Foreign Policy

Iran nuclear deal still under threat — US must keep its end of the bargain


Earlier this week, the Trump administration certified for a second time that Iran remains in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Deal. However, media reports indicate that the president was deeply reluctant to certify Iran’s compliance and may not be willing to do so in the future.

The administration is required to certify Iran’s compliance every 90 days, and if it fails to do so, Congress is given a 60-day period during which it can re-impose sanctions or abandon the deal altogether. Some in Congress would jump at this opportunity to kill the deal. But if the United States violates or walks away from the nuclear deal, it will alienate our allies and partners who helped us negotiate the agreement, allow Iran to resume its nuclear weapons program, and damage U.S. national security.

Iran’s nuclear activity was the subject of much concern before the JCPOA effectively constrained the risk of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Before formal negotiations were started, it is estimated that Iran was mere weeks away from “breaking out,” or having enough fissile material to create a nuclear weapon. Now, Iran is more than a year away from breaking out.   

{mosads}Iran’s obligations under the deal have been strict and verifiable. Under the agreement, Iran has forfeited its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium and has reduced its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by about 97 percent. It has removed two-thirds of its centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, and is prohibited from enriching uranium above 3.67 percent — far below the 90 percent enrichment required for use in nuclear weapons.

The JCPOA also blocks Iran’s pathway to a plutonium weapon by requiring Iran to render its plutonium reactor inoperable, redesign the Arak facility so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium, and send all radioactive waste out of the country so that it cannot be reprocessed to create plutonium.

Critics of the deal have argued that it gives Iran a “clear path to the bomb” because some of the deal’s provisions will be phased out after a specified number of years. However, even after all of the so-called “sunset clauses” have expired, Iran has indefinitely signed up to the Additional Protocol, an agreement which permanently allows the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct intrusive inspections on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Iran’s compliance with the deal has been consistently verified by the IAEA and the intelligence agencies of other countries interested in the agreement. Even initial critics of the JCPOA, like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Senator Bob Corker, agree that it is in the United States’ national security interest to adhere to it.

Still, as President Trump’s reluctance to certify Iran’s compliance illustrates, the deal remains under threat. In addition to the question of certifying compliance, the Trump administration is conducting an interagency review of the deal to determine whether to continue suspending nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. If the Trump administration decides to stop waiving these sanctions, it will constitute a material breach of the deal.

Similarly, Congress is in the process of passing a bill that would authorize sanctions against Iran for its ballistic missile tests and sponsorship of terrorism, neither of which are addressed by the nuclear deal. Negotiators intentionally excluded these issues from the JCPOA, because they correctly understood that the nuclear issue was the first and most pressing issue at hand. Congress can and should address Iran’s missile program and support for terrorism, but must be careful to do so in a way that will not violate the nuclear deal. Reapplying waived sanctions under the guise of targeting new activities or legislating well-intentioned but poorly thought-out mandates for how the Trump administration must punish Iran will jeopardize the agreement.

There is no doubt that intentionally abandoning or accidentally violating the JCPOA will be detrimental to U.S. national security. Iran would be able to keep billions of dollars in sanctions relief that it received as part of the deal, and could choose to block IAEA inspections at its nuclear facilities. The United States could reintroduce sanctions against Iran, but our allies have indicated they have no interest in renegotiating or reapplying sanctions. The United States would be on its own and Iran could restart its race to a nuclear bomb.

There is only one good option: Uphold our end of the Iran deal while closely watching to ensure that Iran upholds theirs. We can and should combat Iran’s destabilizing activities, but not at the cost of a nuclear deal that is making the United States and the world safer.  

Bernadette Stadler is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where she works on issues including North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, U.S.-Russian relations, and the Iran nuclear agreement.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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