How Iran Ruined Nuclear Deals for Everyone

Ali Khamenei on March 15, 2016. Wikimedia Commons/

Last year’s deal has made it harder to sign strong nuclear pacts.

Last summer’s Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, declares that it does not set “precedents for any other state.” Yet given the decade-long centrality of the Iran nuclear issue to international nonproliferation, the agreement will certainly influence future debates over nuclear nonproliferation and verification. Despite the deal’s clauses limiting Tehran’s ability to produce and stockpile fissile material, it sets a poor precedent for future agreements, and the manner in which it was negotiated sends the wrong message to would-be proliferators.

At best, the JCPOA temporarily freezes or restricts the uranium-related elements of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. These temporary restrictions, known as the agreement’s “sunset clauses,” are the product of a combination of lack of Western resolve and Iran’s own determination to withstand Western pressure to get a deal on its terms.

The agreement establishes four larger lessons for potentially problematic nuclear actors. The first is that steadfastness and even intransigence can lead the international community to accept domestic enrichment. Numerous United Nations Security Council sanctions resolutions against Iran’s nuclear program highlight Tehran’s “breach of its obligations to suspend all enrichment-related activities.” Yet the JCPOA does not require the Iranian leadership to temporarily, even symbolically, suspend low-level enrichment.

Such a move should have been upheld as a necessary confidence-building measure until the deal’s implementation, an assessment about its “possible military dimensions” was reached, or at least as a compromise found to allow the P5+1 negotiators to match their previous stated requirements for a successful deal with Iran. As such, last July’s UNSC Resolution 2231, which blessed the deal days after it was inked, implicitly vindicates the Iranian supposition that it has a “right to enrich.” For its part, Tehran has not once halted its low-level enrichment (3.5–5 percent) of uranium since its file was referred to the UNSC over a decade ago. Future proliferators will likely recall that it was Iran, and not the world’s sole superpower supported by the international community, that was able to stand by its red lines.

The second lesson is that being a Western ally does not guarantee more flexible treatment when accessing nuclear technology. Key American allies that have previously limited their nuclear activities—like South Korea or the United Arab Emirates—have already noted that Iran, which has been repeatedly sanctioned for its nuclear noncompliance, has been permitted to sign a deal allowing it to develop industrial-scale nuclear capacity.

Specifically, as detailed in a Foundation for Defense of Democracies report last year, South Korea’s updated “123” nuclear agreement benefitted from divergent American positions on domestic enrichment – exemplified by the 2013 nuclear deal with Vietnam, as well as more recent U.S. concessions in talks with Iran. As the report notes, “Few countries . . . may be willing to accept greater constraints on their nuclear activities than were demanded of Iran.” Over time, this could have a snowball effect, as states will seek to capitalize on the most recent U.S. concessions to force a more lax agreement for themselves. At the international level, this may make compromise at Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conferences even more elusive, since states will doubt U.S. resolve to enforce the rules of the nuclear road.