October 15 is significant because, by law , President Donald Trump must submit a formal determination to the U.S. Congress that “Iran is transparently, verifiably, and fully implementing the agreement” formally named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). President Trump, as he has twice before, will also have to decide whether continuing Iran’s sanctions relief is “vital” to the U.S. national security interest.
In the event Trump either chooses to decertify Tehran’s compliance, concludes that more sanctions relief is not in America’s interest, or simply refuses to formally report to Congress, lawmakers will have the option of considering a snap-back of the U.S. secondary sanctions regime that helped bring the Iranians to the negotiating table.
Opponents of the JCPOA can read a calendar and understand the current political environment in Washington, and it’s quite advantageous to them. In Trump, the anti-JCPOA community has access to a president who has already signed two certifications through gritted teeth and has also established a separate White House-driven review process to search for a way to back away from the deal. Just last week, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley all but previewed the administration’s potential talking points in the event President Trump refuses to confirm Iranian implementation next month.
Those fearful of Iran who relentlessly criticize the JCPOA—many of whom never liked the idea of talking with the Iranians in the first place—have been inundating the White House for months with exaggerated, hyper-partisan rhetoric about how bad the deal is. All the while, these same people continue to dangerously misrepresent how easy reassembling the multilateral Iran sanctions regime would be after the U.S. walked away from the agreement.
The truth, however, is that the deal is not as valueless as its critics claim, nor will re-assembling European, Chinese, and Russian support for a new multilateral sanctions regime after the JCPOA is abolished be as simple as they assume––in fact, there is a general consensus among experts that concentrate on U.S.-European relations that it’s impossible.
If one puts the politics aside and focuses exclusively on the facts, President Trump will have a much better chance of making a certification decision based on evidence rather than ideology.
Enriched Uranium Stockpiles without the JCPOA
Iran was enriching as much uranium as it wanted, to an ever higher enrichment quality, while producing and stockpiling centrifuges outside of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) supervision. The last IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program, before the Iran-P5+1 diplomacy began, described Tehran as possessing more than 372 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium. Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium was assessed to be at slightly more than 9,700 kg, a quantity so large that private nuclear weapons inspectors predicted Tehran was only two or three months from nuclear breakout.
Enriched Uranium Stockpiles with the JCPOA
Iran has zero kg of 20 percent enriched uranium and indeed is prohibited from enriching uranium above 3.67 percent for fifteen years. Fully 98 percent of Iran’s entire enriched uranium stockpile has been shipped overseas or diluted, pushing its nuclear breakout time to a year. In other words, the 9,700 kg Iran possessed in September 2013 at the present time is capped at 300 kg—and will continue to be capped at that quantity until 2030.
Centrifuges and the Production of Enriched Uranium without the JCPOA
Iran’s centrifuge capacity was clocked at roughly 20,000 machines , none of which were being monitored by the IAEA. Iranian physicists were also researching, testing and installing more advanced centrifuge machines that would spin uranium at a faster rate, thereby increasing their stockpile in a shorter period of time. There were no limits on what Tehran could do in this field.
Centrifuges and the Production of Enriched Uranium with the JCPOA
Iran cannot exceed 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges in its Natanz plant for ten years and will only be allowed to replace broken machines with the IR-1 variety, the least sophisticated of the bunch. The reason this is important is because these very mechanisms restrict—and indeed prevent—Tehran from installing faster machines that can churn out enriched uranium more quickly. Iran cannot go above 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges in its Fordow enrichment plant for fifteen years, and no enrichment or enrichment research can occur in Fordow during that time.
IAEA Inspections and Access without the JCPOA
The IAEA didn’t operate on Iranian soil, and the agency was extremely dependent on individual intelligence services for information about Tehran’s nuclear progress. There was no daily access to Iran’s main Natanz or Fordow enrichment facilities. IAEA arrangements centered on biweekly reviews of videotapes at Natanz and Fordow, but no monitoring whatsoever over the country’s centrifuge manufacturing plants or uranium mines. Neither was there a permanent IAEA facility within Iran’s borders.