war on the rocks

The Case for Dumping the Iran Deal

July 16, 2015

The deal with Iran is done. Called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it contains neither novel nor new “anywhere, anytime” inspections as called for by U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz – one of the deal’s key architects – earlier this year. The deal does however require many new things of Iran that are quite nice to have. But it treats them that way, as a kind of favor, of a provisional nature, and with unspecific terms for how very detailed names of equipment and data really will be monitored, stored, contained, and surveilled, let alone specific enforcements against violations.

The Iran deal could give birth to a heavily proliferated world, one in which fears present since the creation of nuclear bomb-making technology are realized. The United States has indeed moved from a nonproliferation regime of denial to a permissive one of limited approval for sensitive nuclear technologies. And, the United States has not kept pace, legally or technologically, in verifying Washington’s ability to get a timely warning that somebody else is working on the bomb. In Iran’s case, all this nuclear liberality is for the confused notion that the international community is preventing Iran from getting a nuke for another 15 years. But that isn’t the case. Iran will have a very free atomic hand in the future thanks to the deal.

But worse than all of that, the deal places huge stress on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to come to a final assessment of Iran’s “Possible Military Dimensions” (PMD) by December 15 of this year. Because of the limits on IAEA verification of the Iranian PMD (limits in the deal that we find out are not really limits anymore) and the total lack of any Iranian admonition or even a statement or admission about its historical proliferation, the deal is defective.

The IAEA and PMD

The PMD became a large item when the IAEA Director General reported them that way to the world on November 8, 2011. It’s a technical list of 13 things Iran did with its nuclear program that are military in nature and could only be for weapons. The IAEA had never done that before – not even for Iraq, Libya, or North Korea, at least before there was a deal.

If the IAEA Director General, Yukiya Amano, decides to declare all military concerns settled on December 15 of this year – which he certainly will be under some pressure to do – then the IAEA will have made a kind of armistice on behalf of the world that many will say leads to peace. But that path is fraught with the potential of war. The problem is in how the IAEA will draw its conclusions and on what information it will rely in doing so. Will it be under the 2013 Iran-IAEA Framework for Cooperation or the “Roadmap for Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues”? –A map on which there are red lines for the IAEA, but few for Iran. Based on both, and what’s in the deal, I am not at all confident the military dimensions of Iran’s program can be resolved by December 15.

First, the PMD do not come from anything the IAEA found or Iran declared. They are declassified intelligence items from at least 10 IAEA member states. IAEA Director General Amano took the meritorious decision and described them in November 2011. But now he has to make the final assessments regarding all of them based perhaps on more intelligence but also a fair amount of multilateral work his agency is just not equipped to do, let alone by December 15 given the many ways Iran can still haltingly cooperate with it.

The deal says that any “requests” for access to Iran’s military sites “will not be aimed at interfering with Iranian military or other national security activities…[.]” That is also the only place in the relevant deal document where the word “military” is mentioned in connection with inspections. So there are no “anywhere” inspections in the final deal, and if there are, they are cleared with Iran, so they aren’t even truly “anytime.” They are done on Iran’s timeline. This will all make working the PMD issue harder.

Second, The IAEA is not qualified to investigate ballistic missile re-entry vehicles (what normal people call warheads and that are included in Iran’s PMD). They do well with declared nuclear material, and not so well with verifying “the absence of undeclared nuclear materials or activities involving them.” The answer to the problem of undeclared material is the additional protocol. Done in 1998, it was meant to allow the IAEA to investigate the full nuclear fuel cycle—most of which Iran will have under the deal in 15 years. Iran had one of those from 2003 to 2006, which it applied provisionally and then suspended and never ratified. Under the deal, there is no timeframe specified to a date certain when Iran would ratify that additional protocol. There are a few verification measures mentioned in the deal that go beyond the additional protocol, i.e., the “additional protocol plus” experts like Olli Heinonen said would be needed, but not all of them. So with respect to the additional protocol, not enough is new or novel nor very compelling in the deal to resolve truly the PMD as it is all done in a precatory manner.

Real or Imaginary Limits on a Weapon? — The Ultimate Military Dimension

Deal supporters are often beguiled by the voluntary limits Iran has placed on its program to get sanctions relief. And they love the idea of a final stockpile of 300kg of enriched uranium since that total number is how they get to assure us that Iran could not “breakout” of the deal and race to uranium that is more highly enriched in less than a year. But the deal gives three exceptions to 300kg: for Russian fuel assemblies, for fuel assemblies for the Arak heavy water reactor in Iran, and for additional fuel fabricated in Iran not for Arak. Assembled and fabricated fuel now only comes to Iran from Russia. So, a Russian exception was probably needed, and the other two are very small amounts. However, the deal allows Iran to research and develop ever-faster spinning centrifuges. So, Iran will have vastly more capable enrichment technology, more than 300kg of low-enriched uranium and potentially the ability to fabricate fuel for its Russian-supplied reactors as well as to enrich fuel for them. At that point, in 15 years, 300kg or not, Iran would be quite capable of withdrawing from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) with all it needed for a weapon, including, of course, the work that it could likely progress in doing on warheads and ballistic missiles noted in the PMD. That is also because nothing limits those big-ticket nuclear weapons items.

Iran Admits to Nothing but Will Never Do It, Again

The deal does say what Iran would not do to make a nuclear weapon for its duration, but it only includes four of the 13 items reported by the IAEA as Possible Military Dimensions in 2011, two of which the deal’s Joint Commission could approve for export to Iran – multi-point detonators and x-ray and other machines that can assist in building nukes. It says nothing about what Iran would not do to make the means to deliver weapons to a target – i.e., missiles and warheads, which are included in the IAEA PMD.

What I find most fascinating about the deal is that it amounts to an admission from Iran that it had a nuclear weapons program in four areas. Section T in the JCPOA’s Annex 1 contains a list of all the PMD Iran “will not engage in.” Okay, but what about those in which it did engage? And the nine other things the IAEA reported to the world as PMD that section T does not address? If Iran did have and do the four things listed in section T, when did it stop engaging in them? Who worked on them? (Many of the sanctioned entities listed the deal’s terms for a slew of Iranian proliferators, for a start.) You see, we need a complete baseline of Iran’s past in order to limit and truly verify its nuclear present in order to protect ourselves in the future. We do not need Iran to foreswear things, like the deal allows it to do; rather we need an account from Iran of what it did.

Dump the Deal

Leaving Yukiya Amano to be Iran’s hand-wringing expert on what it did is unjust and unprecedented. It ought to take as much time as it should take, unlimited by constraints on access and timing, for the IAEA to do the job the world tasks it to do in Iran.

It’s for these three areas related to the PMD that I am against the deal. Like Dorothy Parker, I believe this is not a deal to be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force since its verification of PMD runs the gamut from A to, well, A.


Thomas C. Moore is an independent consultant on all matters related to WMD, with a strong focus on nonproliferation and Russia and Eastern Europe.  He was for ten years a Senior Professional Staff Member on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.  While there, he focused on verification issues, in particular IAEA safeguards and bilateral US-Russian arms control.  A proud Kansas Jayhawk, he divides his time between Kansas and DC.  He also has a blog, papermissiles.com.  [He does not know everything.]