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Iran Nuclear History: Critiques of the JCPOA Implementation

Critics warned that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was flawed; nevertheless, it was agreed to by the United States and its international partners. The most immediate sign of its failure, according to detractors, was the increased bellicosity of Iran, and the intensification of its efforts to destabilize its neighbors and establish a hegemonic Shiite sphere of influence that threatens Israel and Arab allies. “The list of Iranian transgressions has increased dramatically since the date that the [nuclear deal] was signed,” said CIA director Mike Pompeo (Jenna Lifhits, “Cotton on Iran Nuclear Deal: ‘I Simply Do Not See How We Can Certify,’” Weekly Standard, September 18, 2017). Pompeo elaborated on these points as Secretary of State after the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement (Remarks at the Heritage Foundation, May 21, 2018). After noting that John Kerry had said the Middle East “is going to be more manageable with this deal,” he listed some of the examples of how the situation had deteriorated since the JCPOA was signed:

  • Lebanon is an even more comfortable home for Hezbollah today than it was when we embarked on the JCPOA. Hizballah is now armed to the teeth by Iran and has its sights set on Israel.
  • Thanks to Iran, Hezbollah provides the ground forces for the military expedition in Syria. The IRGC, too, has continued to pump thousands of fighters into Syria to prop up the murderous Assad regime and help make that country 71,000 square miles of kill zone.
  • Iran perpetuates a conflict that has displaced more than 6 million Syrians inside the – 6 million Syrians and caused over 5 million to seek refuge outside of its borders.
  • These refugees include foreign fighters who have crossed into Europe and threatened terrorist attacks in those countries.
  • In Iraq, Iran sponsored Shia militia groups and terrorists to infiltrate and undermine the Iraqi Security Forces and jeopardize Iraq’s sovereignty – all of this during the JCPOA.
  • In Yemen, Iran’s support for the Houthi militia fuels a conflict that continues to starve the Yemeni people and hold them under the threat of terror.
  • The IRGC has also given Houthi missiles to attack civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and to threaten international shipping in the Red Sea.
  • And in Afghanistan, Iran’s support to the Taliban in the form of weapons and funding leads to further violence and hinders peace and stability for the Afghan people.
  • Today, the Iranian Qods Force conducts covert assassination operations in the heart of Europe.
  • We should remember, too, that during the JCPOA Iran continues to hold Americans hostage: Baquer Namazi, Siamak Namazi, Xiyue Wang, and Bob Levinson, who has been missing for over 11 years.
  • The list continues. Iran continues to be, during the JCPOA, the world’s largest sponsor of terror. It continues to serve as sanctuary for al-Qaida, as it has done since 9/11, and remains unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qaida members residing in Tehran.

David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security, testified in Congress:

Those who argued that a key benefit of the nuclear deal would be a moderation of Iran’s behavior in the region have been sadly disappointed. Armed with substantial funds and a growing economy, Iran is challenging the United States in the region and appears as committed to maintaining the capability to pursue a nuclear weapons path as before, just a longer path (David Albright, “House Subcommittee Testimony of David Albright on Assessing Iran Nuclear Deal,” Institute for Science and International Security, April 5, 2017).

On September 14, 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “Iran is clearly in default of these expectations of the JCPOA,” adding that Iran’s actions are “threatening the security of those in the region as well as the United States itself” (Nick Wadhams, “Tillerson Says Iran ‘Clearly in Default’ of Nuclear Deal’s Terms,” Bloomberg, September 14, 2017).

Supporters of the deal say the IAEA has certified Iran’s compliance to prove that it is working. They neglect to mention, however, that the IAEA has found that Iran has committed several violations and only complied when caught. According to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, “the IAEA has identified, and we’ve identified some of these breaches that Iran has then corrected. But what does that tell you about Iranian behavior? They’re not just walking up to the line on the agreement. They’re crossing the line at times” (“General H.R. McMaster on global threats,” Fox News, September 17, 2017).

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano revealed in September 2017 that Russia opposed the agency’s enforcement of one part of the JCPOA – Section T – which bans “activities which could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” such as using computer models that simulate a nuclear bomb, or designing multi-point, explosive detonation systems. The U.S. believes the IAEA is responsible for monitoring these activities and the failure to do so is a flaw in the agreement that inhibits the IAEA’s ability to verify Iran is not engaged in nuclear weapons research and development (Francois Murphy, “IAEA chief calls for clarity on disputed section of Iran nuclear deal,” Reuters, (September 26, 2017).

Albright notes that it is difficult to assess Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA because of “the excessive secrecy surrounding the implementation of the deal and its associated parallel arrangements” (David Albright, “House Subcommittee Testimony of David Albright on Assessing Iran Nuclear Deal,” Institute for Science and International Security, April 5, 2017). Nevertheless, his institute found several Iranian violations of the agreement, as well as cases where Tehran exploited loopholes in the deal to weaken its effectiveness. For example:

  • Iran has twice had more than its heavy water limit of 130 metric tons inside Iran.
  • Iran is likely operating advanced IR-6 centrifuges in excess of the limit allowed.
  • The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran has sought sensitive nuclear-related materials and facilities beyond what it needs or should get.
  • Iran is seeking to exploit a loophole in reactor restrictions, including work on naval propulsion reactors.

Regarding the last point, Iran’s announcement that it planned to build nuclear submarines was an indication of its intent to go beyond the peaceful use of nuclear energy as subs have no civilian use. Furthermore, the level of enriched uranium needed for nuclear propulsion of ships and submarines is far greater than what was permitted under the JCPOA and closer to the level needed to produce a bomb (MEMRI, April 10, 2018).

German intelligence has caught Iran seeking “products and scientific know-how for the field of developing weapons of mass destruction as well [as] missile technology” (Benjamin Weinthal, “Iran Still on the Hunt for Nuclear Weapons Technology Across Germany,” Weekly Standard, July 7, 2017). Additional intelligence reports from Germany indicated Iran attempted to buy nuclear technology illegally 32 times that definitely or with high likelihood were undertaken for the benefit of proliferation programs (Benjamin Weinthal, “Iran attempted to buy nuclear technology illegally 32 times, German agency says,” Fox News, October 9, 2017).

Iran has also violated agreements related to the deal, notably, by its noncompliance with UNSC resolution 2231‘s prohibition on conventional weapons sales and transfers and its prohibition on ballistic missile testing. Director of U.S. National Intelligence Daniel Coats testified during a U.S. Senate briefing on May 15, 2017, that Iran has been hard at work developing Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) technology. Coats stressed that the range and accuracy of Iranian missiles has steadily improved over time, and stated that the ICBMs would be Iran’s “preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons, if it builds them.” The National Intelligence Director also suggested that “progress on Iran’s space program could shorten a pathway to an ICBM because space launch vehicles use similar technologies” (Amanda Ulrich, “Iran ‘is still developing ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads in violation of UN resolution,’” Daily Mail, May 12, 2017).

More important, negotiators accepted Iranian demands to cease investigation of its prior weapons research and, according to Iran, barred monitors from military sites despite the fact the JCPOA was described as giving the IAEA the right to visit any site in Iran, whether military or civilian (David Albright and Olli Heinonen, “Verifying Section T of the Iran Nuclear Deal: Iranian Military Site Access Essential to JCPOA Section T Verification,” Institute for Science and International Security, August 31, 2017). According to Israeli sources, within a few months of signing the JCPOA, the IAEA was given information regarding sites Iran had not reported as part of its nuclear program and where it was believed forbidden nuclear military research and development activity was being conducted. Few of the suspected sites were inspected because of Iran’s refusal to allow access and the IAEA’s unwillingness to confront Iran on the issue (Barak Ravid, “Israel: IAEA Received Info About Suspected Iranian Nuclear Sites but Didn’t Inspect Many of Them,” Haaretz, September 17, 2017).

This is quite different from President Barack Obama’s promise of “unprecedented” inspections (Glenn Kessler, “President Obama’s claim of ‘unprecedented inspections’ in Iran,” Washington Post, February 6, 2014). Since the IAEA does not visit the sites where Iran is most likely engaged in prohibited activities, there is no way to know whether Iran is engaged in prohibited activities at those locations. Obama acknowledged that Iran would have no prohibition on getting a weapon after the deal’s expiration while simultaneously claiming the deal “cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to the bomb” (Roll Call, July 14, 2015). He admitted “in year 13, 14, 15 [of the proposed deal], they [Iran] have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero” (“Transcript: President Obama’s Full NPR Interview On Iran Nuclear Deal,” NPR, April 7, 2015).

The head of Iran’s nuclear program has said Iran has the capability to build advanced centrifuges on short notice and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif admitted Iranian scientists had been continuing work with advanced centrifuges (PressTV, March 21, 2017). According to the Institute for Science and International Security, “The mass production of these centrifuges (or their components) would greatly expand Iran’s ability to sneak-out or breakout to nuclear weapons capability, or surge the size of its centrifuge program if the deal fails, or after key nuclear limitations end. If Salehi’s statement is true, Iran could have already stockpiled many advanced centrifuge components, associated raw materials, and the equipment necessary to operate a large number of advanced centrifuges” (David Albright and Olli Heinonen, “Is Iran Mass Producing Advanced Gas Centrifuge Components? Can we even know with the way the Iran deal has been structured and implemented so far?” Institute for Science and International Security, May 30, 2017).

This concern was reinforced when Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said in July 2017 that Iran could reactivate the reactor capable of producing plutonium for a bomb and ramp up enrichment of uranium to the pre-agreement level of 20% within five days (“Iran: Five days needed to ramp up uranium enrichment,” Al Jazeera, August 22, 2017; “Iranian Statements Underscore Weaknesses of Nuclear Deal,” The Tower, September 12, 2017). On March 5, 2018, Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said this level of enrichment could be reached in within 48 hours (David Brennan, “Iran Nuclear Program Can Restart Within 48 Hours If Deal Collapses, Official Claims,” Newsweek, (March 5, 2018).

Critics have also noted that the failure of the agreement to include Iranian sponsorship of terror, ballistic missile research and development, and aggression against its neighbors, combined with the release of billions of dollars in previously frozen funds, has allowed Iran to accelerate each of these activities. In September 2017, for example, it was disclosed that Iran increased its support for the Hezbollah to $800 million a year and resumed payments of $60-70 million to Hamas (Anna Ahronheim, “Iran Pays $830 Million To Hezbollah,” Jerusalem Post, September 18, 2017).

General Yoav Galant, a member of Israel’s security cabinet compared the nuclear deal to the Munich agreement that Europe signed with Germany in 1938, “which only postponed the war by a year, and thy got that war under far worse conditions” (Ynet, May 8, 2018).

Based on these perceived flaws, Israel’s prime minister and others called on the Trump administration to fix the nuclear deal or tear it up.