Happening Now

Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

"While Iran has won the right to maintain an enrichment capability, this was achieved at a tremendous economic and political cost to the country."

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

Faculty Commentary: Iran Nuclear Deal

April 3, 2015


"What is certain is that the timing and type of sanctions relief Iran will receive for abiding by its commitments is crucial issue for Iran for the ultimate resolution of its nuclear program."

After years of difficult negotiations and high stakes diplomacy, the Obama Administration deserves significant credit for achieving the framework agreement with Iran and other world powers addressing Iran’s nuclear program. Broader in scope yet containing more specific details than expected, the elements of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is historic in the potential to prevent Iranian nuclear weapons and set the stage for more cooperative relations with Iran. The framework includes unprecedented continuous monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities, limitations on enrichment, research, and reactor design, commitments to export spent fuel for reprocessing, and other obligations on Iran for up to 25 years that will increase the breakout time to at least a year for production of enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. As momentous as this framework agreement is, there is there little time for celebration as negotiations now move to specific implementation details that must be finalized by June 30, 2015, for a comprehensive deal.

Among the most challenging topics to be negotiated in the next 80 days is the unwinding of sanctions against Iran.  The complex web of international, regional and unilateral sanctions is comprised of UN Security Council measures focused on Iranian nuclear and missile activities; comprehensive financial and oil sanctions by the European Union and US to squeeze the Iranian economy; as well as American unilateral measures for terrorism and human rights purposes. US sanctions are further complicated by Congressional requirements for modification.  In the case of sanctions, the devil truly will be in the details, and there are many unresolved details yet to be worked out.

Iranian statements reiterate the need for immediate and permanent sanctions relief, including repeal, not just suspension, of EU and American measures, while the US emphasizes a gradual step-by-step process contingent on IAEA verification of Iranian implementation of its commitments and “snap-back” of sanctions for noncompliance.  These divergent narratives portend arduous negotiations for a final deal, and success is far from assured.  What is certain is that the timing and type of sanctions relief Iran will receive for abiding by its commitments is crucial issue for Iran for the ultimate resolution of its nuclear program.  Negotiators need to stay focused on the end game of preventing Iranian nuclear weapons and not be swayed by calls from hard-liners in both countries to use the negotiations to address other issues; moving the goalposts now would doom this historic and promising opportunity to advance international security.

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Sue Eckert
Senior Fellow in International Studies


"This is the opportunity we need to begin a long process toward eventual reconciliation."

Underappreciated: How historic this deal is. Since the Islamic Revolution culminating in 1979, US-Iranian relations have been hostile and periodically threatened to break into war. Iran has been more forthcoming than the US in terms of initiating dialogue, but both sides have been plagued by domestic political opposition to de-escalating tensions. What is truly unprecedented now is that the leaders in the US and Iran are on the same page at the same time. This is the opportunity we need to begin a long process toward eventual reconciliation. Iran is too important in the region for the US to vilify and isolate indefinitely. 

Misunderstood: This is not about trusting Iran. Because the negotiation with Iran is about a suspected nuclear program, US public fears about a bomb are easily manipulated by opponents of an agreement. The specter of trusting such an unsavory regime as the Islamic Republic is cynically used to question the wisdom of this deal. In fact, experts well know that international agreements -- including with our closest allies -- are not based on trust. Iran will be closely monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has decades of experience looking for disallowed nuclear activities. The technical dimension here is relatively unproblematic and will be well verified. Trust is not any part of it. 

Worrisome: It's our own leaders who could sabotage this progress. The partisan and deeply divided US Congress may decide to put political self-interest ahead of leadership on this issue. If the Congress insists on enacting additional economic sanctions on Iran (which would also require overriding a veto by President Obama) they threaten to sabotage resolution of one of the US's most persistently challenging foreign policy problems. The huge celebrations in Iran over the impending economic relief from sanctions represented by this international agreement testify to Iran's enthusiasm and positive consensus. If our Congress crushes that, the Islamic Republic loses its stake in this deal.

Read Jo-Anne Hart's piece in the ProJo: "Jo-Anne Hart: Iran gives us what we want" 

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Jo-Anne Hart
Adjunct Professor of International Studies


"If nearby countries with such weapons—Israel, Pakistan, India, and Russia—would accept the restrictions now imposed on Iran, the world would be a safer place."

The new accord between the United States and Iran should come as no surprise. These negotiations were too big to fail. If the result can be consolidated, it marks a strategic gain for both countries.

The United States and its Western partners are guaranteed that Iran will not easily be able to build nuclear weapons. If nearby countries with such weapons—Israel, Pakistan, India, and Russia—would accept the restrictions now imposed on Iran, the world would be a safer place.

Iran gains relief from economic sanctions, but also increased standing in the region. This is what critics of the accord dread. They are mistaken. The United States shares more long-term strategic goals with Iran than with some of our so-called allies in the Middle East.

The greatest long-term effect of this accord may be on the Iranian people. This is a highly educated population that is almost embarrassingly pro-American. Iranians have much reason to be frustrated with their isolation and limited political options. This accord offers them hope. If the world can begin taking advantage of Iran’s vibrancy, everyone will benefit.

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Stephen Kinzer
Journalist in Residence


"This sends a message to other countries that attempting to acquire enrichment capabilities is an extraordinarily risky and expensive proposition."

The framework for a final deal agreed upon by Iran and the P5+1 this week represents a major diplomatic accomplishment for the Obama administration. More importantly, the deal furthers American national security interests. The limits on the Iranian nuclear program are more stringent than many anticipated, meaning that Iran made significant concessions during the negotiations. In addition to agreeing to dramatically cut its enrichment capacity and its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, Iran reportedly agreed to convert its heavy water research reactor at Arak to limit its plutonium production capacity and to restrict all enrichment activities to one site, Natanz. While the agreement is an important achievement, it is of course not perfect: Iran will maintain a significant enrichment capability, many of the restrictions will be place only for a limited time period, and there can be no absolute assurance that Iran will not construct a covert enrichment facility at some point in the future while benefitting from the lifted sanctions.

Nevertheless, contrary to claims made by critics of the framework, the implications for the nonproliferation regime are quite encouraging. While Iran has won the right to maintain an enrichment capability, this was achieved at a tremendous economic and political cost to the country. This sends a message to other countries that attempting to acquire enrichment capabilities is an extraordinarily risky and expensive proposition. Moreover, the restrictions contained in the framework go far beyond the requirements of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which in fact allows countries to acquire enrichment capabilities so long as they are verifiably devoted to peaceful purposes. In this sense, the international community has strengthened rather than weakened the nonproliferation regime with this deal.

While regional rivals of Iran like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Egypt may bluster about seeking their own enrichment or nuclear weapons capability in response, it is important to keep in mind that these countries have very limited nuclear infrastructures at the present time. Furthermore, the United States has significant leverage over these countries and will be highly motivated to prevent nuclear proliferation in the region. So long as Iran does not violate the NPT and resume its nuclear weapons program—an option, it is important to note, that would also be available (and easier to pull off) in the absence of an agreement—a nuclear arms race in the region is highly unlikely. Even then, the United States would stand a good chance of preventing other countries from following Iran down the nuclear path, either by taking military action against the Iranian nuclear program or by using threats and assurances to dissuade Iran’s neighbors from proliferating.

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


Join us Wednesday, April 15th for "Perspectives on Iran Nuclear Negotiations"

Live webcast April 15th, 12 p.m.