The Iran nuclear deal isn’t so great — for Iran
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015 between the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, known as P5, plus Germany and Iran, significantly limited Iran’s nuclear program. At the time, some were critical of President Barack Obama’s diplomatic approach, rather than other coercive levers. Two years ago, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) called for a “credible threat of military force” so that the Iranians would abandon their nuclear weapons capabilities.
President Trump is expected to make a speech on Iran policy today. Reports now suggest that Trump will not recertify Iran’s compliance with the deal — though not tear it up entirely — and will push for tougher scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program.
Regardless of the details on the White House strategy on Iran, the deal has many vocal critics — President Trump chief among them. Implicit in much of the criticism of the deal is the assumption that Iran gains benefits or advantages from its ability to retain any nuclear infrastructure, compared to states that do not possess this technology.
In new research, we explore the benefits and burdens of “nuclear latency” — critical technologies short of weapons acquisition. Countries that have nuclear latency are in a state of technological limbo — they possess some technical and material ingredients for a bomb, but have not gone all the way to produce a nuclear weapon.
Contrary to what critics of the JCPOA believe, we found that latency yields few benefits and can bring significant costs to states — costs that Iran continues to pay under the JCPOA.
What does the JCPOA actually do?
The JCPOA, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, was designed to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The deal curtailed Iran’s access to the materials necessary to build warheads, dismantling the plutonium-based pathway to making a nuclear bomb, while dramatically scaling back the uranium-based pathway. Iran before the JCPOA had an estimated timeline of two to three months to actually manufacture nuclear weapons. This timeline is now over a year.
The net result is more time for the international community to intervene, should Iran move to “break out” and abandon its JCPOA commitments. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) oversees an extensive verification process, leaving the international community with a much better apparatus in place to observe the nuclear program up close, to ensure that Iran remains latent — and does not pursue nuclear weapons.
Once the IAEA certified compliance with the JCPOA requirements, Iran received a variety of benefits from the international community. These included the termination of an oil embargo, sanctions relief, and political reengagement with the United States and global community. To date, this has facilitated between $100-$150 billion in frozen Iranian assets flowing back into Iran.
Being a “latent” nuclear power isn’t all good news for Iran
Post-JCPOA, Iran remains a “latent” nuclear power, which means it has some indigenous ability to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium into fissile material that moves states closer to the bomb. This latent capability, according to some scholars, can help states deter attacks, even when they don’t actually possess an operational nuclear weapon. Others have argued that latent states may become emboldened to take more risks to achieve their goals internationally simply because they possess this technology.
But these potential benefits are only part of the story. Do states with latency incur other losses, compared to those with no latent capability at all?