One Year On: Evaluating The Iran Nuclear Deal

It has been a year since the adoption of the historic Iran nuclear deal by the P5 + 1 countries and Iran on October 18, 2015, which was followed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on January 16, 2016. In the short term, the deal has been successful in mitigating the risks posed by Iranian nuclear activity through the redesigning of nuclear facilities, increased access to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and the reduced likelihood of a hidden facility to build a bomb. However, despite initial success there are still several issues that need to be resolved to ensure the deal remains a pillar for global peace and stability into the future. Iran must begin to receive tangible economic benefits from the West in the form of relief from sanctions, increased banking cooperation and the restoration of the oil industry. In return, aggressive Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East such as ballistic missile testing and state-sponsored terrorism (in the form of support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen) must cease in order to ensure that the diplomatic gains and good faith garnered through the nuclear deal endure. Critics of the deal could use these disagreements as a pretext for repealing the legislation which would jeopardise security at both the state level and the individual level.

Iran has conducted its nuclear program since the 1950s and it was, ironically, the United States who encouraged this endeavour through the Atoms for Peace program. The framework of the Iran nuclear deal operates around the premise of curbing said program, which had grown significantly in the years immediately prior to the deal, in exchange for relief from sanctions and greater economic cooperation between Iran and the West. So far, the exchange has been extraordinarily successful in reducing the capacity for Iran to produce a nuclear bomb and increasing regional and global security. There are several factors to account for this the first of which includes heavy restrictions on Iran’s ability to stockpile and produce enriched uranium. For the next fifteen years, the maximum level of uranium enrichment is capped at 3.67% (U6 uranium) and enrichment-related activities may only take place at the Natanz facility which will be closely monitored by IAEA inspectors. The centralisation of enrichment activities also results in easier monitoring techniques while the level of enrichment is well below the 90% required to make weapons-grade uranium. Simultaneously, Iran may only stockpile 300kg of U6 uranium, which significantly lengthens the amount of time it would take them to build a nuclear bomb even if they wanted to. Critics such as Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, argue that this deal legitimises Iran’s nuclear program for the foreseeable future, but for those wishing for nuclear non-proliferation and peaceful conflict resolution, it is a clear victory.

In conjunction with the diminished supply of enriched uranium, Iran will be required to phase out the use of their IR-1 centrifuges, the “workhorses” of the enrichment program according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative. This will reduce the total number of IR-1 centrifuges at their facilities to 5,060 from approximately 19,000. Those that will continue to function will be the oldest and least efficient centrifuges available for use and for the next fifteen years, Iran must not produce any more centrifuges in order to accelerate uranium enrichment. This is another hugely effective measure to ensure Iran does not proliferate its nuclear program as its technological capacity would not be sufficient to construct a nuclear bomb in time to become a threat.

Furthermore, the redesign and re-purposing of current nuclear facilities in order to ensure that Iran cannot produce weapons grade nuclear material is one of the major provisions of the Iran nuclear deal. This has been among the most positive arrangement as an effective compromise has been reached resulting in benefits for both sides. The Arak nuclear facility, for example, was specifically designed to be able to turn the spent fuel from the heavy water reactor into a nuclear bomb, as the plutonium produced would have been suitable for a weapon. However, since the implementation of the JCPOA in January 2016, the core nuclear reactor has been filled with concrete and the spent fuel has since been bought and processed by the United States and Russia to ensure that it is not used covertly by Iran. In exchange, the facility has been converted to, according to the JCPOA, “support peaceful nuclear research and radioisotope production for medical and industrial purposes.” This invites greater cooperation between European, American and Iranian scientists in conducting relatively simple nuclear physics and astrophysics experiments in existing facilities while also inviting Iranian scientists to partake in fusion research overseas, a field in which they have little experience.

However, a year on from the adoption of the Iran nuclear deal, action needs to take place to ensure it provides peace and security into the future. Firstly, the West needs to uphold their end of the bargain in providing Iran with relief from sanctions as it is important in maintaining public support for the deal within Iran. This contributes to the future peaceful operation of the nuclear facilities as without tangible economic benefits, opinion may shift on the deal and pressure will increase on the Iranian government to restart belligerent nuclear activities from both the public and opposition political parties. Diplomatic efforts should, therefore, concentrate on closer economic integration and acknowledgement that a flourishing Iranian economy is in the global interest for future peace and stability. This is beginning to occur as on October 17, 2016, and for the first time since the nuclear deal, the Associated Press reported that Iran offered 50 oil and gas fields to international bidders in an effort to reinvigorate the oil industry in the country. To do so would be a huge step towards tangible benefits for the country as the BBC notes that economic sanctions have cost Iran approximately US $160 billion per annum in the oil industry alone since 2012. Further relief from sanctions have been found in the unfreezing of Iranian assets held overseas. While this goes some way to reducing the past impact of sanctions, it is important to note that big European banks are still wary of conducting business with Iran and their impact in the region is yet to be felt. To combat this trend, banks need to be incentivised in their countries of origin to invest in Iranian companies in order to provide them with the economic incentives to uphold the deal and provide stability and security to the region.

Another factor with the potential to derail the deal is Iran’s political relationship with the West and opposing strategic goals in the Middle East region. Of foremost concern is Iran’s increasing participation in the Syrian Civil War as supporters of the Assad regime and in Yemen as backers of the Houthi rebels. Both positions are at odds with the United States and the European Union and this mistrust does not bode well for a sustainable long term relationship. Accommodating Iran as a new regional power could be a tougher process than signing the nuclear deal in the first place. And though the deal has come into force, regional conflict involving Iran has only grown. To add further complexity to diplomatic relations between Iran and the West, Iran has recently been testing ballistic missile technology, something which Reuters reports goes against “the spirit” of the deal, though does not actually breach any of the agreed terms. This further attests for the greater need of political cooperation and understanding should the deal be successful in the long term.

One year on, the Iran nuclear deal has successfully curbed a potentially belligerent nuclear program in the Middle East and contributed to security and stability in the region. The deal is a testament to hard fought diplomacy and a template for future peaceful conflict resolution. However, should the deal continue to provide security into the future, the West needs to uphold their end of the deal and provide tangible economic relief from sanctions to ensure public support within Iran for the deal remains.