Is President Donald Trump alone in his criticism of the “Iran nuclear deal”? And was his decision to withdraw from it a wise one, based on facts rather than conjecture? This “deal”, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in July 2015 by Iran, the five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK and US), Germany and the European Union. Of course, the US signed it under the Obama administration and President Trump made no secret of his opposition to it during his election campaign; as with “Obamacare”, was his main reason for withdrawing from the deal because it was implemented under the previous administration?
What do people say is wrong with the deal? Ironically, Iran’s civil nuclear development programme started in the 1970’s with assistance from the US under the Atoms for Peace programme. Under this, the US deployed many nuclear research reactors around the world and supplied the associated nuclear fuel.
Since those early days, Iran’s nuclear programme has gone through many changes, but to many, in recent years, it was pursuing what appeared to be its own nuclear weapons development programme. Like any country signed up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran became party to in 1970, it has a right to undertake research into the production of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Iran protests that its research was purely related to power generation was not helped when the existence of previously unknown uranium conversion and enrichment facilities, which could be related to nuclear weapons research, were revealed in the early 2000’s. For a chronology of key events in Iran’s nuclear history see here.
Attempts to curb Iran’s nuclear research through diplomatic means, various international agreements and the imposition of sanctions through UN resolutions seemed to be having some effect, but there were indications that weapons research had not stopped – In 2006, Iran was found to have a heavy water production plant but had not notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Heavy water can have a “dual use” purpose in either nuclear weapons production or for power production. To make matters worse, Iran did not permit full inspection of its facilities by the IAEA, something which all countries signed up to the NPT must allow.
Iran’s stance towards the international community changed somewhat in 2013 with the election of president Rouhani, thought to be more moderate than his predecessor Ahmadinejad. He requested the start of new negotiations with the international community, and even had direct talks with President Obama.
These new negotiations laid the foundation for the JCPOA and an interim agreement came into effect at the start of 2014 which allowed for increased inspections by the IAEA and the suspension of certain parts of its programme in return for relief from some sanctions. The IAEA issued a statement that Iran had complied with terms of the interim agreement which was reinforced by a statement on 5 March 2018 from the IAEA’s Director General, Yukio Amana, to the IAEA’s Board of Governors: “As of today, I can state that Iran is implementing its nuclear-related commitments …”; a conclusion supported by the Agency’s inspectors who spend some 3000 calendar days per year on the ground in Iran.
The JCPOA is quite a complex agreement, under which Iran has to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium, limit any future enrichment to values not capable of producing nuclear weapons, limit uranium enrichment to one site, not build any new heavy water reactors, and adapt its existing one for peaceful purposes. Iran will also sign up to the Additional Protocol and submit to a comprehensive inspections regime by the IAEA which will involve some 150 inspectors. So long as Iran complies with the terms of the JCPOA, then various sanctions will be eased or lifted altogether.
The signing of the JCPOA was welcomed by virtually every country and international institution, although Israel remained critical. Iran’s fellow Middle East states saw it as bringing stability to the region. So what does President Trump have to be concerned about?
PRESIDENT TRUMP’S VIEW
Under US law the JCPOA is a non-binding agreement and has to have the approval of Congress following certification by the President. In his statement of 8th May 2018, President Trump said “It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement” and the deal is “defective at its core”. He further believes that Iran is a “sponsor of terror” and that there is a “very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout”; moreover, he linked Iran’s missile and other defence activities to the deal, something it was not designed to do. He is particularly concerned that much of the agreement is time-limited – around a decade or so for many of its provisions, but he wants it to be permanent.
Ahead of the 8th May statement, the position of the JCPOA’s counter signatories was that they remained committed to the deal, but their powers of persuasion were obviously non-existent. The UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson said President Trump would be “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” if he went ahead with his decision; French President Macron Tweeted after the statement “France, Germany and the United Kingdom regret the US decision to get out of the Iranian nuclear deal …the international regime against nuclear proliferation is at stake.” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres says he is “deeply concerned by the US decision to withdraw from Iran nuclear deal”, and calls on all other parties to fully abide by deal’s commitments.
THE US SCIENTISTS’ VIEWS
More criticism of the President’s position came from 90 American scientists in a letter published in October 2017 asking Congress to remain party to the agreement. They noted also that non-nuclear activities, not covered by the JCPOA, could be addressed separately and acknowledged Iran’s willingness to hold separate talks on its ballistic missile program. They point out that the IAEA’s system of safeguards under the Additional Protocol is the “strongest set … implemented by the IAEA”. They go on to say that additional “real-time” verification measures would be beneficial, not only in Iran, but in all non-nuclear weapon states where there is doubt about product use and that multinational control of enrichment plants would provide an extra level of security, citing the arrangements that URENCO, the European enrichment company.
FORMER GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS AND EXPERTS’ COUNTER VIEWS
A counter statement by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) was also given in October 2017 which supported President Trump’s stance. It was signed by some 20 “former Government officials and experts” and included former IAEA Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen. It described the JCPOA “as one of the most highly deficient arms control accords in the history of American arms control diplomacy”. It went on to say that “We hope that the White House and Congress can come together to fix a fundamentally flawed agreement, curb Iran’s illicit activities, and end the nuclear blackmail imposed by the current JCPOA”.
Some observers believe that the US withdrawing from the JCPOA will mean Iran will continue to develop a nuclear weapons’ programme, however, technically, the JCPOA remains in force. Will it trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East? Although not officially recognised, it is well believed that Israel possesses over 40 nuclear warheads, on a par with India and Pakistan. Netanyahu fully supports President Trump’s decision, of course, giving his own assessment of Iran’s nuclear programme, saying “Iran lied”.
In March 2018 on a visit to the US Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said “… if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible”.
There will be plenty of commentary over the coming days and month. Decisions such as this have a tendency to implement the “law of unintended consequences”. We will monitor the situation and post further blogs on the issue.
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