Trump’s Iranian nuclear deal: commentary of expert of the NISS Oleksii Yizhak

Situation around Iran should not endanger the upcoming 2020 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Aggravation of relations between USA and Iran over recent months, accompanied with unimplemented threats of a major war in the region, predictably led to Iranian turn toward the issue of the Iranian nuclear program. The form of its realization by the state of Iran, as well as a response it received, witness that both sides of the conflict are intended to negotiate.

Now the question is about the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in the summer of 2015 by the permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK, the USA) and Germany. The JCPOA was integrated into the Security Council resolution 2231 (2015). The plan was aimed at temporary restriction on the Iranian nuclear program (but not freezing of the entire program) in exchange for lifting international sanctions. Demands of the JCPOA were formulated in such a way as to preclude the production of weapon-grade uranium and plutonium in quantities sufficient for creation of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile civilian part of the program, while being important for science and energy sector, still could be implemented.

In this regard it’s important to understand the key problem of the nuclear non-proliferation regime in general and its implication for Iran in particular. A nuclear fuel production cycle needed for running nuclear power plants and research reactors, as well as a production cycle of weapons-usable nuclear materials, namely, weapon-grade uranium-235 and plutonium-239, are technically related. If the state obtains key technologies for production of nuclear fuel as well as its reprocessing and reusing, it also obtains technologies for production of weapon materials.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) proclaims universal right on peaceful research and use of nuclear energy under IAEA safeguards. But is gives no instructions how to distinguish military and civilian nuclear technologies. A non-nuclear-weapon state can approach a threshold of technical capability to create nuclear weapons without formal breaching the NPT. When in 2000s the scale of hidden Iranian nuclear program was revealed it appeared that Iran had a number of centrifuges to enrich uranium and almost finished building its heavy-water reactor to produce plutonium. The capabilities discovered were not sufficient to produce nuclear weapons in a short term. But hidden from IAEA development of key technologies proved it possible for Iran considerable acceleration of its nuclear program with additional effort.

Iran’s nuclear program was a threat which formally did not trespass the NPT limitations except prolonged hiding its scale from IAEA. The official nuclear powers and Germany entangled into negotiations with Iran finally accepted compromise written down into the JCPOA of 2015. Iran was obliged to get rid of medium-grade uranium (that is considerably more than high-grade threshold, but lower than weapon-grade), drastically reduce its stock of low-grade uranium and decrease for 13 years the number of centrifuges to two thirds of an initial number. Additionally, enrichment had to be bound for 10 years to only one facility with the first generation centrifuges. The heavy-water reactor had to be stopped in its existing configuration, and irradiated fuel was due to moving out of Iran during a year. Many other facilities were to undergo conversion and conservation.

In exchange Iran gained progressive lifting of international sanctions and did it without full closing its nuclear program, just limiting it for certain time. Additionally, Iran secured a right to stop adhering to limitations in case of putting on it new sanctions.

Soon after elected the President of the USA Donald Trump called the JCPOA «deeply flawed». In the view of the new US administration this agreement encouraged destabilizing expansion of Iran beyond its borders while giving it additional economic resource. IAEA inspections reported Iran adhered to its part of the nuclear deal. But the deal itself by no way prohibited Iranian covered operations in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and throughout the Middle East. They just became more active provoking more irritation of other countries in the region and the USA.

In may 2018 the USA withdrew from the JCPOA and re-imposed sanctions of Iran. In retaliation Iran made several steps trespassing the limitations put on its nuclear program, but without leaving the agreement. These steps were rather symbolic. They allowed France and Russia keep convincing other signers to adhere to the JCPOA even after the USA left it.

Before the recent escalation started Iran had made four such steps. The first step was increasing the stock of low-grade uranium above allowed 300 kg. The second one was raising enrichment higher permitted 3,76% up to 4,5%. On the third step Iran started operation of advanced centrifuges for research purposes and increased volume of heavy water beyond 130 tons. The fourth step was launching underground enrichment facility on Fordow. Yet, IAEA experts were confident that Iran did not intend to achieve 20% enrichment of uranium which theoretically enables creation of nuclear weapons. 

Just after Iranian special force commander Qasem Soleimani was killed by a US drone Tehran announced the fifth and final step. It is abandoning all restrictions on enrichment facilities, level of uranium enrichment, stockpile of nuclear fuel and further nuclear research and development. But Iran did not leave the agreement. Moreover, Iran promised it will return in the frames of the JCPOA restrictions once sanctions are lifted. As well, Iran continued cooperation with the IAEA.

On his side Donald Tramp drew the lines for new US relations with Iran. First, he warned Iran that it had no chances to win a war with the USA in case of military escalation, while its chances to win negotiations were good. Second, Trump made it clear that Iran will never obtain nuclear weapons. Thus, the USA declared willingness to talk with Iran in case of its readiness to negotiate deeper and more obligatory restrictions on nuclear program up to its full stopping.

After Tehran announced its «fifth step» European allies of the USA, which are generally skeptical towards Trump’s Iranian policy, decided to demonstrate transatlantic solidarity. France, Germany and UK launched by common decision a procedure of checking Iran’s adherence to the JCPOA. It may be a step to their possible withdrawal from this agreement as Donald Trump calls them upon.

What was just hinted by Trump was soon made completely clear by the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson: a new more effective agreement is needed which would not give Iran any chance to develop nuclear weapons. Johnson estimated Trump’s capabilities in this regard as of «a great dealmaker».

In the world of crumbling rules the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty stays as one of few pillars of remaining stability. The Review Conference of the Parties to the NPT gathering each five years will take place this year from April to May. The USA would find itself in a difficult situation if it enter the Conference as a destroyer of an important nuclear agreement as the JCPOA is widely believed to be. On the other side, Iran would not be understood if it rejects negotiations proposed by the USA. 

A chance for a new agreement exists, as well as a chance for Trump to prove he is a great dealmaker according to Johnson. But there exists as well a recent example of quite modest outcome from an attempt made by the US President to force North Korea to undertake full nuclear disarmament. If Trump fails with Iran, his political adversaries would not hesitate to exploit it during 2020 presidential campaign in the USA.