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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Taking Stock: The Iran Deal One Year Later



The Iran nuclear deal was announced one year ago, on July 14, 2015. Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the diplomatic agreement was meant to address concerns surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. As details became known, public polls indicated that two-thirds of Americans opposed the deal, and the majority of Congress voted to reject it in September 2015. Despite this majority against the deal, Congress was unable to garner the supermajority necessary to block implementation of the agreement.


One year later, Iran has fulfilled its initial nuclear commitments under the JCPOA, which has temporarily pushed back Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear weapon. Iran decommissioned two-thirds of its installed centrifuges, from a total of 19,000 to 6,104; it reduced its stockpile of about 10,000 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to 300 kg; and, it destroyed the core of the Arak heavy water reactor to prevent production of plutonium. But the deal also legitimized Iran’s nuclear program, left a vast nuclear infrastructure in place, and removes virtually all nuclear restrictions on Iran after only 15 years. After that, Iran will be able to install as many centrifuges as it wants, to build as many enrichment facilities as it wants, and, in short order, to eliminate any breakout time and become a nuclear weapons threshold state.


Despite these developments, the JCPOA has done nothing to curb Iran’s aggressive behavior in the Middle East. Instead, Iran continues to defiantly advance its ballistic missile program, expand support for terrorist organizations, step up efforts to destabilize the Middle East, escalate involvement in regional conflicts, increase domestic repression, and continue to threaten Israel and the United States.


So far, United States efforts to address Iran’s continued malign behavior have been limited. In January, largely symbolic sanctions were imposed on a handful of entities involved in aiding Iran’s missile program. At the same time, the U.S. has fulfilled all of its obligations under the JCPOA to waive nuclear-related sanctions, and it has strongly encouraged international banks and businesses to resume trade and investment in Iran.


Problems implementing the JPCOA have emerged.


A central feature of the JCPOA lauded by its proponents was ‘unprecedented’ transparency—international inspectors would have ‘anytime, anyplace’ access to Iranian nuclear facilities and the entire supply chain that supports Iran’s nuclear program. In addition, Iran would provide complete answers to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding its past nuclear weaponization efforts—information it had withheld for more than a decade.


However, in December 2015, the IAEA closed its investigation into Iran’s nuclear weaponization efforts despite admitting that it lacked a complete understanding of those efforts. In addition, public reporting of IAEA activities over the past year provides no indication that snap inspections of military facilities have taken place.


The administration has publicly confirmed that Iran has engaged in activities “not in compliance” with the JCPOA, but has failed to detail its findings. At least one of these violations occurred in February 2016 when Iran exceeded limits on its stockpile of heavy water.


Further reports of other violations have recently surfaced. For instance, Iran has continued to seek illicit nuclear technology, according to a July 2016 intelligence report from the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the German equivalent of the FBI. Similarly, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) sought to purchase a suspiciously large amount—beyond what is needed for civilian use—of carbon fiber, a key centrifuge component, according to a July 7 report from The Institute for Science and International Security.


In short, while supporters of the JCPOA promised the agreement would provide unprecedented transparency into Iran’s nuclear program, information to the public remains scarce one year later, particularly since the IAEA now withholds data that it used to make publicly available.


Iran’s aggression continues, and the United States needs to do more to hold it accountable.


In the face of Iranian threats to pull out of the JCPOA, the United States has responded cautiously to Iranian transgressions. Since the JCPOA was announced, the administration has only issued a small number of largely symbolic sanctions designations against entities complicit in Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for terrorism. The U.S. has imposed no new sanctions designations on Iranians engaged in human rights violations despite a sharp rise in repression in Iran.


While America has acted to stem part of the flow of weapons to Yemen, it has taken no action to stop the flow of arms from Iran to terrorist groups including Hezbollah and Hamas, or to stop the flow of weaponry into Iran. Russian arms sales to Iran, including the delivery of the S-300 anti-air system, have moved forward with no response. Iran has also significantly increased its involvement in Syria’s civil war, helping enhance the position of the Syrian regime.


The United States has not visibly responded to hostile Iranian military action. In December 2015, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) vessel fired unguided rockets in close proximity to the USS Harry Truman. In January 2016, Iran released a video of a surveillance drone flyover of a U.S. aircraft carrier. That month, Iran also illegally seized a U.S. navy vessel and detained ten U.S. sailors at gunpoint off the Strait of Hormuz. A U.S. Navy investigation determined, “Iran violated international law by impeding the boats' innocent passage transit, and they violated our sovereign immunity by boarding, searching, and seizing the boats, and by photographing and video recording the crew.”


Boosting Iran’s position.


Member of Congress have raised concerns that despite Iran’s problematic behavior, the United States continues to offer economic rewards to Iran—going beyond U.S. commitments made in the JCPOA to actively encourage international businesses to engage with Iran. Similarly, the United States supported a June 2016 decision undertaken by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to suspend calls for countermeasures against Iran for 12 months. The decision was based on the mere promise by Iran to improve its anti-money laundering and counter terrorism financing behavior—although Iran maintained it would continue to fund groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.


Furthermore, the U.S. agreed in April 2016 to buy heavy water from Iran to ensure Tehran did not exceed the storage limit imposed on this substance by the JCPOA. Purchasing Iranian heavy water helped to legitimize Iran’s nuclear industry.


The Way Forward


The JCPOA has served to temporarily restrain Iran’s nuclear program. However, over the past year, Iran has only accelerated its aggressive behavior at home and abroad. Congress must press the administration to impose tougher measures in response to Iranian provocations and violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Also, Congress should advance legislation to increase the costs to Iran for its continued missile activity, support for terrorism and other destabilizing activities.


Until Iran makes a substantial change to moderate its behavior, Congress must challenge any effort to provide additional benefits to Iran beyond those explicitly enumerated in the deal. The United States is under no obligation to encourage business with Iran and must not do so without first seeing significant improvement from Tehran.


Finally, Congress must extend the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA)—which is set to expire at the end of 2016—so that sanctions remain in place to snap back should Iran violate the nuclear agreement. ISA forms the core architecture of a significant portion of U.S. sanctions on Iran.  Extending it will signal to Tehran that Congress is carefully scrutinizing its actions and will hold it accountable.


Tags: Near East Report Near-East-Report