JCPOA —better to keep it

By Daniel DePetris

This Monday, the Trump administration re-certified for the second time Iran's "technical compliance" of the nuclear deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Although the certification, which the Secretary of State and the President are required to send to Congress every 90 days, will come as a major disappointment to diehard opponents of the accord, many lawmakers who originally blasted the deal as weak — Sen. Bob Corker, then-Sen. Dan Coats, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among them — have come to recognize over the first two years of agreement that it has significantly handicapped Tehran’s entire nuclear supply chain. Despite this reality, several Republican lawmakers continue to urge the White House to forget the positives as if they never happened.

Fortunately, the administration didn't accept their counsel —not because Tehran's implementation of its commitments has been stellar, but rather because keeping the nuclear agreement in place is the best option that the United States and its negotiating partners in Europe, China, and Russia have.

The JCPOA, an agreement that was the result of extensive and intensive diplomacy between the P5+1 coalition and Iran over a period of three years, is anything but perfect. The agreement is an enormously technical product, can be prone to misunderstanding among officials who are not experts in nuclear physics, and is structured in such a way that Tehran was granted access to $100 billion previously frozen in overseas bank accounts immediately after the IAEA verified that Iran was complying with its enrichment and transparency obligations. In effect, the international community handed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a big lump sum at the front-end, without any guarantee that Tehran would continue to keep two-thirds of its centrifuges locked up and 98 percent of its enriched uranium stockpile out of the country.

But, notwithstanding how the JCPOA was crafted and how much sanctions relief the Iranians were given—and, judging from the massive transactions between Tehran and major aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus, it is quite a lot—it is an indisputable fact that critical aspects of Iran's nuclear program have been limited to a significant extent. Before the JCPOA was signed, Iran was approximately two or three months away from a nuclear breakout, the time it would take for the country to produce and stock enough enriched uranium for a single nuclear bomb. After the JCPOA was on the books, the U.S. intelligence community has assessed—and continues to assess—that it would now take a year for Iran's to reach breakout capability. The IAEA, the nuclear watchdog responsible for ensuring Tehran keeps its word, has certified time and time again over the last two years that uranium enrichment levels, the uranium stockpile, the amount of working centrifuges, and IAEA access to Tehran's nuclear sites are all where they need to be. When issues have arisen, Iranian and P5+1 negotiators have dealt with them in a peaceful and constructive manner. 

Under the JCPOA regime, to put it bluntly, the Iranian nuclear program is not only restricted, but under continuous international supervision.To tear up the nuclear agreement would be an incredible mistake of unprecedented proportions—the kind of diplomatic blunder that would be studied by historians for decades.

It would be a mistake not only due to the JCPOA's proven effectiveness over its first two years of existence, but also because the alternatives for the U.S. are far worse.  Re-negotiating the agreement and starting from scratch as President Trump himself suggested he would do is a non-starter for Iran, a country that has no reasonable incentive to even entertain the idea when it is already receiving the sanctions relief Iranian leaders have long demanded.  The other option — ripping up the agreement entirely and cranking up the economic and diplomatic pressure until Tehran’s economy caves — is a prelude to nothing but more confrontation with a regional power that has shown no signs it is willing to surrender to western powers.

While Iran hawks consistently criticize the deal as inadequate or lacking certain elements, the bottom line is the JCPOA is the only impediment between a state sponsor of terrorism that is nuclear weapons capable and a country that, while still an adversarial power, is far below nuclear threshold status. .

Eliminate the JCPOA, and Iran would be free to bring over 13,000 centrifuges machines out of storage, enrich and store as much enriched uranium at it wanted, reconstruct a plutonium reactor that was rendered inoperable, simplify its importing of dual-use technology, and accelerate the research and development of advanced, next-generation centrifuges—all without any IAEA access into Tehran's nuclear supply chain. Having to choose between the present situation and the nightmare described above is really no choice at all.  

The JCPOA has its negatives. Iran, for example, will be largely free to increase its nuclear capacity when many of the agreement's most important limitations expire in 10 to 15 years. Tehran's military sites remain immune to IAEA access, which causes justified concern that Iranian scientists may perform work that cannot be scrutinized or verified as peaceful.

But rarely, if ever, is a diplomatic settlement to an international crisis perfect. The Iranian nuclear agreement certainty isn't. Yet from the standpoint of U.S. national security, keeping the JCPOA in place is a gigantic improvement over the alternative of scrapping it and taking the U.S. and Iran that much closer to a violent confrontation.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on July 26, 2017. Read more HERE