Iran is of interest to this blog because of the issues it raises about negotiating and implementing a comprehensive nuclear agreement. Although North Korea has broken out, some of the issues now on the table evoke parallels to the 2007-8 Korean negotiations, which came close—but not close enough—to reaching a final agreement. Particularly important in the Iran process at the moment are an ambiguous IAEA report on the military dimensions of the country’s nuclear program and the question of whether that report could energize opposition to the entire Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
At The New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew has a useful analysis of the political aftermath of the president securing adequate Congressional support to allow the deal to stand. Republicans have naturally sought to bring pressure to bear on Democrats who supported it. They have also sent signals such as nuisance sanctions legislation, including a measure that would endorse ongoing state-level sanctions on Iran.
More serious, however, are ongoing hearings that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans as part of a wider oversight plan contained in a letter to the president last Thursday from Senators Bob Corker and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the chairman and ranking member of the committee. First up for scrutiny: the December 2 release of the IAEA report on possible military dimensions (PMD) of the Iranian program (technically, the Final Assessment on Past and Present Outstanding Issues regarding Iran’s Nuclear Programme).
An earlier IAEA report on the safeguards component of the deal found that the Iranian regime was moving forward quite quickly with the mothballing of centrifuges and appeared to be broadly on track with respect to other material targets in the JCPOA. However, in late November Iranian officials issued threats that full implementation of the JCPOA was contingent on putting to rest the PMD portfolio.
The new IAEA report has generated a swift response both from political groups (such as United Against a Nuclear Iran; see here) and think-tanks such as the Institute for Science and International Security. As in the Korean negotiations in 2008, a central question is how deeply outside actors should probe on prior aspects of the program if there is a commitment to cease and desist and effective ways of monitoring going forward. But those means of monitoring sites like Parchin are not the same as those governing the nuclear sites, opening the door for critics of the JCPOA who would like to see it scrapped altogether. All of this comes in the wake of a missile test that is being wrongly touted as a violation of the agreement; Yishai Schwartz at the Lawfare's Omphalos site takes apart these claims, made by none other than the New York Times. But such fine points may be politically irrelevant.
The IAEA’s PMD brief reaches an overall conclusion of compliance that is worth quoting, because it summarizes in a clear way what is now known:
“87. The Agency assesses that a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003. The Agency also assesses that these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities. The Agency has no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009.
88. The Agency has found no credible indications of the diversion of nuclear material in connection with the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.”
However, the report also outlines areas in which Iran was not fully cooperative. It is doubtful that the new opposition will derail the program, which does not even have the status of an executive agreement. (It is only a “political commitment” among the parties; again, Matthew Weybrecht at Omphalos provides the clearest explanation). Nor should it. But with the political season in full swing, and sanctions relief around the corner, the issue is likely to be a focus of both the Democratic and Republican primary campaigns. It will also put pressure on the president to expand on the commitments he made in an important letter to Congressman Jerrold Nadler in August, which outlined supplementary commitments required to secure Congressional support. Among them: a statement that all options remained on the table and commitments to support Israel and US allies in the Gulf. We are some important steps away from this deal being implemented; politics in both Tehran and Washington will determine whether it moves forward or unravels.