Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

"In the absence of an agreement, Iran’s enrichment program will continue unabated, most likely leading either to a nuclear-armed Iran or a military intervention, neither of which is an attractive outcome for the United States."

Nick Miller, Dean’s Assistant Professor of Nuclear Security and Policy

The Science and Politics of the Iran Nuclear Deal

September 15th, 2015

Experts from the Watson Institute, Brown University, and the Naval War College offer their perspectives on the politics and science behind the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated among the UN Security Council's five permanent members to restrict Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. The Watson hosted a panel discussion, Assessing the Iran Nuclear Deal, on September 14.

Imperfect but Beneficial

The JCPOA between Iran and six major Western countries provides a vehicle to control Iran’s nuclear ambitions and point the region in a new direction.  The agreement came about because of a political movement among the Iranian people and because of determined US diplomacy that created a tougher sanctions regime and a consensus for negotiation.  The deal does not solve all the problems with Iran, but its immediate benefits are to reduce significantly and cap Iran’s nuclear program for fifteen years.  Issues of Iran’s export of ideology and terrorism, its rivalry with US allies in the region and its internal problems remain; if both sides are willing to make an effort, the new agreement provides a basis for reforming a relationship that for too long has been a source of instability in an area of vital importance to the United States.

Richard Boucher
Diplomat in Residence


A Strict and Innovative First Step

There are only two ways to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon: agreement or war. Scientists and engineers with knowledge of the physics and technology of nuclear power and of nuclear weapons consider that the JCPOA the United States and its partners negotiated with Iran will dramatically advance the cause of peace and security in the Middle East and can serve as a guidepost for future non-proliferation agreements.

This is an innovative agreement, with much more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated non-proliferation framework. It limits the level of enrichment of the uranium that Iran can produce, the amount of enriched uranium it can stockpile, and the number and kinds of centrifuges it can develop and operate. The agreement bans reconversion and reprocessing, And very important, but not fully appreciated, is the fact that it requires Iran to redesign its Arak research reactor to produce far less plutonium than the original design, and specifies that spent fuel must be shipped out of the country without the plutonium being separated and before any significant quantity can be accumulated.

A key result of these restrictions is that it would take Iran many months to enrich uranium for a weapon. Contrast this with the situation before the interim agreement was negotiated in Lausanne: at that time Iran had accumulated enough 20-percent-enriched uranium that the required additional enrichment time for weapons use was only a few weeks. 

The JCPOA also provides for innovative approaches to verification, including monitoring of uranium mining, milling, and conversion to hexafluoride. Centrifuge manufacturing and R&D will be monitored as well. The Natanz facility will be the only location where uranium enrichment is allowed to take place for 15 years, and it will be outfitted with real-time monitoring to assure rapid notice of any violation. The authority is provided for real-time monitoring of spent fuel as well.

In conclusion, although obviously this agreement does not solve all of our problems with Iran, with a little luck, it might provide an opening for further dialogue to improve our relations. The agreement is technically sound and remarkably stringent and innovative, and will provide the necessary assurance in the coming decades that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. Also, it may make it possible to stop further nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and around the globe. 

Leon Cooper
Thomas J. Watson Sr. Professor of Science
Nobel Prize Laureate


An Exercise in Wishful Thinking

There was no immediate reason to open talks, and I would not have started down this path. As long as the current regime of terror-supporting mullahs is in power, Iran is not going to give up its nuclear program, and even opening these negotiations without preconditions has handed that regime a victory that legitimizes its behavior and aspirations. This was a false crisis: there was no imminent danger of an Iranian bomb, nor were the sanctions about to collapse. And the administration's threat of war was risible; for more than two years the president has all but vowed never to do it. (With Iran, the Obama White House continues its strange practice of saying “all options are open” and then opening negotiations by publicly reiterating all the things we won’t do.) And while Iran will never give up its nuclear option, it will not build a bomb next week, next month, or even next year.

I don't care much about the technical details of the agreement because I believe that in short order, perhaps within three to five years, Iran will simply declare the deal no longer serves its interests and will pull out of the JCPOA once it has its many billions of dollars back. Saying that the deal has some remarkable features is like saying a 747 is a remarkable aircraft. But it is unsafe if flown by an incompetent crew. The US does not have the political will to remain vigilant about Iran, Russia will undermine us at the UN and in the global sanctions regime, and Iran will seek an exit when it feels it no longer needs the charade of the deal.

Scientists are focused on the technical details because that's what scientists do, but policy experts should be more adept at seeing a bad deal for what it is. Unfortunately, the policy community is engaged in a giant, highly partisan exercise in wishful thinking that will likely end badly

Thomas M. Nichols
Professor of National Security Affairs, US Naval War College


The Myth of the Better Deal

An anti-deal lobbying group, the well-funded Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, called me at home, anxious to connect me to my Congressman in Washington to urge him to reject the JCPOA. This lobby is a good example of creating facts by repetition: “the deal is full of loopholes” and “the US is giving Iran $100 billion to use towards terrorism,” neither of which is true. Critics such as this one also indulge in the classic trick: moving the goalpost. The paid lobbyist told me that the Iran nuclear deal allows Iran to keep its long-range ballistic missiles, which could threaten Israel and must be rejected. But of course this was not, nor should it have been, an international negotiation to stop everything we may not like about Iran. The beautiful success of the JCPOA is that it deters Iran from doing what we most don’t want – developing nuclear weapons.

Many pundits and policymakers, even ones who grudgingly support the agreement the US has signed, repeat the idea that we could, and should, have gotten a so-called “better deal.” Versions of this conjure longer constraints and zero Iranian nuclear fuels. But in fact it was the US who declined to negotiate when Iran voluntarily suspended uranium enrichment more than a decade ago, when it had fewer than 200 centrifuges, as opposed to the 20,000 it now has. That “better deal” sailed off long ago after the US refused to acknowledge Iran’s legal right, as signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to enrich nuclear fuel for civilian purposes.

Concerns about the agreement’s timelines, which range from 10 to 25 years, after which critics fear Iran will be “free” to develop nuclear weapons, overlook that in the almost 50 years of the NPT, no country has ever volunteered for the extraordinary level of restrictions and oversight of its nuclear activity that Iran is agreeing to here. The collective US intelligence community has high confidence that by 2003 Iran had ceased any work it might have been doing toward a nuclear weapon. If Iran was not going for a nuclear weapons capability during these many years, even without an agreement, there is even less reason to suspect they would be lining up to do so at what will be 20 and 30 years later.

Jo-Anne Hart
Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs


Dollars Are Less Dangerous than Weapons

As dozens of nonproliferation specialists have attested, this agreement puts stringent limitations on Iran’s enrichment and reprocessing programs that will make it much more difficult for Tehran to acquire the necessary fissile material for a nuclear bomb. While many of these limitations expire after 10 or 15 years, Iran will still be politically barred from producing nuclear weapons by the Nonproliferation Treaty. Moreover, it is possible that Iran’s domestic politics will change in this time period in a direction that leads to more enduring limits on its nuclear program.

Of course it is possible that Iran violates the agreement covertly. However, this deal is not based on trust, but on verification. The stringent inspection provisions under the agreement, which include monitoring the supply chain for Iran’s nuclear program, make it more likely that covert nuclear activities will be detected; this will help deter Iran from going down that road, or facilitate a military strike if necessary.

While it is reasonable to worry that Iran will use some of the money it receives from sanctions relief in order to support its proxies abroad, its ability to foment instability would be much greater if it actually acquired nuclear weapons, which the deal would help prevent. Iran with nuclear weapons is a far worse outcome than Iran with a few billion more dollars.

In sum, the deal certainly is not perfect for the United States, but compromise is an inevitable outcome of negotiation. In the absence of an agreement, Iran’s enrichment program will continue unabated, most likely leading either to a nuclear-armed Iran or a military intervention, neither of which is an attractive outcome for the United States.

Nick Miller
Dean’s Assistant Professor of Nuclear Security and Policy


A Chance for the US to Show Agility, Adaptability, and Realism

The Iran accord is the greatest strategic breakthrough for the United States since the opening of ties to China more than 40 years ago.  It serves Western security interests, offers Iran a path toward normality, and introduces a welcome dose of reality into American policy toward the Middle East.

This accord is welcome not only for itself, but because of what it means for American diplomacy.  It suggests that the United States can change course when the world changes.  This is remarkable.  One of the greatest weaknesses of our foreign policy is our lack of agility—our insistence on seeing a world that no longer exists, and our lack of imagination in adapting to new circumstances.  We act as if the pieces on the global chessboard are nailed into place.  This accord shows the opposite—that we can move those pieces when it is in our interest to do so. 

A map of the Middle East shows that Iran is the big country right in the middle.  Ignoring its interests, or marginalizing, punishing, and demonizing it, is a formula for instability.  Only by bringing all countries into the region’s security architecture can we hope for progress toward some measure of stability there.

This accord dramatically alters Middle East geopolitics by effectively assuring that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons. It also breaks the United States out of the strategic straightjacket that has confined our Middle East policy. By bringing Iran out of its pariah status, it opens avenues of communication that could lead the West toward a more realistic, inclusive approach to the region. It will increase Iran’s influence, as critics fear, but that influence may turn out to be a stabilizing force.

For too long, our approach to the Middle East has been largely limited to extracting oil and attacking countries that threaten our access to it. Finally we are forging a policy with broader goals. It does not signal a withdrawal from the region or an embrace of Iran, but a broadening of America’s strategic alternatives. That is always welcome.

Stephen Kinzer
Journalist in Residence