An Early Look at the Iran-EU-5+1 Joint Action Plan

By Miles A. Pomper – The P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China, facilitated by the European Union) agreed with Iran on November 24, 2013 in Geneva on a six-month Joint Action Plan. The agreement is supposed to serve as an interim deal, setting the stage for negotiations over a longer term, comprehensive agreement. Below are three sets of observations related to the interim agreement, the forthcoming negotiations over a potential long term deal, and the less –discussed period after such a long term deal would have run its course.

The short term:

The provisions on the known parts of the Iran program are sufficient and likely worth the apparent price of sanctions relief, probably buying several months of respite from an Iranian move to a bomb (how much exactly depends in part on your estimate of how much of installed but not currently running centrifuges Iran would have activated in the meantime). This is true even if this is a solution we could have had 8-10 years ago if the Bush administration had been willing to engage with the EU negotiations at that time.

Some lesser-noticed provisions, such as use of daily camera runs at the current enrichment plant (as opposed to weekly or biweekly now) may play as much a role as the more-ballyhooed restrictions over enrichment levels. In part, this will depend on how seriously the U.S. enforces other sanctions in the meantime to keep indirect costs from sanctions leakage to a minimum. It also depends on how you count the P5 +1 pledge not to further cut Iran’s oil sales in the period below current low levels (how much would they have been cut?) and exactly how much higher EU thresholds on non-sanctioned trade will be raised  relative to the status quo. 

A central concern is the implication that this agreement may be the final one, not an interim one. Given the fact Iran and the U.S. will find it much harder to reach a final deal in six months we will probably face the choice of paying Iran another effective bribe to continue this agreement or risk another slide toward a war.

The interim agreement could have been more effective with additional IAEA access to ensure that Iran does not have clandestine facilities (i.e. have a so-called IAEA additional protocol to their safeguards agreement in force or at least as Tehran did from 2003-2005 acting as if such an agreement were in force). There are some provisions that are reassuring on this front including monitoring of centrifuge production (which would make it hard to construct new plants), and Iranian agreement not to establish other enrichment plants. That should make it harder and at least a violation of the agreement for Iran to establish new clandestine facilities. So we can either hope Iran does not have already such facilities or that it will hide and not use them for the next six months. It can be anticipated that disputes over whether such facilities exist will pop up in the next months and may derail the interim or final agreement. 

In addition one provision in the agreement “the U.S administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions,” may prove problematic with Congress and many on Capitol Hill will be tempted to throw a spanner in the works. Recent comments by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Menendez may offer a way out—passing new sanctions legislation but essentially deferring implementation if the interim agreement is carried out and a final deal agreed upon. But the language here—and how it is interpreted by the Iranians—could be crucial.

The medium term:

The short term agreement states that the parties envision a long-term agreement that would “comprehensively lift U.N. Security Council, multilateral and national nuclear-related sanctions, including steps on access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy, on a schedule to be agreed upon.” In return, Iran  would agree to limitations on its program, ie. “a mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities, capacity, where it is carried out, and stocks of enriched uranium, for a period to be agreed upon.” Iran also committed to ratifying an agreement allowing an additional protocol—i.e granting the IAEA ability to search for potential clandestine facilities and providing other measures of transparency. 

The agreement sets a goal of agreeing upon and commencing implementation of a longer-term agreement within a year. This is likely to be where things get truly sticky. My assessment is that the U.S. and Iran will not be able to agree by the six months mark and when we get close to the one year mark the Iranians will announce they are not ready to negotiate another short-term deal and want a long term solution. 

That leads to three main issues in negotiating the comprehensive agreement within six months to a year:

  1. What will be the agreed parameters on the enrichment program?
  2. What is the sequencing of relaxing sanctions vis restrictions on enrichment and IAEA inspections?
  3. And I think this is the most problematic and least noticed issue, how long is this period of restrictions supposed to last? Presumably we will want this to last as long as possible and the Iranians will want this as short as possible. 

 Long-term questions/concerns: 

The agreement says that “Following successful implementation of the final step of the comprehensive solution for its full duration, the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any nonnuclear weapon state party to the NPT.”

That means that once the duration of the period for the enrichment restrictions ends under the long term agreement, assuming Iran has taken all the other steps it has pledged to take, it will have no restrictions on its enrichment program and no sanctions. The notion that the long term agreement would lead to a PERMANENT restriction on Iran’s enrichment program is simply wrong; longer-term restrictions, perhaps, but certainly not permanent.

That means that at some point, Iran could revert to having an enrichment capability that would put them on the cusp of acquiring a nuclear weapon, although with greater transparency through the IAEA additional protocol, and perhaps more information about their past weaponization efforts. The issue of past weaponization efforts has been fudged in the interim agreement.

This leads to a final set of questions and concerns:

First, can Congress (let alone Israel and Saudi Arabia) live with the uncertainty and lack of leverage over Iran’s program that such a long term agreement might generate? On the other hand, how will it play in the international arena if Iran has shown a willingness to comply with all of the steps required in the agreement but Congress block its implementation by refusing to lift sanctions. It will be hard for U.S policymakers to defend Congress’s action if it is simply Congressional distrust of Tehran rather than specific concerns about specific activities that stand in the way. And if in response to a failure to lift sanctions, Iran walks away from the agreement then, how easy would it be to reimpose sanctions or use military force?

One possible approach might be for Congress to make clear that as a prerequisite and to provide sufficient confidence, Tehran has to resolve satisfactorily the past IAEA questions about Iran’s weaponization activities before a permanent agreement goes forward.

Secondly, the agreement is likely to harm efforts by the US to discourage all U.S nuclear cooperation partners from engaging in enrichment and reprocessing –particularly Saudi Arabia, which even if it doesn’t start such a program soon will certainly want to keep open the option.

Last, one wonders how North Korea will react. At the very least, the agreement may serve as an additional talking point for Pyongyang in arguing why the 1992 denuclearization agreement, intended to ban enrichment and reprocessing on the Korean peninsula, is not valid. Beyond that, the nuclear status of the two countries–and current U.S policy towards them is so dissimilar that it’s hard to speculate on the fallout for Northeast Asia.

Miles A. Pomper is a Senior Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.