The Iran Deal: Where Are the Fault Lines?

by Derek Davison

It’s tempting to see the successful negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 nations as the conclusion of nearly two years of negotiations. But the reality is that last week’s achievement is only the beginning. Now comes the task of winning approval for the agreement among participating governments, maintaining the terms of the agreement (some of which last up to 25 years), and managing the deal’s ramifications for the Middle East and beyond.

As the political classes in Washington and Tehran debate the merits of the deal over the next several weeks, attention will undoubtedly focus on the agreement’s potential fault lines. What are some of the likeliest scenarios that might bring about a worst-case scenario failure of the JCPOA?

Obviously the agreement could collapse before it ever really gets implemented, if it fails to survive its early political challenges. But this seems unlikely. The UN Security Council unanimously approved the deal Monday morning, and the only two participant countries for whom ratification may pose a challenge should be Iran and the United States. So far, all but the most hardline of Iran’s hardliners appear to be following Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s lead in praising the deal and the country’s nuclear negotiators. Iran’s parliament has also consistently, if cautiously, supported negotiations.

Under the terms of the Iran Nuclear Review Act, passed in May, the US Congress will vote on a resolution rejecting the deal at some point in the next 60 days. Although powerful elements of the anti-Iran lobby, forever searching for their elusive “better deal,” will be pulling out all the stops to defeat the deal in Congress, there will not likely be enough congressional votes against the deal to override a promised veto by President Barack Obama.

So, assuming the deal does meet legislative approval in all seven participating countries, what are its biggest potential sticking points moving forward?

Access and Verification

One of the most challenging issues during negotiations was the question of whether International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors would be able to gain access to non-declared nuclear sites in Iran suspected of housing nuclear weapons-related work. The deal didn’t fully resolve this issue but instead created a procedure for resolving disputes between the IAEA and Iran over site access. Failure to resolve a dispute could result in the re-imposition of some or all sanctions against Iran, which could in turn prompt Iran to back out of the deal. This aspect of the deal, even assuming it works as intended from an inspections perspective, seems likely to be the most contentious, if Iran and the IAEA wind up clashing over access to sensitive Iranian military sites.

At an event held last week by the Arms Control Association, ACA Executive Director Daryl Kimball identified another risk: the IAEA’s ability to actually accomplish its new responsibilities for monitoring and verifying Iran’s compliance with the agreement:

This is not so much a big threat to the implementation of the agreement, but it’s something that I think everyone needs to pay attention to, including the Congress and the other governments involved in the negotiation and the P5+1, which is that the IAEA will need additional resources to do the added work. The IAEA has a rotating team of about 50 people on the Iran file. They do a very good job, but they’re going to need more people, they’re going to need more resources.

And there is a zero budget growth policy affecting all U.N. agencies. And so it’s going to require voluntary contributions, additional contributions from key states, the United States, to give the agency the resources they need.

Risk of Raised Expectations

Other potential danger spots involve the expectations that the agreement has created inside Iran. If Iranians are expecting an overnight improvement in their economy, or in Iran’s standing in the world, they are probably in for a disappointment. At the ACA event, the Brookings Institution’s Richard Nephew, formerly the State Department’s principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy, argued that the deal’s biggest threat was the possibility that Iran won’t see as much sanctions relief, or won’t see it as quickly, as it expects:

I think the biggest risk is that because of the regional issues and terrorism-related issues, human rights-related issues, we have to continue an active sanctions policy that eventually chips away at the benefits provided in the relief.

And when you combine that with Iranian fiscal mismanagement and inability to do with their economy what they could do, either because of corruption or just because they screw up or because oil prices remain low or investment doesn’t flow as fast, that the Iranian government says we’re not getting what we’re supposed to get.

Though international investors are undeniably interested in Iran, they’re likely to proceed cautiously at first. This, combined with the fact that sanctions related to Iran’s human rights record and its support for designated terrorist groups will remain in place, could dampen the impact of nuclear-related sanctions relief on Iran in the short to medium term. If Iran adheres to its obligations under the JCPOA, but for whatever reason feels that it is not getting the kind of economic benefit that it expected when it signed the agreement, it may push to renegotiate or decide to break the deal altogether. As arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis told Vox last week, “when I see Iranians pouring out into the streets with joy, that gives me a little bit of anxiety. They need to manage their expectations a little better than that.”

The Danger of Indifference

Another potential concern is that the next American presidential administration could, intentionally or not, threaten the deal simply through bureaucratic inattention. As Ilan Goldenberg, of the Center for a New American Security, warned:

The question is, will they [the next administration] implement it holding their nose? Will it be the president of the United States and the secretary of state or a senior-level special envoy who has direct access to the president of the United States when something comes up and there’s a problem? Or it will be some deputy assistant secretary of state deep inside the State Department that nobody’s really listening to? And in that case, I think the agreement just falls apart by neglect.

Goldenberg noted the instructive example of North Korea. Iran deal opponents have frequently cited the failure of the 1994 Agreed Framework to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons as a cautionary tale with respect to Iran. But the fact is that the Agreed Framework failed in part because Congress refused to permit the US to fulfill its obligations toward North Korea, and the Bush administration then came into office and chose to effectively repudiate the deal in favor of a more confrontational approach to Pyongyang. How the next administration chooses to approach this agreement will be crucial for its survival.

The ACA’s Kelsey Davenport went further than Goldenberg, noting that the JCPOA’s terms could allow for any participating country to deliberately tank the agreement by pursuing a complaint to the UN Security Council with no intention of resolving it:

Because essentially…if any one of the states does not think that an ambiguity or a concern has been resolved in the joint commission or then through the ministerial level or using sort of an arbitration panel, then they can go directly to the U.N. Security Council.

And for the permanent five members, you know, vetoing…a resolution then will start to put these sanctions back in place. And that could be deliberately used, I think, to prevent the agreement from moving forward. And that option will remain open sort of past this administration. And when you hear some of the presidential candidates explicitly talking about wanting to unravel the deal, there certainly is an opening there that gives me some concern.

Although optimism is certainly warranted after the positive conclusion of such an important arms control agreement, these and other potential problem areas need to be watched and managed properly in order to ensure that the agreement will succeed.

Photo: Daryl Kimball 

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.


One Comment

  1. Will any veto wielding country sabotage the deal and impose sanction back if that country also happened to have developed business interests ?
    Once the sanction is in place by whimsical reason ,most like by US,chances are Rusdia and China would openly challenge UN and USA by not observing if USA remained mired in conflicts with Russia . Russia on its part has seen enough of US to put trust in any promise or olive ranch

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