Effort could then be made to amend the core parameters of the deal, but such renegotiation would not likely succeed. Thus, a death spiral would entail a series of moves by Iran and/or the United States to shake loose from the JCPOA. The side that moved first would naturally seek a real or contrived pretext for doing so, expecting that the other side would reciprocate. A cycle of recrimination and disintegration of the JCPOA would then ensue. While obvious signs of discontent are already evident in certain circles, it is impossible to predict when such a process might gain momentum. One obvious scenario would see a new president, in Washington or Tehran, elected on the back of growing dissatisfaction with the JCPOA.
A Time Bomb
In contrast with the other three scenarios, this one envisages the JCPOA surviving for its duration (or at least for the first decade or so), withstanding key challenges that could otherwise bring about its premature collapse. Yet, while this scenario at first appears optimistic, it is in fact pessimistic. It envisages Iran exercising strategic patience and putting the concerns of the international community to rest by fulfilling the narrow terms of the fuel-cycle provisions of the JCPOA, and then seeking to dramatically ramp up production of fissile material to attain a highly advanced nuclear-hedging option.
This scenario brings us back to the fundamental gamble inherent in the JCPOA: that, in addition to rolling back or temporarily capping some of its most worrisome nuclear activities, the deal would somehow dampen Iran’s enthusiasm to dramatically scale up once the prohibitions contained in the JCPOA begin to phase out. The JCPOA would allow for this to happen first (starting after eight years) in enrichment R&D and, subsequently, in enrichment-facility construction (after ten years) and, ultimately, on fissile-material accumulation (after fifteen years). There was never any doubt that the deal would not merely leave open but actually legitimize Iran's right to exercise this option regardless of whether these post-deal developments were actually warranted for any genuine peaceful requirement. Nor has there been any doubt, as President Obama had publicly admitted shortly after the JCPOA was signed, that if Iran were to elect to do so it would end up perilously close to nuclear-weapons capability and could then proceed to acquire them in a matter of weeks.
To go beyond accumulating a weapons-usable stockpile of enriched uranium, and actually to produce a nuclear weapon, Iran would violate the section of the JCPOA that prohibits in perpetuity research and development that could lead to acquisition of a nuclear-explosive device. Iran also, of course, would breach its obligations under the NPT were it to walk this last mile. Advanced nuclear hedging would provide Iran considerable political leverage. The ease in acquiring a nuclear arsenal could make exercising this option attractive. This scenario would make external efforts to stop Iran very challenging, dangerous and uncertain. Furthermore, the JCPOA mechanism would also inevitably impose severe limits on the capacity of the United States to act unilaterally in a realistic enough time frame to prevent Iran from actually acquiring an arsenal.
A year has now gone by since the JCPOA was concluded. There are roughly seven years to go before Iran can begin to scale up its enrichment program. The Iranians have not (yet?) made much progress in brandishing their peaceful nuclear credentials let alone supplied any evidence that they have decided to reorient their nuclear program toward that end. While they continue to reiterate their keen interest in building up their nuclear-power program, in practice they are moving at a snail's pace in that direction. They presently have neither the requirements for indigenously supplied nuclear fuel for power plants nor the licensing and certification arrangements underway to introduce their fuel into any commercially supplied foreign power plant. Moreover, Iran remains outside the core nuclear treaties that constitute the backbone of any genuine nuclear-energy program: the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS), Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, and the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC). Furthermore, Iran’s nuclear program, contrary to those of all true nuclear-energy states, remains anything but transparent and accountable.
Iranian inhibitions about nuclear transparency manifest themselves further in the laconic reporting of the IAEA on its inspections in Iran. The IAEA (alongside Iran's partners to the JCPOA), has largely caved into Iranian pressure, and remains rather tight-lipped on the Agency's safeguards and other confidence-enhancing activities in Iran. The only ray of hope here is a recent MoU Iran has signed with the European Union that might attest to Iran's interest in embarking on this more reassuring path.
In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is prudent to conclude that Iran could, and most likely would, deliver on its stated intentions to move forward on its fuel-cycle activities once the JCPOA provisions restricting it from doing so phase out. The prospect that it might do so without fundamentally transforming its nuclear program into a purely peaceful one certainly seems like a time bomb. The clock is steadily ticking—one year down, seven more to go.
So Where Are We Headed?
It is difficult to assess which of the four worrying scenarios laid out above is more likely to materialize. The outcome is not preordained. Domestic developments within Iran coupled with the efforts of the international community to influence its nuclear choices could still make a big difference, just as they have done since 2002 and most prominently beginning with the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) in 2013. Nonetheless, each of the four scenarios are borne out in the facts of today. This suggests that all are still possible and, indeed, they could play out sequentially.
Given the difficulty of negotiating with the Iranian government under the best of circumstances, and taking into consideration what is at stake, it would be foolhardy not to redress any risk of the JCPOA’s failure or expiration. Yet the JCPOA has effectively closed off the option to impose additional requirements on Iran or conditions on its nuclear progress. Barring a scenario in which Iran egregiously violates the JCPOA and gets caught doing so, singling out Iran is impractical. Consequently, the most promising avenue for a peaceful outcome that would keep Iranian nuclear progress closely tied to genuine nuclear power hinges on making Iran an unexceptional case in a new universal norm of nuclear responsibility and restraint.
Ariel E. Levite is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Hamed Malekpour.