPOA site access provisions charge that 24 days may provide Iran with enough time to cover up certain types of nuclear activities. 

As IAEA safeguards veteran Thomas Shea has noted, when an IAEA request for timely site access involves a building, and especially when it involves uranium (or plutonium), 24 days will not be long enough to prevent detection.

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz told Politico on July 22 that Energy Department specialists assess that, “It is essentially impossible, certainly with confidence, to believe that you’re going to do this kind of work with nuclear materials and be confident at having it cleaned it up.”

Would the IAEA Depend on Iran for Nuclear Residue Testing?

No. Under managed access procedures that may be employed by the IAEA, the inspected party may take environmental swipe samples at a particular site in the presence of the IAEA inspectors using swabs and containment bags provided by the IAEA to prevent cross contamination. According to former IAEA officials, this is an established procedure.

Such swipe samples collected at suspect sites under managed access would likely be divided into six packages: three are taken by the IAEA for analysis at its Seibersdorf Analytical Lab and two to be sent to the IAEA's Network of Analytical Labs (NWAL), which comprises some 16 labs in different countries, and another package to be kept under joint IAEA and Iran seal at the IAEA office in Iran as a backup and control sample if re-analysis might be required at a later stage. The process ensures the integrity of the inspection operation and the samples for all parties.

How Long Does the 24-Day Limit on Suspicious Site Access Last?

Section C, page 9, paragraph 15 of the main section of the JCPOA states that this requirement will last for 15 years. After that point in time, Iran’s additional protocol will remain in place as will the Joint Commission to resolve any disputes.

Does the JCPOA require Iran to provide the IAEA with information about its past activities with possible military dimensions (PMDs)?

Yes. On November 11, 2013, Iran and the IAEA concluded a framework agreement for moving forward to resolve the outstanding concerns. Under the terms of the framework, Iran and the IAEA agreed to resolve all outstanding issues, including PMDs, in a step-by-step manner. Iran provided some but not all of the information. 

The new Iran-IAEA July 15 “roadmap” requires that Iran deliver to the IAEA all information by August 15 that is necessary to allow the agency to conclude its investigation. The JCPOA requires that Iran allow the IAEA to answer follow-up questions and respond with all necessary information by October 15, and before the implementation of the agreement and the removal of nuclear-related sanctions. This will provide the IAEA with key information necessary to make its final determination on the PMD issues and to verify that no such efforts are taking place in the future.

Resolving the questions about the past military dimension issue is important but is not a prerequisite for designing the verification and monitoring system. Nor is it realistic or necessary to expect a full "confession" from Iran that it pursued nuclear weapons in the past. After having spent years denying that it pursued nuclear weapons and having delivered a fatwa against nuclear weapons, Tehran's senior leaders cannot afford to admit that Iran hid a nuclear weapons program.

Is sanctions relief dependent on the PMD investigation?

Iran must provide the IAEA with the information and access the agency requires to complete its long-running investigation into the past possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program before Iran receives any relief from UN, U.S. or EU sanctions. However, sanctions relief is not dependent on the agency issuing its final report on the PMDs.

What is the IAEA’s broader conclusion?

The “broader conclusion” is a rigorous designation issued by the IAEA to provide assurance that a country’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful. It requires implementation of the additional protocol for a number of years, and in Iran’s case, compliance with the JCPOA. The IAEA makes two conclusions as part of the broader conclusion, that there has been no diversion of nuclear materials and no indication of undeclared nuclear materials and activities. The broader conclusion goes beyond the conclusion issued to countries only applying a safeguards agreement or with outstanding questions. Under a safeguards agreement, the IAEA only reports that declared nuclear material has been used only for peaceful purposes for the year in question.

How does the JCPOA procurement channel work and how long will it last?

Under the terms of the JCPOA, if Iran wants to purchase any goods or materials that could be used for its nuclear program that are identified on established IAEA dual-use lists, the Joint Commission working group on procurement would need to review the request and authorize any purchases. The working group would also be permitted to conduct end-user checks to ensure that the materials ended up in the right places. Combined with the complete inventory of the materials that Iran uses for its nuclear program, this will help ensure a thorough accounting of dual-use materials to prevent siphoning off for a covert program. This procurement channel mechanism will be in place for no less than 10 years.

How long does the sanctions snap-back provision last?

For the 10-year duration of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, if a dispute is not addressed through the Joint Commission to the satisfaction of the P5+1, any one of the six-countries could act to snap back earlier UN Security Council sanctions on Iran. (The JCPOA specifies that if a complaining party believes that there has been a violation of the agreement even after good faith efforts to resolve it, it may call for a vote on a resolution to extend the suspension of earlier sanctions, which only requires one of the P5 to veto to trigger the re-imposition of UN sanctions.) The United States has said the P5 have agreed that they will maintain the same approach for an additional five years.

How long Does the Joint Commission last?

The JCPOA does not specifically state when the termination date for the Commission is, but some requirements of the JCPOA that the Joint Commission is responsible for overseeing will last 25 years. Therefore it will have responsibilities that last for 25 years, and possibly longer.

5. Other Issues

Does Congress have a right to see the confidential IAEA-Iran documents on concluding the agency’s PMD investigation?

As an independent organization, the IAEA's process should not be subject to approval of the P5+1 or the U.S. Congress. Nor should the IAEA be forced to disclose sensitive information that could also compromise Iran’s legitimate security concerns. While it is critical that Iran cooperate with the IAEA and provide the agency with the access and information it requires, the content of the agency's investigations and inspections are not typically public because sensitive information is at stake. 

Additionally, the IAEA laid out its concerns about past nuclear weapons work, and it should be up to the agency to determine what access is necessary to resolve its questions, not the P5+1. The IAEA does answer to its Board of Governors, where the United States is represented, and will be required to report on progress to the UN Security Council, where again, the United States will be fully appraised of the process.

Will the United States be able to impose more sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear related concerns?

Yes. The JCPOA prohibits the reissuance of sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear activities. If the United States imposes these measures then Iran can walk away from the deal. However, additional U.S. sanctions for terrorism and human rights related issues are fair game.

Will the JCPOA trigger or head-off a proliferation cascade in the Middle East, with countries like Saudi Arabia deciding to move toward nuclear weapons. 

The JCPOA imposes strict limits and monitoring on Iran’s nuclear program, thus reducing the risk that Iran may someday pursue nuclear weapons. This will provide assurance to the international community that Tehran is not seeking nuclear weapons and that any deviations from the deal will be quickly noticed. This will reduce, not increase, the temptation by some states in the Middle East—particularly Saudi Arabia—to pursue the technical capabilities necessary to acquire nuclear weapons.

The alternative—no comprehensive P5+1 and Iran nuclear deal—would lead to an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program with far less monitoring. This poses a far greater threat to countries in the Middle East and could increase the possibility of a "proliferation cascade" in the region.

How does the Iran Deal compare to the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea?

Iran is not North Korea. The JCPOA differs substantially from agreements reached with North Korea in 1994 and 2005 regarding its nuclear program. 

The IAEA inspections and monitoring measures on Iran's nuclear program will be much more intrusive and stringent than those placed on North Korea, which were limited to one site. Iran has also demonstrated that it values its position in the region and international community and it wants UN Security Council sanctions on its program removed. This only comes through adherence to an agreement. 

The 1994 Agreed Framework, unlike the JCPOA, did not require North Korea to dismantle or modify its plutonium production reactor and it did not include stringent transparency and inspection provisions across the entire fuel cycle and across the country. As a result, North Korea was able to evade detection and pursue a secret uranium-enrichment program.

Is a “Better Deal” possible or necessary?

No. Nevertheless, some critics of the agreement like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) argue that Congress should reject the JCPOA and “urge the administration to work with our allies to maintain economic pressure on Iran while offering to negotiate a better deal.”

But that is wishful thinking. 

If Congress blocks implementation of the JCPOA, it would turn an American diplomatic breakthrough into a strategic disaster. The result would be that:

  • The United States would undercut its European allies and other UNSC members,
  • The necessary international support for Iran-related sanctions would melt away,
  • Iran would be able to rapidly and significantly expand its capacity to produce weapons-grade material,
  • The United States would lose out on securing enhanced inspections needed to detect a clandestine weapons effort,
  • The international nonproliferation regime would suffer a severe blow, undermining the stability of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as the foundation for international security, and
  • The risk of a nuclear-armed Iran and the risk of a war over Iran’s program would increase.

On balance, the P5+1 and Iran nuclear deal is a strong, effectively verifiable, long-term agreement that increases the security of the United States, its allies, and Iran. It is an opportunity that we cannot afford to squander.—KELSEY DAVENPORT and DARYL G. KIMBALL


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. 


The following is an excerpt from the Arms Control Association's newly updated report, "Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action."

Country Resources:

How the Iran Deal Prevents a Covert Nuclear Weapons Program

By Richard Nephew

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left), French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (third from left), Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (fifth from left), EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (center), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (third from right), UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond (second from right) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (right) sit at a table at the Palais Coburg hotel in Vienna on July 6. The officials were representing the group known as the P5+1 in the final stages of negotiations with Iran on the country’s nuclear program. (Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)On July 14, Iran and the six-country group known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) reached an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that promises to end the 13 years of escalating tensions that Tehran’s nuclear ambitions have caused.

The deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is an impressive collection of restrictions, restraints, and monitoring provisions applied to the Iranian nuclear program. Under the deal, Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon using declared facilities is effectively closed for at least 10 years and in some respects longer. Tehran could attempt to produce nuclear weapons material via the declared nuclear program, but to do so would be to risk almost immediate detection and response. This is a result of a combination of measures that constrain Iran’s capabilities and ensure their monitoring.

Although media and public attention has often focused on the known nuclear program, experts generally agree that it is the possibility of a covert program that causes them most concern. Iran has a history of building nuclear facilities in secret and admitting to a range of sensitive nuclear activities only after the fact. The agreement needed to address this problem.

At a fundamental level, this is tremendously difficult. It is difficult to prove the absence of something, particularly in a country as large as Iran. Deliberate evasion of monitoring and transparency measures, which any covert program would involve, naturally makes this job even more difficult.

The subtle effectiveness of the agreement may be most pronounced in the provisions dealing with potential covert activities. Critics have latched on to the issue of how much time it would take for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to gain access to undeclared sites, but this is largely a straw-man complaint based on an erroneous assumption that “anytime, anywhere” inspections would be achievable in anything short of a postwar environment, such as the one in Iraq in the 1990s.

By focusing on this particular issue, skeptics miss the fact that the rest of the agreement is geared to ensure that no significant undeclared facilities can exist. This article will describe in detail the various provisions of the deal that serve as a check against the possibility of covert sites by forming concentric circles of protection. The article also will address the few scenarios in which a potential failure of the system could take place. In doing so, it will demonstrate that the likelihood of these scenarios is sufficiently small as to be implausible and therefore does not constitute a sound reason to reject the deal. 

Defeating the Covert Option

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at a press conference at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport on July 15. Zarif and Ali Akbar Salehi (not pictured), head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, spoke after returning to Tehran from Vienna, where they reached an agreement with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)In order to have a covert nuclear weapons program, Iran must address three needs: access to nuclear materials, access to the equipment and technology to transform nuclear materials into weapons-usable materials, and time. Iran also would need to have a proven nuclear weapons design and viable means of delivery, but the longest lead time and greatest complication are associated with the production of the nuclear weapons material itself. To be truly covert, such a program should have minimal interactions with declared Iranian facilities, which will be subject to inspections and monitoring. Thus, it is likely that an entirely separate nuclear fuel cycle would have to be created for this endeavor, in which there might be a sharing of knowledge between the declared and covert programs but little else that would risk the exposure of illicit activities.           

Among the needs of a covert proliferator, the first and foremost is finding a way to obtain nuclear materials. The uranium-monitoring provisions of the comprehensive agreement will make it very difficult for Iran to do this without being caught. Under the terms of the deal, Iran will permit the IAEA to “monitor, through agreed measures that will include containment and surveillance measures, for 25 years, all uranium ore concentrate produced in Iran or obtained from any other sources.”1 As a result, Iran will not be able to produce a secret stockpile of uranium from its existing mines because such a move would be detected by means of the containment and surveillance measures that exist, which can be loosely described as a combination of seals and cameras.

Theoretically, Iran could seek to procure uranium illicitly, but this would be contrary to UN Security Council actions taken before and since the July 14 deal. These restrictions dictate that any uranium coming into Iran go through a procurement mechanism that is enshrined in the deal. This procurement mechanism will govern the transfer of any Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) controlled or dual-use items or materials to Iran, as well as any items that a potential exporting state may determine could contribute to an illicit Iranian nuclear program. Under the deal, a transfer is considered illicit if it does not come through this mechanism.

Iran also can receive uranium as part of a swap of its enriched-uranium stockpile, but any such swap would be declared by Iran and known to other parties in the agreement. Skeptics may argue that Iran is capable of evading sanctions and could similarly evade the rules established in the agreement. Yet, there is some historical evidence indicating that success at evasion should not be assumed. UN Security Council Resolution 1737, adopted in 2006, was the first resolution that prohibited Iran from importing uranium. During the nine years since the adoption of that resolution, although there have been occasional concerns that Iran could obtain uranium or that its partial ownership of a uranium mine in Namibia gives it license to import uranium from that mine, there has not been any verified transfer of uranium to Iran aside from fuel for the Bushehr power reactor.

Assuming that Iran is able to procure the uranium needed to begin its clandestine program, it must be able to modify the uranium into a form useful for weaponization—the second condition that clandestine proliferators must meet. Generally speaking, this means Iran would have to convert the uranium from its raw form into material capable of being enriched or into fuel for a reactor. This step would require the construction of a new, covert uranium-conversion plant.

For the next step, it is most likely that Iran would seek to utilize centrifuge-based uranium enrichment in its covert program. Iran has experience in uranium enrichment with centrifuges and in the covert construction of facilities for such enrichment, albeit with facilities that were exposed long before they ever became operational. In addition, centrifuge plants have fewer detectable signatures than nuclear reactors or spent fuel reprocessing plants.

Covert uranium enrichment would require the construction of a new covert enrichment facility, which is prohibited under the deal with the P5+1, and outfitting with centrifuges. The easiest supply of these is the stockpile of centrifuges removed pursuant to the deal. Fortunately, the deal addresses the possibility of centrifuges being removed from storage, requiring continuous monitoring, including containment and surveillance measures, of Iran’s stored centrifuges and associated components and infrastructure for 15 years. With this kind of monitoring in place, the IAEA would notice any attempt to divert these centrifuges well before a plant could be built.

Instead of taking centrifuges out of its declared centrifuge stockpile, Iran could instead decide to build new centrifuges. To do so, it would need to produce new rotors and bellows for these centrifuges, among other parts and pieces. Because the agreement requires containment and surveillance of the existing inventory of both rotors and bellows for 20 years, Iran would have to produce new centrifuge components using specialized equipment.

Yet, the deal guards against this route as well by requiring Iran to provide a declaration of all locations where centrifuge component production could take place and to permit access to those locations to verify that illicit production is not ongoing. Furthermore, the deal requires Iran to provide access to the flow-forming machines, filament-winding machines, and mandrels that are used for production of centrifuge rotor tubes and bellows. This equipment is subject to continuous monitoring, including containment and surveillance. If the equipment were to be diverted or misused, the IAEA would know. This access will persist for 20 years.

In sum, to have a covert enrichment path, Iran would have to have a clandestine supply of uranium, a covert uranium-conversion plant, a covert means of producing centrifuges, and a place to install and operate them. This would require essentially replicating its current enrichment program, which is a costly, complicated, and detectable enterprise.

With respect to the covert-reactor path, there are reactor designs that could permit Iran to maximize plutonium production for use in a covert bomb. One such design is the heavy-water research reactor currently being built at Arak, but under the agreement, it will be modified to produce as little as one-eighth of the annual plutonium output of its present design. It is reasonable to suspect that Iran would seek to build a new heavy-water reactor like the present Arak design, given that it has some experience with it. Yet, Iran’s experience with the construction of the heavy-water reactor at Arak does not give any credence to the notion that such a facility could be constructed without being noticed, due to the long lead time required for construction and fact that the Arak reactor was itself observed long before it was completed, as was the heavy-water production plant located next door.

Reactors themselves require specially designed parts and materials, at least some of which Iran would probably have to procure from non-Iranian sources. In addition, reactors have unique construction signatures that can be spotted with intelligence satellites. It is not impossible to construct a reactor clandestinely—the North Korean-built al Kibar reactor in Syria that was destroyed in 2007 by Israel is a case in point—but it is more difficult. The Israeli ability to spot and destroy the reactor before it was operational supports the idea that even a carefully concealed reactor facility can be stopped before coming online.

Assuming Iran could build a new reactor that produces weapons-grade plutonium, Iran still would have to extract the plutonium from spent fuel. The absence of a spent fuel reprocessing capability in Iran and Iran’s inexperience with spent fuel reprocessing technology make it unlikely that Tehran would seek this path for a covert weapons program. In fact, it could take Iran the full 15 years that the reprocessing and associated spent fuel restrictions of the deal are in place to learn enough about the technology and to construct facilities capable of performing the operation, minimizing its value to Iran while maximizing risk.

As noted above with respect to uranium enrichment, Iran would need to have a way of procuring items that it needs for work on a covert reactor program. To a large extent, the procurement channel established as a result of the deal ought to guard against this. Iran will be prohibited from engaging in any procurement of items especially designed or prepared for nuclear uses without going through the procurement channel. Iran will likewise be prohibited from procuring dual-use items listed by the NSG, as well as any items that a potential exporting state determines could contribute to illicit nuclear activities, unless Tehran obtains these items through the approved channel. Any identified procurement outside the channel would be an immediate red flag once detected. (The issue of undetected nuclear procurements is discussed below.)

Even if Iran obtained illicit uranium, illicit uranium-conversion equipment, and illicit uranium-enrichment equipment and constructed the necessary facilities, it still would not be invulnerable to detection. This points to the last requirement on the list cited above: time. Every day an illicit facility operates is another day for a spy, a wiretap, or a satellite image to catch the proliferator in the act.

The construction and operation of these facilities and their associated activities require time to achieve their desired results; one weapon’s worth of highly enriched uranium (HEU) is not made in a day. A proliferator must have enough time to ensure its facilities fulfill their function. If the proliferator fails to have enough time, it runs the risk of being caught early and having the attempt curtailed by diplomatic action or military strikes. The United States and its partners have thus far detected the Natanz facility, the Arak facilities, and the Fordow facilities before they were completed, without much of the access to be provided under the terms of the comprehensive agreement. Should another such facility be detected, the comprehensive agreement provides yet another tool to address it: required provision of access.

Under the terms of the deal, Iran is required to provide access to undeclared facilities if the IAEA requests such access and suitable alternative arrangements cannot be identified. This requirement is based on the implementation of Iran’s additional protocol, which Iran will begin implementing provisionally when implementation of the deal begins.2

The agreement specifies a process that the IAEA request would set in motion once the agency has learned of a potential covert site or undeclared nuclear-related activities. This process includes the provision of information by the IAEA to Iran on the nature of the suspicions prompting the access request. The request could trigger a 24-day clock under which Iran would provide the requested access or the issue would be sent to the dispute resolution process stipulated in the agreement. Iran could head off a request for access only if four of the eight parties to the agreement—Iran, the P5+1, and the European Union—opposed granting access. Even then, the complaining state could still take up the matter in the dispute resolution process. The end result of that process could be the reimposition, or “snapback,” of UN Security Council, U.S., and EU sanctions and a resumption of the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.

Critics have argued that 24 days is far too much time to grant for this procedure because Iran would be able to use the time to cover up its activities. Olli Heinonen, the former head of the IAEA Department of Safeguards, has cited Iran’s renovation of the Kalaye Electric Company facility in 2003 as proof that Iran can rapidly dispose of the evidence of misdeeds.3 Heinonen noted that, two weeks after the IAEA requested access to the facility, where Iran engaged in undeclared centrifuge experiments, it had been completely renovated, with new floors, walls, and air-handling systems.

The problem with this example is twofold. First, Iran did not have only two weeks to sanitize the facility. The initial public revelation of Iran’s clandestine enrichment program was in August 2002 by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which subsequently identified the location of the Kalaye facility in February 2003. The IAEA was denied access at that time and permitted only limited access in March 2003. In May 2003, the agency gained full access to the facility but without the right to take environmental samples from the site.4 Iran granted permission to do this in early August 2003, at which time inspectors noted that further modifications had been made to the site since March 2003.5 Even under the most liberal of interpretations of the comprehensive agreement, within six months, UN Security Council sanctions would have snapped back against Iran for such behavior.

Second, although six months had passed since the Kalaye facility was first identified publicly, with extensive modifications made to the workshop, traces of enriched uranium still were found in the facility. Heinonen’s own example tends to underscore the likelihood that Iran will not be able to guard against contamination of every room of every facility in which undeclared uranium work takes place if it is carrying out such work. It was probably for this reason that when confronted in 2004 with incriminating evidence about undeclared work at the Lavisan site, Iran decided to destroy the facility completely. Satellite images taken before and after the destruction underscore that Iran was sufficiently concerned about IAEA access and environmental sampling to essentially remove the location from the face of the earth, taking three feet of topsoil with it.6 Iranian sanitization activities at Parchin show a similar dedication to eradicating facilities rather than granting access for fear of what would result.7

Possible Failure Scenarios

Centrifuges found by an International Atomic Energy Agency team in a warehouse near Tuwaitha, Iraq, during the team’s inspections following the 1991 Persian Gulf War are shown in this undated photo. (Action Team 1991-1998 / IAEA)As the preceding section outlines, although a theoretical opportunity exists for Iran to engage in a covert program, the comprehensive agreement was designed to make this opportunity far more difficult than it currently is. If the agreement functions as designed, then a covert program is likely to be detected very early in the process. Iran’s awareness of this risk creates deterrence for a covert path being pursued in the first place.

Scenarios predicting an Iranian covert program assume that having worked hard to achieve a deal with the P5+1, Iran would be prepared to risk the consequences of that deal being torn apart by its actions, consequences that could include sanctions or military action. Although this is conceivable in the event of a near-term, regional security threat to Iran, no such threat exists at present, with the possible exception of Israel. Yet, as the existence of a covert program is one of the most likely prompts for an Israeli military strike, it would not be logical for Iran to tempt fate by engaging in such an activity. It is also possible that detection of a covert site during the deal would provide the impetus for U.S. military action against Iran.

Nevertheless, it is worth considering possible covert-path scenarios to identify potential points of breakdown and to account for the possibility that Iranian decision-making does not follow rational or logical lines. Three scenarios are worth evaluating here: a catastrophic failure of the agreement, the current existence of an undeclared nuclear program in Iran, and the possibility that Iran could seek to acquire nuclear weapons material or an assembled weapon from another state.

Catastrophic failure. It is possible that each individual element of the agreement fails catastrophically. In such a scenario, Iran would be able to obtain the materials and equipment it needs and to do so without being detected by the IAEA or the intelligence apparatus of the United States and those of its partners. In such a scenario, Iran would not be subject to any particular constraints and could engage in a breakout at its leisure.

This is theoretically possible yet difficult. Iran is one of the most watched intelligence targets for the United States, let alone U.S. partners in the region and in Europe. Moreover, past successes in detecting such activities in Iran long before they reached fruition should provide some confidence that the size and scope of what Iran would have to do to make the attempt would lend itself to detection. The access granted under the comprehensive agreement will help matters by assisting analysts in sorting legitimate activities from illicit ones. For example, if Iran were detected procuring goods for an enrichment plant outside the authorized procurement channel, then it would be a rather good bet that the procurement is intended to support a clandestine effort. For intelligence analysts, eliminating legitimate activities as explanations could be very helpful in forming judgments on intent, as well as in establishing priorities for further investigation.

Notably, it would be a challenge for Iran to procure for and construct the relatively large covert program needed during the 10 to 15 years of the main restrictions of the deal.

Existing covert program. Iran may already have a fully constructed covert program and merely be awaiting the removal of sanctions to reveal it. This is theoretically possible but unlikely. Iran has had a difficult enough time sustaining its now-declared program, as has been demonstrated by reports of material shortages in Iran’s nuclear program for several years.

Moreover, asserting the possibility of an existing covert program offers no guidance on handling the deal because such an allegation can never be satisfactorily disproven. Policymakers can act only on what they know and what they have good cause to believe. To do otherwise is to repeat the mistakes of U.S. policy in Iraq in 2003, when it was assumed that the Iraqis must have had a covert program because they were not adequately assisting UN inspectors to demonstrate that no such program existed. With the benefit of hindsight, one can say that there was very little Iraq could have done to prove that something did not exist. The only way out of this conundrum was by offering robust access, which the Iraqis were loath to do. If properly implemented, the comprehensive agreement will remedy this problem in Iran.

Buying a bomb or bomb material. It is also theoretically possible that Iran could contract for its nuclear weapons program by buying a nuclear weapon or the material for one. One such theory postulates that Iran and North Korea, which have a long history of collaboration on ballistic missiles, could collaborate to mutually develop nuclear and missile capabilities, with each providing access to resources that the other cannot. For Iran, this could include the covert acquisition of HEU or plutonium from North Korea.

This scenario is an interesting possibility but, as with an existing covert program, offers nothing by way of guidance for how to interpret the deal. At a minimum, the deal prohibits such transfers, as would Iran’s commitments under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which it joined in 1970.

If one is convinced that Iran would be prepared to undertake such an adventure, there is nothing in the public domain that can provide irrefutable and unambiguous assurance that no such activity would ever be contemplated. One might as easily suggest that Iran could have a nuclear weapon already designed and built, ready to be mounted on a missile tomorrow. It cannot be proved that this has not happened, just that no such activity has been detected and that, circumstantially, it would not make much sense. The same argument could be made about other countries but without proof that it has happened. Policymakers rarely have complete knowledge; they have to make their decisions on the basis of what intelligence reveals and what logic suggests.

From this perspective, the transfer of a nuclear warhead or weapons-grade material would be a risky proposition for all concerned. The transfer could be detected, prompting almost immediate calls for military strikes against Iran at a minimum. The associated signatures of such moves probably would be observed through intelligence channels. Given the existence of the Proliferation Security Initiative—a program launched by President George W. Bush to increase cooperation among states in interdicting transfers of weapons of mass destruction and their materials and components—and the widespread presence of the U.S. Navy and partner navies in the sea lanes between North Korea and Iran, such transfers could be met with a military response of boarding any ship involved.8

As noted above, Iran already has made a commitment not to seek to acquire nuclear weapons, including weaponization-related components, in perpetuity. Iran also has agreed not to seek to obtain uranium or plutonium metal for 15 years. Under such a scenario, it is highly doubtful that there would be any defense of Iran in the international community. Tehran would be inviting attack by pursuing this option. Moreover, there is enough intelligence focus on Iran and North Korea that it is highly speculative to assume that either could pursue such an arrangement without detection.

Finally, this threat does not diminish the value of the deal, except if one assumes that the only way to address the problem is to change the regime. If that is one’s outlook, then it is fair to suggest that the deal is poorly equipped to handle this challenge. In making that argument, however, one would have to explain how any reasonably conceivable deal could prevent that.

The Status Quo

A fair estimate of the value of the comprehensive agreement in addressing the problem of an Iranian covert program must include a comparison to the status quo. There is no comparison possible between the comprehensive agreement and the two most extreme failure scenarios—the existence of a covert program at present and an Iranian purchase of weapons-usable materials or a bomb itself. No deal could definitively address these current threats.

The more interesting point of comparison is the status quo—or, more precisely, the situation that persisted prior to the interim deal of November 2013 because that would likely be the situation in the event of a collapse of the comprehensive agreement—against the risk of a catastrophic failure of the comprehensive agreement.

  • Without the interim and comprehensive deals, Iran’s provision of information on its uranium production would not be required. Iran also would not be required to permit the IAEA to undertake any monitoring activities concerning uranium production.
  • Without the interim and comprehensive deals, Iran would not permit IAEA inventorying, let alone monitoring, of its centrifuge components and the tools for producing more of them.
  • Without the interim and comprehensive deals, Iran would not restrain its production of heavy water and might not restrain research on spent fuel reprocessing or construction of a reprocessing facility. Construction of the Arak reactor would be restarted, giving Iran valuable experience that could be applied to a covert nuclear program.
  • Without the interim and comprehensive deals, there would be no procurement channel monitoring what would come into the country that could aid a covert effort.
  • Without the interim and comprehensive deals, Iran would not be forthcoming with respect to access requests, and skeptics could look back fondly at an opportunity for required access within 24 days. 

Although none of these activities would be permitted as a legal matter under the UN Security Council resolutions adopted prior to July 2015, the entire discussion of a covert program assumes that Iran is not fulfilling its legal or political commitments. Notwithstanding these facts, some opponents would argue that the status quo remains preferable because, without the deal, Iran’s nuclear program would remain largely illegal under the Security Council resolutions. Yet, Iran has not fulfilled its obligations under these resolutions since 2006. Practically, the legal prohibition has had little value in stopping Iran from having a covert program. The deal, on the other hand, does much to prevent such covert efforts.

Similarly, many opponents would argue that without the comprehensive deal, international sanctions would not have been relaxed on Iran, and Iran would find itself under continued economic strain. Yet, there is no compelling evidence that such pressure has precluded covert activities in the past. Moreover, it is precisely such strain that could convince Iran’s leadership that its only opportunity for regime survival is to concentrate on establishing a nuclear deterrent.

The goal of the sanctions, which they achieved, was to bring Iran to the table. Nothing in the last 12 years of negotiating history with Iran suggests that sanctions alone will compel Iranian capitulation.


It is inarguable that a covert path to Iranian nuclear weapons would present the United States and its partners with a tremendous security challenge. It would undermine the terms of the comprehensive agreement and consequently prompt a re-establishment of intense sanctions pressure on Iran, if not military action. Moreover, a covert program could spur additional proliferation in the region and beyond. These are threats Iran would have to anticipate and manage before proceeding with a covert option, probably precluding it.

The agreement is a material improve-ment over the status quo across the board, offering at worst an improved opportunity to detect such activities. In doing so, the agreement will deter Iranian cheating and make succeeding at it a virtually impossible task.

Richard Nephew is a fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He was a member of the U.S. negotiating team with Iran and director for Iran at the National Security Council. He served as the Middle East team chief and senior Iran nuclear officer in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the Department of State from 2006 to 2011 and before that as special assistant for nonproliferation policy at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.


1.  “Annex I - Nuclear-Related Measures,” n.d., para. 68, http://eeas.europa.eu/statements-eeas/docs/iran_agreement/annex_1_nuclear_related_commitments_en.pdf

2.  The Model Additional Protocol is a nonproliferation agreement developed by the international community after revelations about the extent of clandestine Iraqi nuclear weapons-related work after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. There is a standard format for the additional protocol for all non-nuclear-weapon states that are parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). See International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “Model Additional Protocol to the Agreement(s) Between State(s) and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the Application of Safeguards,” INFCIRC/540, September 1997.

3.  Bill Gertz, “Ex-IAEA Leader: 24-Day Inspection Delay Will Boost Iranian Nuclear Cheating,” Washington Free Beacon, July 21, 2015, http://freebeacon.com/national-security/ex-iaea-leader-24-day-inspection-delay-will-boost-iranian-nuclear-cheating/

4.  Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), “ISIS Imagery Brief: Kalaye Electric,” March 31, 2005, http://isis-online.org/publications/iran/kalayeelectric.html

5.  IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” August 26, 2003, GOV/2003/63, https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/gov2003-63.pdf.

6.  ISIS, “Nuclear Sites: Lavisan-Shian (Lavizan-Shian),” n.d., http://www.isisnucleariran.org/sites/detail/lavisan-shian/

7.  ISIS, “Nuclear Sites: Parchin,” n.d., http://www.isisnucleariran.org/sites/detail/parchin/

8. Air transfer would present different challenges, given that the air routes would involve flight over China. Yet, it is not in the interest of China to permit nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons material to transit its airspace. If such a transfer were detected, interdiction cooperation from China could be arranged.


On July 14, Iran and the six-country group known as the P5+1 reached an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that promises to end the 13 years of escalating tensions that Tehran’s nuclear ambitions have caused.

Next Steps on Disarmament Uncertain

By Kingston Reif

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström speaks at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations on April 27. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)In the aftermath of a contentious review conference earlier this year, key states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) differ on the best way to pursue disarmament as they look to the UN General Assembly session that opens Sept. 15 and the treaty’s next review conference, in 2020.

The recent review conference ended May 22 without agreement on a final document due to unbridgeable differences over the process for convening a conference on ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction. In addition, countries clashed over the pace of the nuclear-weapon states’ disarmament efforts. (See ACT, June 2015.)

Although nuclear disarmament was not the “deal breaker” that prevented consensus at the meeting, differences on the issue are “severe and intensifying,” Adam Scheinman, President Barack Obama’s special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, said during a July 16 panel discussion at the U.S. State Department.

Speaking on the same panel, Alexander Kmentt, director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation in the Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, said that the longer the negotiations on disarmament at the review conference went on, the deeper the divide became.

The conference’s draft final document did not represent “anything close” to a consensus, he said.

Scheinman said countries can take a number of steps before the 2020 review conference. For example, he emphasized the importance of finding a way to bring Russia back to the negotiating table on arms control although he did not suggest how that might be possible in light of U.S.-Russian tensions over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and alleged violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

In addition, Scheinman urged the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to begin negotiations on a global ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, which has effectively been blocked by Pakistan (see, "UN Disarmament Body Still Stalemated"). Scheinman said it would not be possible to move toward much lower numbers of nuclear weapons without a verified cap on fissile material production.

He also called for the development of better lines of communication on nuclear disarmament issues between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states as a way to bridge some of the gaps that persist. He specifically mentioned the possible creation by the UN General Assembly of “an open-ended working group”—a forum in which all UN members can participate—as a “first-order opportunity to have a serious dialogue among the various parties.”

Scheinman expressed hope that there would be progress “quite soon” on the steps he listed.

The U.S. State Department’s Adam Scheinman (left) and Alexander Kmentt of the Austrian foreign ministry (right) discuss the recent NPT review conference during a July 16 panel of the Generation Prague conference at the State Department. At center is moderator Sharon Squassoni of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)The working group was a recommendation in the draft final document from the NPT review conference. According to the document, the purpose of the working group would be “to identify effective measures for the full implementation of Article VI” of the NPT and to do so on the basis of consensus. Under Article VI, the treaty parties are to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

The General Assembly last established an open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament in 2012. (See ACT, December 2012.) In that group, which met in Geneva in August 2013, about 80 states discussed ways to advance multilateral disarmament negotiations, but the nuclear-weapon states declined to participate. The group produced a final report that summarized the content of the discussion.

Kmentt questioned the approach touted by Scheinman, noting that disarmament steps such as a fissile material cutoff treaty have been on the international agenda for nearly two decades, but no progress has been made. He called such a step-by-step approach “extremely incredible” and said it has been “discredited.”

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, also criticized the step-by-step approach and expressed skepticism about the idea of an open-ended working group.

In an Aug. 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today, she called the idea of a working group based on consensus “useless” and said the states seeking faster disarmament progress are not pushing this idea.

Fihn said the main issue at the UN General Assembly will be how the 114 signatories of the “Humanitarian Pledge” will seek to take action to fill this gap. The document, which originated at the third conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use, held in Vienna last December, calls on states “to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.” (See ACT, January/February 2015.)

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies said in an Aug. 19 interview that it would be “interesting to watch” if an open-ended working group is established at the upcoming General Assembly meeting and if the humanitarian initiative’s leaders, such as Austria, Mexico, and Norway, are able to move the disarmament discussion beyond where it ended at the review conference.

Mukhatzhanova said that the diplomats representing the leading countries of the humanitarian movement are “regrouping.” It is unclear what they will do to advance their agenda at the General Assembly and if they will seek to hold a fourth humanitarian-impact conference, she said. 

In the aftermath of a contentious review conference earlier this year, key states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty differ on the best way to pursue disarmament.

Reading the Nuclear Politics in Tehran

By Ariane Tabatabai

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (bottom) speaks in the parliament in Tehran on July 21 below a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Zarif was defending the agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program that Iran and six world powers concluded on July 14. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)Iran’s domestic politics and power structure have been a source of puzzlement and conjecture since the country’s 1979 revolution, which toppled a U.S. ally and brought the Islamic Republic to power. This bewilderment intensified during the nuclear negotiations between six world powers collectively known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Tehran.

Throughout the negotiations, many observers speculated about the Iranian perceptions of the emerging deal and how these perceptions would shape the future of the diplomatic process and the agreement’s implementation. In particular, the many statements of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were dissected in attempts to determine whether Iran would accept certain restrictions or stop the negotiations.1 In spite of the time and energy devoted to these analyses, many of Tehran’s signals were misinterpreted throughout the process.

Today, similar questions have arisen with regard to Iran’s intentions and ability to implement the comprehensive deal reached in Vienna in July. A key issue is whether domestic politics in Iran will allow the government to uphold its end of the bargain. This article provides a partial response to that question by analyzing the Iranian establishment’s attitude toward the P5+1 process from the beginning of the negotiations to the conclusion of the comprehensive deal.

Supreme Politician

To be sure, Khamenei is the final decision-maker in Iranian foreign policy and domestic politics. Yet, he is not the sole decision-maker in Iran. Furthermore, he tries to stay above politics. This important distinction is often lost in the United States, where the perception is that there are no checks and balances in the Islamic Republic. There are several centers of power within the regime’s structure, all of which have their own decision-making processes, interests, and drivers.

Khamenei and his office are the most opaque components of the regime, along with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Khamenei’s job description includes frequent comments and statements on social, political, and strategic affairs. He appears in various forums several times a month, including at Friday prayers, where, in addition to leading the prayer, he often makes comments on the most pressing issues on Iran’s social and political agenda.

For instance, in June 2009, he used the Friday prayer as a platform to issue an ultimatum and authorize the crackdown on hundreds of thousands of protesters opposing what they denounced as the fraudulent re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.2 This event was a turning point for Khamenei’s decision-making. It led to the greatest crisis in the Islamic Republic’s history, including a broad questioning of the legitimacy of the office of supreme leader and of Khamenei’s legitimacy to hold the office. This crisis led Khamenei and his advisers to re-evaluate their approach to elections in the following cycle.

This reality check was part of the impetus behind the victory of Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential elections. Indeed, many analysts in Iran and the West suspected that Khamenei would facilitate another fraudulent election, favoring his preferred candidate, Saeed Jalili, a hard-liner who had been a nuclear negotiator under Ahmadinejad.3 Yet, the election of Rouhani proved that Khamenei was no longer willing to ignore the wishes of the people and risk his own position when he could take a less dangerous path by assuaging the populace and securing the regime.

The most important topic during the elections was that of the nuclear crisis and how to solve it. It was clear that if Khamenei backed Jalili, blocking Rouhani from being elected, he would be endorsing Jalili’s method of negotiating: the all-or-nothing approach. Instead, with Rouhani now in power, the supreme leader was ready to play by Rouhani’s rules: acknowledgement of the need to make concessions, such as accepting limitations on the nuclear program. Throughout the process, Khamenei intervened to set limits on just how far the negotiators could go and where they could make concessions.4

Despite being interpreted by some as definitive and strict redlines, most of Khamenei’s interventions on the nuclear issue were in fact fairly moderate. Virtually every one of his statements on the nuclear negotiations was viewed in the United States as designed to derail the process. Yet, a careful reading of Iranian political culture and the Islamic Republic’s political dynamics and structure indicates that he was trying to position himself to stand to win regardless of the outcome of the talks while helping the negotiations.

Khamenei’s position on the nuclear issue has been driven by a number of factors. First, his mandate is to secure the survival of the Islamic Republic. To this end, he must identify and work toward regime interests. Therefore, in crucial periods, Khamenei has endorsed what the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary ideology opposes: working with the United States. This has consistently been the case when national security and, by extension, regime survival, have been at stake in Afghanistan, in Iraq against the Islamic State, and today with regard to the nuclear issue. Hence, when national security and revolutionary ideology have been at odds, the regime has actually privileged the former.

This, in turn, is due to the second factor: that there can be no regime without a country. Hence, the supreme leader needs to take national interests into consideration and pursue them. In the past decade, economic and political pressure, increased isolation, and the threat of war all have put the country in a vulnerable position, which contributed to Tehran’s decision to come to the negotiating table.

A third factor is the personal interests that Khamenei has at stake. He has successfully sought to position himself in a way that guarantees he will remain unchallenged, regardless of the outcome of the talks.

From the beginning, Khamenei cautiously backed the negotiations and the negotiating team, commenting that although the United States could not be trusted, he trusted the negotiators to preserve national security, pursue national interests, and maintain the country’s dignity and accomplishments.5 This cautious endorsement is an indication of how Khamenei had to position himself within the domestic political landscape. Despite adhering to a fairly hard line on a number of issues, Khamenei has in fact been a moderating agent in the negotiating process.

Contrary to the widely held perception outside Iran, the supreme leader does not always intervene in all matters relating to foreign policy. His vision certainly informs the country’s strategy beyond Iran’s borders, but on an operational level, what Tehran does is the prerogative of the elected government. This means that the government, chiefly the foreign ministry, typically manages the country’s foreign policy issues, excluding those that are handled by the IRGC, namely Iran’s activities in Iraq, Syria, and the rest of the Middle East.

The nuclear issue was an exception to this rule; Khamenei was intimately involved in the talks. He “supervised” the process, and his redlines were Iran’s national bottom lines. The entire security and political establishment, as well as much of the Iranian populace, supported the idea that Tehran should make concessions but without stopping its enrichment program, curtailing its ability to conduct research and development, granting inspection rights to its nonmilitary facilities, or providing access to its scientists.6 Khamenei had a direct channel to the negotiators and frequently provided his input on what was on the table. In rare instances, he delivered the input publicly. That was the case on key issues such as inspection of military sites and interviews with nuclear scientists.7 

Misunderstanding the Corps

A man flashes the victory sign in front the Iranian national flag during a celebration in Tehran on July 14 after the nuclear deal was announced. Under the agreement, sanctions on Iran would be lifted in return for certain restrictions on and monitoring of the country’s nuclear program. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)The IRGC, much like its commander in chief, the supreme leader, is often misunderstood in the United States. Its role in the nuclear program and negotiations has been oversimplified and exaggerated.

The IRGC’s role in the program and talks is determined by a number of conflicting interests. First, although there has been a great deal of speculation on the IRGC’s role in the nuclear program, there is little concrete knowledge of the extent of this involvement. It is clear, however, that the IRGC has played and continues to play a role in the nuclear program and would essentially have custody of a nuclear arsenal if Iran acquired one.8

Certain other aspects of the connection between the IRGC and the Iranian nuclear program also are clear. First, the IRGC has played a very active role in developing the Iranian missile program. Second, the IRGC has managed to fill the vacuum left by foreign companies in Iran’s economy. The combination of the Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, and the nuclear crisis led an Iran in need of redevelopment to be isolated and under backbreaking sanctions. With foreign companies increasingly reluctant to do business in Iran, the country had to find a way to redevelop its economy and infrastructure. The IRGC stepped in. As a result of its ability to capitalize on the isolation and sanctions put in place, the corps now owns a large percentage of the national economy, with hands in many different fields. This means that the IRGC could actually stand to lose from sanctions.

Indeed, with the country open for business again, foreign companies will create serious competition for the IRGC. Many in the political elite have indicated their willingness to minimize IRGC involvement in all political and economic spheres. So far, however, their ability to pursue this policy has been limited, given that the country could rely only on the IRGC and the black market to fill the vacuum left by foreign companies. Today, with the economy opening up, steps can be taken to address this. Despite standing to lose some ground from the change in the Iranian political and economic ecosystem, the IRGC has generally followed Khamenei, positioning itself relatively moderately. IRGC commanders also have cautiously backed the negotiations and stated that they believe the negotiating team has only the best interests of the country at heart.9

In some cases, the IRGC and Khamenei have balanced each other. For instance, on one occasion when Khamenei gave a resounding endorsement of the negotiating team, the IRGC cautiously backed it. The following time, they reversed these roles, with a more cautious endorsement from Khamenei and a resounding one from the IRGC. Hence, both the supreme leader and the IRGC have tried to position themselves above politics in a way that would allow them to use the outcome of the negotiations to consolidate their power. At the same time, they have tried to guide the process to obtain what they view as the optimal result, with more gains on sanctions relief and fewer concessions on the nuclear program.

There has been a notable exception to the guards’ general support for the deal. General Mohammad-Reza Naqdi, the head of the Basij milita, has sharply criticized the deal. Naqdi questioned the intentions of the world powers, saying that the nuclear issue was an excuse “covering an underlying truth.” He claimed that “[the facts that] the foreign ministers of seven countries did not move for nine days and nights in Lausanne, or the U.S. Secretary of State[’s] presen[ce] in the negotiations for 20 nights and days with a broken leg” prove that something beyond the nuclear issue was at stake. He further stated that the answer to Iran’s economic problems is a “resistance economy not a borrowed economy.”10 Unlike the more mainstream members of the IRGC, the Basij have been generally more critical of the negotiations and the deal. Yet, the Basij is renowned for its loyalty to its commander in chief, Khamenei. Hence, while being generally more critical, its members have not been as vocal as an organization on the matter as other groups and are unlikely to have an impact on the implementation of the deal. 

Opposition From the Majlis

The Iranian parliament, the Majlis, has posed the greatest challenge to the talks. It has often mirrored the U.S. Congress, in part by seeking to gain more power over the process of reaching and implementing a deal. The hard-line position on the process has not been limited to conservative legislators; it has cut across the different traditional political leanings. To be sure, reformists and moderates have thrown their support behind Rouhani’s moderate agenda, but some have been critical of the process.

Much like opponents of the deal in Congress, those in the Majlis have different interests and are driven by different views. Some profoundly distrust the United States and fundamentally reject engagement with the West in much the same way that some in Congress oppose even sitting at the table with Tehran. Other members of the Majlis believe that any concession is too much. Still others were in Ahmadinejad’s camp and want to deny Rouhani a foreign policy victory of this magnitude, just as many Republicans in Congress, driven by domestic politics and their opposition to the administration of President Barack Obama, do not want him to have this foreign policy victory.

In other words, the Iranian domestic opposition to the nuclear negotiations stems from a number of factors and cannot be oversimplified and attributed to a single factor. The opponents have been very vocal, but are in fact a small minority of the Iranian population. Yet, the level of influence of these groups and the pressure they have exerted on the negotiators cannot be underestimated. Although it is a small group, some individuals within the group have considerable influence.

Ultimately, the Majlis found itself limited in its ability to influence the talks. Hence, its members exerted pressure on the Rouhani government by taking the fight outside the nuclear realm, for instance, by impeaching ministers. Such actions indicate that the legislators are trying to limit the government’s ability to maneuver and place obstacles in its way to stop it from implementing its agenda. In this case, these tactics were designed to weaken and put pressure on the Rouhani government.

Khamenei intervened a number of times after hard-line newspapers attacked the negotiating team. In doing so, he decreased the pressure on the team, facilitating its efforts conclude a deal. This in turn reinforced the idea that regardless of their efforts, critics of a deal would not be able to fundamentally shift what appears to be a national consensus and establishment decision to negotiate with the world powers and to do so with the intent to reach a deal. The Majlis managed to acquire the ability to supervise the process by regularly summoning Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and passing legislation expanding its powers to oversee the negotiations. Yet, in spite of the rhetoric of some of its members,11 the Majlis did not actually attempt to derail the negotiations altogether. A significant announcement made by Speaker Ali Larijani in the aftermath of the deal, praising the negotiating team’s efforts, encapsulated the idea that the Majlis would stand behind the deal.12

As the process continues into its implementation phase, the Majlis will continue to weigh in. Yet, it is unlikely to take action to stop the implementation process unless the P5+1 is seen as failing to live up to its end of the bargain. 

Popular Support

The vast majority of Iranians support a negotiated solution to the issue of the nuclear program.13 This is because virtually every aspect of Iranian public and private life has been affected by the nuclear crisis: the threats to national security, including the looming threat of overt military conflict; economic hardship resulting from sanctions; the tightening of space for political reforms; and the inability to push for improvement on human rights because of the threat of war. If the vast majority of Iranians have been following the details of the talks, it is not because they care about their uranium-enrichment capacity. Instead, they see the nuclear issue as an obstacle to the normalization of their lives and the country’s economy and international status.

The support for the negotiators, the popularity of Zarif, and the nationwide celebrations of the 2013 interim deal and the recent comprehensive deal certainly strengthened the negotiators’ hands domestically. This means that while facing harsh criticism at home from some quarters, the negotiators could say that they benefited from the population’s general support for their efforts.

The conventional Western wisdom on Iranian politics is that the people’s views on issues do not matter. There is an element of truth to that view because the supreme leader, the ultimate decision-maker, is not an elected official. He is supposed to be above politics and a “neutral” figure in Iranian politics. Yet, domestic politics can and do influence decision-making. As noted previously, Khamenei learned in 2009 that going against the popular will could come at a cost for him. In 2009, that was a blow to his legitimacy and that of the regime more generally. In 2013, defying public opinion could have led to a deepened crisis of legitimacy and an increased weakening of the very foundations of the Islamic Republic.

The Majlis represents the people. Nevertheless, in some cases, including this one, members of the Majlis do not reflect the views of their constituencies. Ultimately, however, the members also know that, in order to be re-elected, they can only go so far in their opposition to something the majority of the population really wants.

All this is not to say that there has not been any opposition to the negotiations and the deal. The Delvapassan, or “Worried,” movement, as it has come to be known, has made headlines throughout the process, criticizing the negotiations and urging the team not to make concessions on the country’s technological and scientific achievements. Members of the movement were often subtly invited to quiet down by Khamenei’s endorsements of the process. In those statements, Khamenei always presented Zarif’s team as driven by national interests.

More recently, the government shut down an ultraconservative weekly paper, 9th Dey, for criticizing the deal. At the same time, Rouhani has described social media, including Twitter and Facebook, banned in Iran since 2009, as helpful tools for young people eager to express their support for the negotiations.14

The Way Ahead

In the coming months, a number of domestic events will occur in parallel with the implementation of the comprehensive deal. First and foremost, the Majlis elections, scheduled to take place on February 25, will be decisive for the Rouhani government. The Majlis continues to want to play a role and supervise the process. As was the case throughout the negotiations, however, it is unlikely to do much to disturb the process even if it shifts more to the right as a result of the elections. Nevertheless, it could exert more pressure on the government through other means, as it did during the negotiations.

Iran is expected to voluntarily implement an additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement, providing the International Atomic Energy Agency with the authority to monitor the country’s facilities more closely. The Majlis, however, has yet to ratify it, which would make its provisions permanent and legally binding. Under the comprehensive deal, Iran must “seek [the protocol’s] ratification and entry into force consistent with the respective roles of the President and Majlis.” Tehran voluntarily implemented the protocol from 2003 to 2005, but stopped implementing it when the previous round of negotiations failed. The ratification step will be crucial to ensure that Iran continues to implement the protocol after the expiration of the various constraints imposed by the deal.

After the parliamentary elections, the next big event in Iranian politics is the presidential election, scheduled for mid-2017. By then, many of the issues directly related to the nuclear issue should be solved. Given the eight- to 25-year provisions in the deal, however, a number of events are worth noting. These include the redesign of the Arak heavy-water reactor, which involves removing the core, destroying it or shipping it to another country, and replacing it with a core that would produce less plutonium; the conversion of the Fordow enrichment site into a research center; and the reduction of the country’s stockpile of 10,000 kilograms of enriched uranium to 300 kilograms.

The Rouhani government will likely point to the nuclear deal as the flagship success of its first term and seek re-election for a second four-year term, the last for which it will be eligible. A potential complication for the successful implementation of the deal lies in the much-debated health of Khamenei and the choice of his successor. This could translate into tremendous change in the very foundations of the Islamic Republic. For this reason, the upcoming years will be vital to the long-term viability of the deal. If the deal is implemented without major complications and Tehran receives what it sees as its due under the deal without feeling vulnerable to military attacks from other countries in the next few years, future changes in the country’s politics and political structure are less likely to have a tremendous impact on the future of the implementation of the deal.

Thus, it is important to put the deal in place quickly and smoothly, to the extent possible, to make sure it is locked in before Khamenei passes from the scene. This will ensure that the deal is implemented efficiently throughout the political transition to his successor. In principle, once the implementation of the deal begins and the first key stages—the redesign of the Arak reactor, the conversion of the Fordow enrichment facility, and the initial phases of sanctions relief—are completed, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and the foreign ministry will be in charge of the file, and the supreme leader’s office and the Majlis will no longer be watching it as closely.

One development that would draw the attention of the supreme leader, the IRGC, and the Majlis would be any covert action against Iran’s program while the deal is being implemented, even if such action is undertaken by a country that is not bound by the agreement. In the meantime, Khamenei, the IRGC, the Majlis, and others will continue to make statements.

It is important not to get caught up in their rhetoric, but to pay attention to what Iran is actually doing. The distinction between rhetoric and policy is crucial in understanding Iranian intentions and actions. In the sensitive stages of early implementation of the nuclear deal, reading Tehran properly will be more important than ever.

Ariane Tabatabai is a visiting assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and is a columnist for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Previously, she was a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow and an associate at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She received her Ph.D. from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.


1. Ray Takeyh, “Iran Poised to Choose Poverty Over Nuclear Disarmament,” The Washington Post, October 31, 2014; Julian Borger, “Did the Supreme Leader Just Torpedo the Nuclear Talks?” The Guardian, June 24, 2015; Thomas Erdbrink and David Sanger, “Iran’s Supreme Leader, Khamenei, Seems to Pull Back on Nuclear Talks,” The New York Times, June 23, 2015.

2. “Khotbeha-ye namaz-e Jomeh-ye Tehran,” Khamenei.ir, June 19, 2009, http://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=7190 (in Persian).

3. Mark Dubowitz, “Iran Has a Presidential Selection, Not an Election,” The Atlantic, June 14, 2013.

4. “‘Khotut-e ghermez-e mozakereh’ az didgah-e rahbar-e enghelab dar didar-e karshenasan-e sazman-e energy-e atomi,” Fars News, April 14, 2014, http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13930125000961 (in Persian).

5. “Bayanat dar didar-e jamee az farmandehan va karkonan-e niroo-ye havayi,” Khamenei.ir, February 8, 2015, http://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=28896 (in Persian).

6. The refusal to allow inspection of military sites should not to be confused with the issue of “managed access”—opening certain, less-sensitive sections of the facilities to inspectors—which was open for discussion.

7. Ariane Tabatabai, “Interview: Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Ravanchi,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 30, 2015.

8. Anthony Cordesman and Adam Seitz, “Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction: Doctrine, Policy and Command,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 12, 2009.

9. Annie Tracy Samuel, “Revolutionary Guard Is Cautiously Open to Nuclear Deal,” Belfer Center Iran Matters, December 20, 2013, http://iranmatters.belfercenter.org/blog/iran’s-revolution-guard-and-nuclear-deal; “Agar mozakerat Enshallah be natije beresad hame khahand did ke ma az hoghough-eman kootah nayamadeim,” Tasnim, November 14, 2014 (in Persian).

10. “Naqdi: Resistance Economy Is the Way Around Problems, Not Borrowed Economy,” Fars News, August 11, 2015, http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13940520000202 (in Persian).

11. Kelsey Davenport, “Bill Allowing Vote on Iran Deal Approved,Arms Control Today, June 2015.

12. “Larijani: Tavafogh-e hasteyi joz-e dastarvardha-ye melli ast,” Asr-e Iran, July 23, 2015, http://www.asriran.com/fa/news/407455/ (in Persian).

13. Wilfred Chan and Mitra Mobasherat, “From Social Media to the Streets, Iranians Erupt With Joy After Nuclear Deal,” CNN, April 3, 2015; Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Iranians Celebrate Nuclear Deal: ‘This Will Bring Hope to Our Life,’” The Guardian, April 2, 2015; “Many Iranians Celebrate Nuclear Deal As Opening to the West,” NPR, July 14, 2015.

14. Hassan Rouhani, interview with Iranian State Media, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, August 2, 2015 (in Persian). 

Much of the rhetoric of Iranian officials on the nuclear deal has been misunderstood in the West. 

The P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert, September 2

Momentum Is Building Political momentum is building for the Iran nuclear deal, as 34 senators have now publicly announced their support of the July 14 agreement that the United States and its P5+1 partners (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) negotiated with Iran. Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Robert Casey (D-Penn.) announced their support for the agreement yesterday, and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) announced her support today, bringing the count to the 34 votes necessary to prevent Congress from overriding the president’s veto on a resolution of disapproval...

Exclusive: Former Negotiator Explains How the Iran Deal Can Prevent a Covert Weapons Program


Exclusive: Arms Control Today Article by Former Negotiator Explains How the Iran Nuclear Agreement Can Prevent a Covert Weapons Program

For Immediate Release: September 2, 2015

Media Contacts: Richard Nephew, Fellow, Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University, 212-854-9016; Timothy Farnsworth, Communications Director, Arms Control Association, 202-463-8270, ext. 110

(Washington, D.C.)—The comprehensive nuclear deal reached by Iran and six world powers places a wide array of restrictions, restraints, and monitoring provisions on Iran’s nuclear program that will guard against a covert weapons program, according to former U.S. nuclear negotiator Richard Nephew.

Iran’s history of covertly pursuing nuclear activities raises to the forefront legitimate concerns about an illicit program and the ability of a monitoring regime to detect such actions under the deal.

Nephew’s article in the September issue of Arms Control Today describes the “various provisions of the deal that serve as a check against the possibility of covert sites by forming concentric circles of protection.”

Nephew, a former member of the U.S. negotiating team with Iran and director for Iran at the National Security Council, notes that the “subtle effectiveness of the agreement may be most pronounced in the provisions dealing with potential covert activities.”

The article also discusses what Nephew refers to as “the few scenarios in which a potential failure of the system could take place,” but, he writes, “the likelihood of these scenarios is sufficiently small as to be implausible and therefore does not constitute a sound reason to reject the deal.”

Nephew concludes that a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program would present the United States and its partners with a “tremendous security challenge.” But the agreement is a “material improvement over the status quo across the board, offering at worst an improved opportunity to detect such activities. In doing so, the agreement will deter Iranian cheating and make succeeding at it a virtually impossible task.”

The article, “How the Iran Deal Prevents a Covert Nuclear Weapons Program,” is available online.


Arms Control Today is the monthly journal published by the Arms Control Association, an independent nongovernmental organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.


The comprehensive nuclear deal reached by Iran and six world powers places a wide array of restrictions, restraints, and monitoring provisions on Iran’s nuclear program...

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Why Congress Should Support the Iran Deal

By Daryl G. Kimball

This month, Congress faces a pivotal foreign policy choice with far-reaching consequences. Should it approve the July 14 nuclear agreement between six world powers and Iran because the deal promises to verifiably block all of Iran’s potential pathways to nuclear weapons or reject the agreement because it falls short of expectations and in the hope of a “better deal” down the line?

The choice should be clear. The deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is a very strong, very thorough nonproliferation agreement that will reverse Iran’s progress and stop it well short of nuclear weapons for a generation or more. Rejection of the agreement would transform a historic diplomatic breakthrough into a geostrategic disaster.

The deal requires a very substantial reconfiguration of Iran’s program so that Tehran cannot amass enough bomb-grade uranium for one weapon in less than 12 months for a period of 13 years or more. The deal accomplishes this vital objective by reducing the number of installed centrifuges from nearly 20,000 to 6,104 first-generation machines, the IR-1, of which only 5,060 would be allowed to enrich uranium and to no more than 3.67 percent uranium-235. 

The nuclear deal also repurposes the underground Fordow enrichment site into a medical isotope production facility where no uranium can be present for a period of 15 years.

Under the deal, Iran must also limit its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to 300 kilograms for 15 years and accept very tough limits on its advanced centrifuge research and development for 10 years. In years 11 through 13 of the agreement, Iran has agreed to limit the possible deployment of any advanced machines so that the overall enrichment capacity remains equivalent to 5,060 IR-1s. Thus, until year 15 of the deal and perhaps longer, Iran’s breakout time will remain lengthy due to the 300-kilogram stockpile limit and the restraints on centrifuge capacity. 

The deal also eliminates Iran’s ability to produce and separate plutonium for a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years by committing Iran to permanently modify the Arak reactor, refrain from reprocessing spent fuel, and ship spent fuel out of the country.

The agreement is effectively verifiable. It will put in place a multilayered monitoring regime across Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain, including centrifuge manufacturing sites for 20 years and uranium mining and milling sites for 25 years, and continuous monitoring of a larger number of nuclear and nuclear-related sites. 

The accord requires Iran to implement and ratify the additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement. This will give international inspectors timely access to any Iranian facility of proliferation concern, including military sites. For 15 years, the agreement will ensure Iran cannot stall the inspectors’ access for more than 24 days without risking serious consequences.

In addition, the deal provides valuable, long-term insight into Iran’s nuclear plans. It puts in place safeguards that require early notification of design changes or new nuclear projects by Iran. The additional protocol and early-notification requirements will remain in place permanently.

The deal also requires that Iran cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conclude the agency’s long-running investigation of past Iranian activities that have possible military dimensions and permanently prohibits certain dual-use activities that could contribute to the design and development of a nuclear explosive device. That IAEA probe may not definitively resolve every concern about Tehran’s alleged past weaponization work, but without the deal, there will be growing uncertainty about whether Iran will renew research and development on weapons design.

Together, these rigorous limits and transparency measures will make it very likely that any future effort by Iran to develop nuclear weapons would be detected promptly, providing world powers with the opportunity to stop the effort. 

Implementation of the deal will help head off nuclear arms competition in the region. A limited, highly monitored Iranian nuclear program poses far less of a threat to the region than an unconstrained program. Without this agreement, Saudi Arabia would be more likely to hedge its nuclear bets. 

The alternative to the effective deal that has been negotiated is no deal. After more than two years of talks and UN Security Council approval of the deal, Iranian leaders would certainly spurn any effort designed to extract further concessions from them.

Congressional rejection of the deal would undercut U.S. negotiating partners and severely undermine U.S. credibility and diplomatic leverage. The necessary international support for Iran-related sanctions would melt away. Iran would be free to rapidly and significantly expand its capacity to produce weapons-grade material. The international community would be deprived of the ability to use enhanced inspections to detect a clandestine Iranian weapons effort. Ultimately, without a deal, the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran and the risk of a war over Iran’s program would increase.

The facts are clear. The Iran nuclear deal is a strong, verifiable agreement that benefits U.S. security and the security of its allies.

Congress faces a pivotal foreign policy choice with far-reaching consequences. Should it approve the July 14 nuclear agreement between six world powers and Iran because the deal...

Frequently Asked Questions About the Iran Deal - Part One



Volume 7, Issue 10, August 31, 2015

The following is an excerpt from the Arms Control Association newly updated report, "Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action."

In response to the many inquiries we have received about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) over the course of the past several weeks, the Arms Control Association has compiled the following brief responses to the most frequently asked questions.  

1. Iran's Nuclear and Missile Programs

Is Iran still pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program?

No. According to evidence collected by and shared with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran had an organized nuclear weapons program, but abandoned it in 2003. These activities are referred to as the possible military dimensions (PMDs) of Iran's nuclear program and are actively being investigated by the IAEA. 

This corresponds with the assessment from the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program, which also stated with moderate confidence that Iran had not restarted its nuclear program. According to a 2011 IAEA report, activities that could be relevant to nuclear weapons development may have continued after 2003, but not as part of an organized program.

In the 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also said that Iran would not be able to divert safeguarded nuclear material and enrich enough to weapons grade for a bomb without discovery. 

Does Iran have or is it developing long-range ballistic missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads? 

The U.S. intelligence community assesses that Iran may be technically capable of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with sufficient foreign assistance, but has not reported that they are doing so. 

To date, Iran has never tested any long-range missiles. Iran's longest-range systems (2,000 kilometers) are medium-range ballistic missiles, not ICBMs, as some have implied. Iran would need an ICBM with a range of over 9,000 kilometers to reach the United States. If Iran makes a concerted effort, deploying such a missile within ten years is theoretically possible, but unlikely. 

Additionally, if a comprehensive nuclear deal blocks Iran's potential pathways to a bomb, its ballistic missiles become less of a threat, because they cannot be armed with a nuclear weapon. 

2. Impact of the Joint Plan of Action

Did the 2013 interim agreement, or Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), halt advances in Iran's nuclear program?

Yes. The implementation of the November 2013 JPOA halted the expansion of Iran's nuclear program and rolled back the most proliferation-sensitive elements.  

Under the JPOA, Iran stopped enriching uranium to 20 percent, a key proliferation concern to the P5+1, because 20 percent enriched uranium is more easily enriched to weapons-grade material (greater than 90 percent U-235). Iran also took steps to neutralize its stockpile of 20 percent enriched-uranium gas. 

Iran halted major construction activities on its Arak heavy-water reactor, froze the number of its operating and installed centrifuges, and agreed to more intrusive inspections, including daily access to its enrichment facilities. Iran also agreed only to produce the centrifuges necessary to replace damaged machines.

Without the JPOA, Iran could have very significantly increased its uranium-enrichment capacity and possibly completed the Arak reactor.

Did Iran comply with the terms of the November 2013 JPOA, or did it violate it by operating an advanced centrifuge, the IR-5?

The IAEA's November 7, 2014 quarterly report noted that Iran began feeding natural uranium hexafluoride “intermittently” into a single IR-5 centrifuge at its pilot facility for the first time. While unhelpful, this was not a violation of the JPOA, which prohibits the use of advanced centrifuges to accumulate enriched uranium. However, to dispel any ambiguities, in the extension agreed to on November 24, 2014, Iran agreed not to feed the IR-5 with any uranium for the duration of the interim agreement.  

The IAEA has reported, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on November 24, 2014, that Iran upheld its commitments under the interim deal. 

3. Nuclear Negotiations with Iran

Did the UN Security Council resolutions require Iran to permanently halt enrichment, dismantle its enrichment facilities, and dismantle the heavy-water reactor at Arak?

No. Since July 2006, the Security Council has passed six resolutions calling on Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities and suspend construction work on the heavy-water reactor at Arak. None of the six resolutions passed by the UN Security Council called for Iran to dismantle its enrichment facilities or permanently halt enrichment. The call for suspension was intended to push Iran to comply with the IAEA investigation into concerns about past activities possibly related to nuclear weapons development, and to promote a diplomatic resolution to the concerns over Iran's nuclear program.

During debate on the most recent resolution in June 2010, British Ambassador to the United Nations Mark Lyall Grant, speaking on behalf of the P5+1, said the resolution was intended to keep “the door open for continued engagement” with Iran over its nuclear program. He said that the purpose of such diplomatic efforts must be to achieve a comprehensive, long-term settlement, that respects Iran's legitimate right to the peaceful use of atomic energy. The Security Council resolutions were never intended to eliminate an Iranian civil nuclear program in the future that complies with the conditions of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Did President Obama shift U.S. policy from stopping Iranian enrichment to managing it?

No. Beginning in mid-2006, it was the George W. Bush administration that shifted U.S. policy and opened the door for Iran to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes if it met certain conditions.

The 2006 proposal states that the enrichment moratorium could be lifted if Iran demonstrates “credible and coherent economic rationale in support of the existing civilian power generation program.” Additionally, Iran would have been required to declare all nuclear facilities, demonstrate that it had no secret nuclear programs, and answer outstanding questions about the military aspects of its nuclear program.

It is a formula with some similar characteristics to the agreement reached in 2015 by the P5+1 and Iran.

By allowing Iran to continue its uranium-enrichment program, is the P5+1 recognizing a “right to enrich” under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)?

Article IV of the NPT grants non-nuclear weapons states access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes in return for pledging not to pursue nuclear weapons and meeting their IAEA safeguards obligations. The NPT, however, does not specifically grant or deny enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing rights to member states. Iran interprets the treaty to include a “right to enrich” and has insisted that its right to enrichment be “respected” under a nuclear agreement.

The U.S. policy does not recognize a “right to enrich” under the NPT. In the interim agreement and in the JCPOA, the United States and its P5+1 partners acknowledged that Iran has an enrichment program and will retain a limited enrichment program commensurate with its “practical needs” for its civil nuclear activities.

Acknowledging that a program exists is not the same as acknowledging that a treaty affords a “right.” The United States has done the former, not the latter. And, after reaching the interim agreement in November 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated that U.S. policy remains unchanged and since then has repeatedly said: “there is no inherent right to enrich.”

Why doesn’t the JCPOA require Iran to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons capability?

Iran has had a nuclear weapons capability, but has chosen not to develop nuclear weapons. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate assessed that Iran has developed a range of technologies, including uranium enrichment, nuclear warhead mechanics, and delivery systems, that would give it the option to launch a nuclear weapons development effort in a relatively short time frame “if it so chooses.” 

Eliminating that capability, including the knowledge, is, for all practical purposes, not possible. Even if Iran were required to completely “dismantle” its nuclear infrastructure, it could rebuild it. Tougher sanctions or a military strike also will not eliminate the knowledge and basic industrial capacity that Iran has developed and could rebuild.

When did the arms embargo and ballistic missile sanctions become an issue in the negotiations?

The UN arms embargo and ballistic missile sanctions were imposed on Iran as part of Security Council Resolution 1929 on Iran’s nuclear activities and were designed to help push Iran to the negotiating table. Following the conclusion of their framework agreement in April 2015, the two sides debated intensely over when to lift the UN Security Council-imposed heavy arms embargo and the ballistic missile restrictions emerged. Iran, along with Russia and China, argued for ending them upon implementation of the JCPOA, while the United States insisted on maintaining them for an extended period of time. The final agreement, which secures ongoing restrictions on heavy arms transfers to Iran and on Iran’s ballistic missile activities for five and eight years respectively, was a major achievement in the negotiations for the United States.

How effective are the existing multilateral constraints on ballistic missile development/proliferation?

Not all ballistic missiles pose equal risk. Ballistic missiles capable of carrying a 500 kilogram payload over 300 kilometers are generally recognized as having the minimum capability needed for delivering a nuclear weapon. A multilateral regime known as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is designed to limit the transfer of these systems, or related technologies, to nonmember countries (Iran is not a member). All of the P5+1 countries are members of the regime, except China, which voluntarily adheres to its guidelines. The MTCR restrictions have not stopped Iran’s program, but have inhibited Iran’s development of solid-fueled ballistic missiles. Additionally, U.S. restrictions on ballistic missiles will remain in place, as will UN restrictions on transferring ballistic missiles to Hezbollah.—KELSEY DAVENPORT and DARYL G. KIMBALL


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. 

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Statement by Daryl G. Kimball to the 25th UN Conference on Disarmament Issues, Hiroshima, Japan



Addressing the Disarmament Deficit
Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director 

25th United Nations Conference on Disarmament Issues, Hiroshima, Japan
August 27, 2015

In the seven decades since the U.S. atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have become less and less relevant to the security of possessor states and their allies and the potential harm of their further use has become even more harmful to international security and human survival.

Yet the threat of nuclear war remains. As President Obama said in June 2013 in Berlin: “ … so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe.”

And thanks to the moving and inspiring testimonials of the hibakusha many of us have heard this week, we are better able to understand why the use of nuclear weapons is inhumane and unacceptable under any circumstances. 

To ensure the NPT and the broader global nuclear disarmament enterprise remains dynamic and effective, all states-parties must provide leadership and take action to fulfill the treaty’s lofty goals and aspirations.

Unfortunately, rather than help to advance the disarmament cause, the 2015 NPT review conference exposed the imperfections of the NPT and the divisions among key parties.

In addition, to the division on the Middle East Zone conference, the states-parties failed to produce an updated, meaningful action plan on disarmament that builds on the commitments they made at the 2010 review conference.

Although the recent downturn in U.S.-Russian relations and growing U.S.-Chinese tensions have made progress difficult, this does not excuse the NPT nuclear weapon states from their NPT Article VI disarmament commitments.

Without further U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions, until at least 2021, the United States and Russia will deploy more than 1,500 strategic warheads on several hundred bombers and missiles—far more than necessary to deter nuclear attack. If these weapons were used even in a “limited” way, the result would be catastrophic nuclear devastation. 

Making matters worse, the United States and Russia are both modernizing their Cold War nuclear inventories, which will cost of several hundred billion dollars over the next ten years.

Other nuclear arms states—China, India, and Pakistan in particular—are all pursuing new ballistic missile, cruise missile, and sea-based nuclear delivery systems. Pakistan has dangerously lowered the threshold for nuclear weapons use by developing tactical nuclear weapons capabilities to counter perceived Indian conventional military threats. 

And North Korea continues its nuclear pursuits in violation of its earlier denuclearization pledges and the NPT and may conduct yet another nuclear weapon test explosion. 

While they agreed to draft conference language outlining some useful new disarmament concepts, the nuclear weapon states did not come to the conference with significant new proposals for progress on disarmament, and they successfully brushed aside calls for new benchmarks and timelines on previous commitments.

In response, 114 governments joined an Austrian-led initiative known as the “Humanitarian Pledge,” which calls on states "to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons."   

Some states and civil society campaigners interpret this to mean that negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons possession and use should begin.

A ban is a necessary step toward a world without nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, will not, by itself, change dangerous nuclear doctrines or eliminate nuclear arsenals of the world’s nuclear-armed states. It is not a panacea for the hard work and bold leadership necessary to change the status quo. 

Thus, additional creative initiatives, new ideas, and bolder leadership are required to move forward.

And, as Amb. Kellerman of South Africa has reminded us, given that the next NPT Review Conference is five years away, given that the Conference on Disarmament is dysfunctional, a new and meaningful forum to develop and launch effective disarmament measures is required.

The following concepts and initiatives may help catalyze meaningful action:

1. Convene nuclear disarmament summits. As Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz argued in an op-ed in 2013, a new multilateral effort for nuclear disarmament dialogue is needed.

In 2009, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggested that the UN Security Council convene a summit on nuclear disarmament.

I welcome Amb. Kang of the United States expressing support for the concept in the 2015 NPT draft conference document regarding an “open-ended working group” to “elaborate effective measures for the full implementation of Article VI of the treaty.” The working group could allow for the continuation of the discussions at the NPT Review Conference on disarmament and the introduction of practical new proposals for breaking the current deadlock.

Another, more impactful approach would be for a group of concerned states to organize a high-level conference involving the leaders of a representative group of 20-30 nuclear and nonnuclear armed states to a two- to three-day summit on the pursuit of a joint enterprise to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.

The first such high-level meeting could be held in Hiroshima or elsewhere in Japan in 2016 on the margins of the G-7 Summit. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has opened the door to such a gathering with his very important invitation for other world leaders to visit Hiroshima at that time.

This could be an historic, new, and productive starting point to rejuvenate the nuclear disarmament effort. To bring all key states together is should be based on two principles: 1) a clear understanding of the humanitarian impact of the use of nuclear weapons; and 2) an objective assessment of the security concerns of states, including the threats posed by a range of nuclear risks.

All participants should be encouraged to bring “house gifts”—specific actions by states that would concretely reduce the threat of nuclear weapons use, freeze or reduce numbers of nuclear weapons, reduce the role of nuclear weapons, or make their nuclear programs more transparent.

For instance, the United States and Russia could jointly announce they will resume negotiations on a follow-on to the New START agreement, and/or one or more CTBT Annex II states could announce they have taken concrete steps to sign or ratify the treaty.

Such a summit could provide much-needed new momentum on disarmament.

2. Accelerate U.S.-Russian nuclear cuts and freeze other nuclear-armed nation stockpiles. Further nuclear reductions need not wait for a new U.S.-Russian arms control treaty. The United States and Russia could accelerate the pace of reductions under New START to reach the agreed limits before the 2018 deadline. As long as both sides continue to reduce force levels below the treaty limits, U.S. and Russian leaders could undertake parallel, verifiable reductions well below New START ceilings.

Other countries must get off the disarmament sidelines, particularly China, France, India and Pakistan, which continue to improve their nuclear capabilities. These states are all pursuing new ballistic missile, cruise missile, and sea-based nuclear delivery systems. In addition, Pakistan has dangerously lowered the threshold for nuclear weapons use by developing tactical nuclear weapons capabilities to counter perceived Indian conventional military threats.

To start, the world’s other nuclear-armed states should pledge not to increase the overall size of their stockpiles as long as U.S. and Russian reductions continue.  

A unified push for further U.S.-Russian arms cuts, combined with a global nuclear weapons freeze by the other nuclear-armed states, could create the conditions for multilateral action on disarmament.

3. Follow through on the CTBT. Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the negotiation and the opening for signature of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In the interest of global security and out of respect for the victims and survivors of nuclear testing, it is past time to bring the treaty into force.                 

Despite statements of support for the CTBT from China and the United States, neither state has taken sufficient action to ratify the treaty. Stronger leadership from Washington and Beijing is overdue and necessary. 

Other states must do their part too. Ratification by Egypt, Iran, and Israel—three other key CTBT holdouts—would also reduce nuclear weapons-related security concerns in the Middle East and help create the conditions necessary for the realization of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction—or in the very least, a nuclear weapons test free zone.

As Amb. Badr of Egypt eloquently noted, we must respect the wishes of the hibakusha, and it is clear that one of their wishes is the CTBT. And, I agree with him that states cannot pick and choose which NPT commitments they decide to meet and which ones they do not. And so, I would like to invite Amb. Badr to explain whether Egypt still supports the CTBT and explain when Egypt plans to join the treaty.

Neither India nor Pakistan say they want to resume testing, yet their governments have failed to take a serious look at joining the CTBT, which, despite their protestations, is a non-discriminatory measure that would help reduce nuclear tensions throughout Asia.

Even if action by these states toward ratification begins soon, the entry into force of the CTBT is many years away, and it is vital that the international community seek ways to reinforce the global taboo against nuclear testing pending CTBT entry into force. 

To do so, it would be wise for the members of the UN Security Council to consider the adoption of a resolution next year that determines that nuclear testing by any state is a threat to international peace and security. Or the key nuclear testing states could issue a joint statement underscoring their commitment to the CTBT and the test moratorium.


None of these options is easy or simple, but without fresh thinking and renewed action on the 70-year old problem of nuclear weapons, the risk of the further use of nuclear weapons use will grow.


In the seven decades since the U.S. atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have become ...

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