How the 'Japan Model' Could Strengthen the Iran Nuclear Deal

"Surprising as it may seem, Japan’s nuclear experience may offer some helpful ways to bridge the lingering trust gap and perhaps reduce Congressional skepticism of the nuclear deal."

As the U.S.-led international talks on Iran’s nuclear program reach the eleventh hour, recent “red lines” suggested by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, raise anew questions about whether Tehran will come clean on nuclear inspections and allow full transparency—the Gordian knot of the deal. Surprising as it may seem, Japan’s nuclear experience may offer some helpful ways to bridge the lingering trust gap and perhaps reduce Congressional skepticism of the nuclear deal.

In effect, a deal will leave Iran something of a “virtual nuclear state,” a status long held by Japan, with technical capabilities to obtain a bomb, but constraints from doing so—at least for fifteen years or so. Tokyo has a sophisticated civil nuclear power program that includes full fuel cycle activities, such as reprocessing spent fuel.

But Japan has also become a model citizen of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). It was the first nonweapons state to sign and implement the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol, which allows more-intrusive monitoring. And Japan also has concluded addition bilateral nuclear safeguards agreements with the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.

Obviously, as Japan is a U.S.-allied democracy (not to mention, the only nation that has experienced a nuclear attack), any analogies with Iran are limited.

But the Japan case offers some possibilities to build confidence that could strengthen the agreement. For example, the IAEA could include inspectors from GCC nations. Or Iran and Saudi Arabia and/or GCC states with nuclear facilities could agree to bilateral mutual inspections with Iran. Given the paranoia among the Saudis and Gulf monarchies about the nuclear deal, this could enhance regional stability. It would also strengthen confidence that the GCC states’ belated infatuation with civil nuclear power is indeed about energy.

Under the nuclear deal, Iran will reduce its number of centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,100, reduce its stockpile of low enriched uranium from 10,000kg to 300kg, will only enrich uranium at its Natanz facility and not build any new enrichment facilities for fifteen years. It will convert its once-secret Fordow facility to R&D for peaceful purposes.

Most importantly, the agreement calls for an intrusive IAEA inspection regime, with Iran joining fifty-five other nations (including the United States) in implementing the IAEA Additional Protocol. This underappreciated measure allows for intrusive and comprehensive monitoring and short-notice inspections of any suspect facility. It also allows for deploying high-tech sensing devices that would help enforce the accord and detect cheating in a timely fashion. Many critics underappreciate the capabilities of this sophisticated monitoring technology that will make it very difficult for Iran to covertly pursue breakout activities undetected.

Another element in the accord that parallels Japan’s situation is a major exception to U.S. policy on the so-called back end of the nuclear fuel cycle—reprocessing or enriching spent reactor fuel. U.S. nuclear policy has generally opposed such activities because they are viewed as a proliferation risk. Japan is a rare exception to the rule.

The administration has been less than candid about the implications of the Iran deal for the NPT regime. The deal would create a new normal for the NPT, which has frowned on full fuel cycle activities, though they are not explicitly banned in the NPT. So, when the Saudis proclaim that we want whatever Iran has, they have a point.

Given the deep distrust on both sides, this verification is absolutely key to the credibility of any final deal. It would be a serious mistake to lift sanctions before the IAEA has its inspection regime operational and fully in place and is confident of its capabilities. For Congress, this is clearly (and rightfully) a deal breaker. This approach would also incentivize Iran to expedite its cooperation with the IAEA.

Managing Risk

Will Iran actually allow such transparency in practice? If the supreme leader’s warnings that Iran won’t allow IAEA inspectors, won’t talk to Iran’s nuclear scientists or inspect military facilities are more than bargaining chips, they are deal breakers. After a recent visit to Tehran, however, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano, an experienced Japanese expert, dispelled his earlier doubts about the IAEA’s ability to clarify Iran’s suspected past military-related nuclear activities. The bottom line on any nuclear deal is not the number of 5-percent centrifuges Tehran has, but transparency: Iran must ratify and implement the IAEA Additional Protocol in full cooperation with the surveillance the IAEA deems necessary.

Even in the best case, the nuclear accord, if completed, will restrain, not end, Iran’s nuclear program, turning a likely proliferator into a threshold state—somewhat similar to Japan—and redefine the NPT. There should be no illusions: Implementing the nuclear deal will leave Iran a latent nuclear power, with the residual nuclear capability to enrich uranium.

That said, barring a war and occupation of Iran, an accord along these lines would be the least bad of a spectrum of bad options.