Stanford scholars weigh in on withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal
Stanford scholars debate whether the Iran nuclear deal can withstand U.S. withdrawal, if a revitalized nuclear program is possible and what a new deal would look like.
Following the announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal, three Stanford scholars consider what it means for American foreign policy and diplomacy.
In 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – known as the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA – was agreed between Iran and the U.S., United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia. The international agreement limited Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for a reprieve from international sanctions.
What happens next remains unclear. What does withdrawal signal about American foreign policy? What would a new agreement look like – and is it even possible? To answer some of these questions, Stanford News Service talked to three scholars about the issues:
- Siegfried Hecker is a top nuclear security scholar, former Los Alamos National Laboratory director and senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation. Hecker’s research interests include plutonium science, nuclear weapons policy and international security, nuclear security (including nonproliferation and counter terrorism) and cooperative nuclear threat reduction.
- Abbas Milani is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies and affiliate at FSI’s Center on Democracy Development and the Rule of Law. He has been one of the founding co-directors of the Iran Democracy Project and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. In 2016, he oversaw the launch of the Iran2040 Project that produces research on the future of the Iranian economy, population, energy, water, agriculture and the financial system.
- Allen Weiner is a senior lecturer of law, director of the Stanford Program in International and Comparative Law and co-director of the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation. His scholarship focuses on international law and the response to the contemporary security threats of international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and situations of widespread humanitarian atrocities.
What does withdrawal from the Iran deal signal about American foreign policy?
Milani: It signifies that U.S. foreign policy is dependent on the views, even whims, of one person – the president – and the rhetoric he used during the campaign. Views of U.S. government experts or allies has I think never counted for less.
Weiner: The withdrawal from the JCPOA signals a departure from the notion that the U.S. places high value on the benefits of stability, predictability and consistency in its foreign relations. It also reflects the Trump administration’s belief that the U.S. has the ability to persuade other countries to accommodate American interests through coercive mechanisms.
How will withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal be viewed from inside Iran?
Milani: Iran is a country divided. The people, suffering from a profound – even existential – economic crisis, are worried about their future. Bickering political factions in the regime are playing the blame game: first blame the U.S., and then opposing factions.
Can the Iran nuclear deal withstand U.S. withdrawal? What options are available – both politically and legally?
Hecker: I don’t see Iran making a mad dash for nuclear weapons to respond to the U.S. withdrawal. The country has too much to lose. Tehran could decide to keep the essence of the deal with the other countries and isolate the U.S. It may find that it will get adequate sanctions relief from the other countries in spite of U.S. pressure. That may be sufficient for Iran to continue to honor its nuclear deal commitments for now.
Milani: I would be surprised if the deal does not survive. It was never a U.S. deal. The U.S. was simply a key player. Europe, U.K., China, Russia, the UN, and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) want it to continue – Iran, too.
Weiner: In a sense, yes. Iran is free to continue to comply with the restraints on its nuclear activities negotiated in the JCPOA and to accept IAEA inspections. The other signatories to the JCPOA are free not to re-impose on Iran the sanctions that were lifted under the JCPOA. Because of the reach of U.S. sanctions, however, European companies in particular will face significant risks in doing business in Iran, which means Iran will be deprived of many of the commercial benefits it sought in negotiating the JCPOA. It is far from clear that the remaining, much more limited benefits available under the JCPOA will be appealing enough for Iran to continue to suspend those aspects of its nuclear program that are covered by the JCPOA.
What are reasons to oppose the Iran nuclear deal?
Hecker: The deal was able to get more Iranian nuclear concessions than I had ever thought possible. Apparently, the Trump administration objected primarily that the deal did not include Iran’s other activities, such as missile tests and Iran’s role in the region that it views as unacceptable. However, some of President Trump’s claims about the nuclear deal were simply incorrect.
Milani: The deal surely had flaws. It did not address such critical issues as Iran’s missile program, the regime’s role in places like Syria and Iraq, and human right abuses at home. It surely was not the worst deal in history. It was the least bad option at the time.
Weiner: The key objection voiced by many critics of the JCPOA concerns the “sunset provisions” in the deal, under which many key restrictions in the JCPOA on Iranian nuclear activities last only for 10 or 15 years (depending on the particular restriction). This potentially allows Iran to benefit from sanctions relief now and to merely postpone its pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Other objections concern the failure of the JCPOA adequately to address Iran’s missile development programs or its destabilizing regional activities more generally.
What nuclear facilities remain in place in Iran, and how easily might they be repurposed to create weapons?
Hecker: Iran has dramatically reduced its inventories of enriched uranium in compliance with the deal. It has enrichment facilities that could be restarted rather easily to enrich uranium to weapons grade, but not without withdrawing from the deal. It could also begin construction of a new plutonium-producing reactor, but that would be rather costly since it made the one under construction inoperative in compliance with the deal. The bottom line is that it would take quite some time to get back to the material inventories and facilities Iran had before the deal went into effect.
Milani: Iran’s enrichment facilities remain but much of their capacity has been mothballed. Ninety-eight percent of the country’s low enrichment uranium has been shipped out of the country. The Arak heavy water reactor has been virtually dismantled. All known facilities are under constant surveillance by the IAEA. The regime’s missile program has, however, continued.
What effect could withdrawal have on anticipated talks with North Korea?
Hecker: That’s quite uncertain. North Korea may still want a deal, but it would likely ask for greater assurances from the U.S. about potential withdrawal, just as the U.S. is pressing North Korea about its past history of compliance.
Weiner: Commentators have observed that withdrawal from the JCPOA raises questions about U.S. credibility and its willingness to keep its word. Some suggest that this will make North Korea less likely to move actively in the direction of complete, verifiable, irreversible nuclear disarmament for fear that once it has given up its nuclear program, the U.S. might simply re-impose sanctions or pursue other hostile policies towards it. On the other hand, President Trump has emphasized that he would keep any commitments he makes in negotiations with North Korea; it was only the commitments of the prior U.S. administration that he did not feel obliged to honor. Whether this would provide enough confidence to the North Koreans to trust the United States is, of course, far from clear.
What would a new deal look like?
Hecker: I don’t see a new deal involving this administration as a possibility.
Milani: I think the U.S. could have had more impact on a possible revamped deal had it stayed in the agreement. It remains to be seen whether Europeans will continue to try to coordinate with the U.S. and will try to forge a different agreement with the regime.
Weiner: A new agreement, to be acceptable to the U.S., would have to eliminate (or at least significantly extend) the sunset clauses and address Iran’s missile program. From Iran’s side, a revised deal would have to involve more than just lifting sanctions against Iran. It would also have to more emphatically embrace the prospect of American companies doing business in Iran. With respect to commercial relations, Iran argues that even though the United States formally lifted sanctions against Iran after the JCPOA took effect, the ongoing threat that U.S. sanctions would be re-imposed has effectively dissuaded many businesses in both the U.S. and Europe from pursuing long-term business arrangements in Iran.