Nuclear Weapons

One Step at a Time With Iran

11.25.13 | 6 min read | Text by Mark Jansson


As hoped, the P5+1 and Iran settled on a “first step” agreement to resolve concerns about Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons and its interest in doing so. We cannot predict how far this process will go or what the next step to establish a comprehensive, enduring agreement that puts the nuclear issue squarely in the past will include. But we can predict that we will never know how good a final agreement can be unless all sides work in good faith to support the process and abstain from taking actions that could potentially undermine it.

The agreement covers the next six months in order to de-escalate a standoff that has been growing in intensity for over a decade. As reported unofficially, some of the most significant provisions include Iran agreeing downblend half of its 20% enriched uranium gas to <5% and convert the remainder to a solid form for fuel*and to not advance further its work on the IR-40 heavy water reactor at Arak, among other things. Most importantly, Iran agreed to enhanced monitoring of its nuclear facilities by the IAEA and to provide the IAEA with an updated design inventory questionnaire for the IR-40 reactor at Arak in order to work out a long-term safeguarding plan for that facility.

In exchange, Iran will receive a pause on future sanctions to further reduce revenue from oil exports and sanctions relief on precious metals and petrochemical exports. The P5+1 also agreed to several other measures that can best be described as humanitarian. These include the licensing the supply of parts that will help improve aviation safety in Iran and establishing financial channels to open up trade in food, agricultural products, and medicine. In total, the package is estimated to be worth about $7 billion to Iran. Far from a windfall, that represents about a 1.3% boost to an Iranian economy that has an annual GDP of $548.9 billion, according to the CIA.

In a historical perspective, the opportunity is indeed a golden one. Although the great attention paid to the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation may make it seem otherwise, occurrences of it are rare. Since the conclusion of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), only three countries have developed and tested nuclear bombs. Promising opportunities to address acute proliferation risks diplomatically are even rarer. Make no mistake: the P5+1 and Iran are making a history right now that will be studied by social scientists for years to come.

The question is now this: What story will they tell? Will they tell the story of an agreement that set the stage for a groundbreaking, precedent-setting arrangement for nuclear transparency and nonproliferation? Or will they tell the of the United States and Iran acting in bad faith, and blowing yet another opportunity to settle and move beyond the questions surrounding Iran’s interest in nuclear weapons?

The United States Congress has a big role to play in answering that question. That is because, as Chris Bidwell at FAS explains, lifting the sanctions that are hurting Iran the most will require the consent of the legislative branch.  Moving forward, Congress needs to get beyond the talking point of demanding that Iran mothball its nuclear program entirely and think more deeply, and more specifically, about how much is enough to warrant relief from all sanctions attached to concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

That means getting clear about what is required (and not required) to resolve this issue. Instead of having a more focused national discourse on the matter, it has become common to conflate civilian with military uses of nuclear technology by framing the matter at-hand as one of stopping “expansion of Iran’s nuclear program toward a nuclear weapon.” The imagery almost makes it seem as if Iran’s nuclear facilities are cocooned by a magical shell that, once breached, will somehow produce a nuclear weapon.  But it doesn’t work that way. Iran could install a google of centrifuges and have heavy water reactors all over the place and never make one nuclear bomb. And there is more good news in that, currently, Iran has a relatively modest civilian nuclear power infrastructure.

Still, the key to addressing concerns about its use and Iran’s nuclear destiny over the long term is a matter of addressing political issues, not technical ones. For now, the step one agreement makes clear that the imposition of new “nuclear related” sanctions will constitute a breach of trust and thus a violation. One could debate whether or not the passage of legislation that would impose new sanctions (or the restoration of sanctions relieved) after a provisional period would constitute a violation, but there is no point in risking it.

In fact, those who argue against the agreement on the grounds that the regime is deceptive, gaming the P5+1, and looking for an excuse to continue its so-called nuclear “march” should be the most wary about providing Iran with that excuse by imposing new sanctions now. Rather, those who truly believe that Iran intends to fool the world about its nuclear ambitions should be the staunchest advocates of strict adherence to the first step deal now in order to prove right their suspicions about the other side.

Carrying out that experiment requires, among other things, putting on the back burner Senator Bob Corker’s ill-advised “Iran Nuclear Compliance Act,” which would impose sanctions on Iran for failing to make good on its commitments made in Geneva. Not only is this bill – like all Iran sanctions bills at the moment – ill-timed, its title perpetuates the myth that U.S. objectives are limited to merely ensuring compliance with legal obligations. To the contrary, many of the things that Congress apparently wants Iran to do – mothballing facilities either already built or 90% completeshipping out uranium, and disavowing any right to enrich again in the future – go far beyond anything for which there is legal basis or precedent.

Of course, one could only imagine the reaction if Iran passed similar legislation predetermining the outcome of future negotiations and demanding the installation of more centrifuges and hastening work on the IR-40 should the P5+1 fail to comply with their ends of the bargain just reached in Geneva. As far as the U.S. Congress is concerned, if it wants to deflect criticisms of sanctions by implying that its demands are limited to matters of “compliance,” then it should make sure that it limits its demands to those for which there is actually a pre-existing legal requirement that Iran comply. Iran would likely agree to such an approach. Moreover, those who remain concerned about Iranian intentions should do their part to address the Iranian motivations underneath them by supporting the Obama Administration’s efforts to repair the broken U.S.-Iran relationship instead of accusing it of appeasement whenever it tries.


We don’t need to re-litigate the entirety of Iran’s nuclear history or all the reasons it may have had (or still has) to pursue nuclear weapons. But we do need some clarity of thought on what we are trying to do about it and how. Skepticism about the process put in place is warranted, but the Obama Administration is undoubtedly on a track worth pursuing. Dressing up an overzealous sanctions drive that could derail that process in language about “compliance” may be good marketing, but it is terrible policy.

Mark Jansson is an Adjunct Fellow for Special Projects with the Federation of American Scientists. The views expressed above are his own. 

*This post originally stated Iran, per the agreement, would cut in half its 20% enriched stockpile. In fact, by downblending half and also converting the remainder to a solid oxide form, this agreement effectively eliminates the 20% enriched uranium available for further enrichment. While Iran always claimed that its 20% enriched uranium would be used for fuel, the agreement hastens that conversion process to help ensure that it makes good in that claim.