Debate over the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached in July 2015 and implemented starting in January, 2016, in exchange for economic sanctions relief, continues to boil.
Some analysts, including Israelis, argue that, flawed though it might be, the deal has been beneficial overall in constraining Iran’s nuclear weapons program for 10-15 years, if not longer. They point out that, as Amin Rosen put it in the Tablet Magazine earlier this month, “Iran appears to be sticking to the letter of its obligations.”
Others, however, as Rosen also notes, argue that Iran’s “obligations” turn out to be rather malleable, that loopholes in the deal (along with Iran’s well-established history of cheating and its overriding aggressive regional ambitions) erode confidence that the JCPOA will actually constrain Iran as expected – foremost by the U.S. administration.
David Albright, a former senior U.N. weapons inspector, currently the head of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) argued, in what has become a much-cited Sept. 1 paper, “JCPOA Exemptions Revealed,” that, in order to meet JCPOA conditions by last January’s implementation, Iran was allowed exemptions from key elements of the deal and that these exemptions were secretly negotiated by what’s called the “Joint Commission,” the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain, France and Germany) plus Iran – all of whom oversee the implementation process.
“Since the JCPOA is public, any rationale for keeping these exemptions secret appears unjustified,” Albright wrote. “Moreover,” he continued, “the Joint Commission’s secretive decision-making process risks advantaging Iran by allowing it to significantly weaken the JCPOA.”
The critical exemptions reportedly concern the amount of low-enriched nuclear fuel and heavy water Iran is allowed to retain control, which could significantly shorten the “break-out” time Iran would need to achieve weapons-grade uranium and acquire a nuclear weapon.
Albright’s blunt warning about this is chilling: “A country intent on breaking out and making highly enriched uranium [LEU] as national priorities may make an entirely different calculation about the LEU’s worth and devote considerable effort to recovering the LEU, such as during a push to acquire nuclear weapons in a crisis.”
According to Reuters, in response to Albright’s report, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby denied that Iran had been granted exemptions, while also insisting that the Joint Commission’s work is “confidential.” Yet according to Albright, the Obama administration informed Congress about the exemptions in confidential documents only on Jan. 16, Implementation Day – after they had been granted.
In the conclusion of his report Albright argued: “The exemption process and the Joint Commission decisions should be transparent; the current arrangement has been overly secret and amounts to the generation of additional secret or confidential arrangements directly linked to the JCPOA that do not have adequate oversight and scrutiny…The US administration should insist that the exemption process and decisions be public and transparent.”
Apparently, the US administration has no intention of insisting on such transparency. Consequently, much of what could benefit Iran’s long-term nuclear interests will almost certainly remain hidden.
Compounding that secrecy is another feature of the nuclear deal that has drawn surprisingly little attention. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), reporting directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, while driving the country’s nuclear program, has cheated for decades by violating the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Now it has insisted that Iran’s military sites will be off-limits to the sorts of “intrusive inspections” that the US promised would be firmly in place.
At Parchin, for instance, where nuclear weaponization activity is suspected to have occurred, the IRGC alone will collect soil samples and provide it to UN inspectors, supervision akin to Russians collecting blood samples of their own Olympic athletes.
With secrecy, exemptions, and likely continued cheating feeding into Iran’s nuclear ambitions, is it any wonder that Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia are looking to Israel for support?