At the UN General Assembly last September, two opposing views were reflected regarding the Iranian nuclear deal: the view of the USA on the one hand, and that of the Western European countries, headed by France, on the other hand. Evidently, the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), had been signed between the P5+1 superpowers and the European Union on July 14, 2015. President Trump described the deal as "embarrassing to the US". French President Emmanuel Macron disagreed, claiming that "renouncing it would be a grave error." Additionally, each side seems to find some aspect of the rapid arming of Pyongyang that supports its position. The US government is concerned that Iran might relaunch its nuclear weapon program after the agreement period has ended or even during that period if the circumstances allow. On the other hand, Macron reasons that if an agreement had been reached with Pyongyang in the past, its nuclear arming could have been prevented
His reasoning ignores the fact that over many years, the USA, in cooperation with IAEA, attempted to reach an agreement with North Korea so that it would halt its military nuclear program in exchange for generous economic support. Time after time, however, Pyongyang disobeyed its commitments and broke the rules. One typical example was the Agreed Framework of 1994 between North Korea and the Clinton administration, which included, among other things, the supply of two large nuclear reactors for generating electrical power. This plan was discarded pursuant to the revelation of the North Korean project involving the enrichment of uranium using centrifuges in 2002. Apparently, the European Union's support for maintaining the nuclear deal with Iran, as reflected in the statements made by President Macron, stems primarily from economic motivations – the opening of the Iranian market to the industries of the European Union
As the President of the USA, which was a party to the signature of the nuclear agreement, Donald Trump is obliged to recertify the agreement to the US Congress every 90 days. Since he became President, he has already done so twice, in line with the advice of his top security advisers, albeit reluctantly. This was a confirmation that Iran complies with its commitments according to the nuclear agreement. According to President Trump, however, Iran's over-all conduct contradicts the spirit of the agreement, owing to Iran's continued support of terrorism and its operations, which destabilize world order and security, as well as in view of its on-going efforts to develop ballistic missiles. Consequently, the USA decided to impose sanctions on 18 entities in Iran – personae as well as organizations. President Trump signed the orders for the sanctions to be imposed on Iran, as well as on North Korea and Russia, on August 2, and they were endorsed by the US Congress in a demonstration of bipartisan support by both the Republicans and the Democrats, by an overwhelming majority. Iran responded promptly by stating that the sanctions contradicted the nuclear agreement and vowed to react "accordingly and proportionately".
Additionally, during Rouhani's TV address on August 15, after having been reelected as President of Iran, he threatened that Iran could quit the nuclear agreement "within hours" if the USA were to impose additional sanctions on Iran. It is unclear how President Trump's advisers managed to convince him to recertify the nuclear agreement with Iran. This decision could be linked to the resolution regarding the ceasefire in southeastern Syria, which President Trump had consolidated with Putin during their meeting in Germany on July 7, pursuant to which President Trump decided to suspend US support for the rebels against the Assad regime, thereby abandoning Syria to the complete domination of Russia and Iran – and that could be interpreted as a gesture toward Iran. It is also possible that the last IAEA report on the Iranian nuclear program, dated June 2 – the sixth report since the signature of the nuclear agreement – could have contributed to the position of President Trump's advisers. According to the report, which contained a routine repetition of the contents of the previous reports, "… The Agency has verified and monitored Iran's implementation of nuclear-related commitments in accordance with the modalities set out in the JCPOA". In any case, the report contains no reference to the question of whether Iran fully obeys these commitments. It is possible, therefore, that President Trump's advisers concluded that Iran complies with the terms of the agreement and fully cooperates with IAEA.
The time when the JCPOA agreement expires, as far as the USA is concerned – if President Trump does not recertify it – is October 15. According to the Washington Post (October 6), however, President Trump is expected to speak on October 12 and announce his intention to decertify the agreement, thereby "tossing the hot potato" at the US Congress so that the Congress may reactivate the US sanctions on Iran.
As far as the Iranian side is concerned, Rouhani vowed that his country will not be the first party to violate the agreement. He rejected the option of renegotiating the agreement, but according to his estimate, "We do not think Trump will walk out of the deal despite [his] rhetoric and propaganda". He further stated that if the USA walks out of the deal, the agreement will collapse: "This is a building the frame of which, if you take out a single brick, the entire building will collapse."
ISIS against IISS & IAEA
The main support for the recertification of the Iranian agreement was provided to the Trump administration by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) of London, whose US branch is headed by Mark Fitzpatrick. Admittedly, in two articles Fitzpatrick had published, in February and June 2017, he criticized Iran's nuclear conduct, which he defined as "problematic", for occasionally conducting itself contrary to its commitments under JCPOA. In his opinion, the supervisors of IAEA should be provided with access to military installations in Iran suspected of activities associated with the development of nuclear arms or with the actual development and manufacture of cutting-edge centrifuges. Fitzpatrick believes, however, that the USA should continue to uphold the nuclear deal, which he regards as the lesser of two evils. He even doubts whether imposing additional sanctions on Iran will be beneficial. The view of IISS is consistent with the trend identified by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), an important research institute based in Washington and headed by David Albright, according to which the proponents of the nuclear deal tend to casually ignore Iran's violating of the agreement in various cases, and to avoid discussing this issue. According to ISIS, in response to IISS, contrary to the holistic view required with regard to Tehran, IISS regards the Iranian violations one-by-one, thereby downplaying their significance. According to ISIS, the series of JCPOA compliance controversies, violations, exploitation of loopholes, ambiguities and repeated pushing against its limits should be regarded as a persistent, over-all effort that could help Iran renege on the provisions of the deal when it wishes to break out of it or if the deal fails, and which in any case is expected to reduce the break-out time. Accordingly, ISIS recommends that Iran's compliance with the terms of the deal be aggressively enforced.
As far as the IAEA report of June 2 is concerned, ISIS protested that the report failed to address the fact that the IAEA supervisors were not provided with access so that they may supervise military installations in Iran. The last time IAEA inspected Iranian military installations was on January 16, 2016, the agreement implementation day. Moreover, the IAEA report is vague and minimalistic in its technical details, and even fails to list the IAEA's activities of monitoring and verifying Iran's nuclear activity, especially with regard to the ban on the development of nuclear arms; the report does not contain the fact that Iran keeps in storage, in Oman, some 11 tons of heavy water, thereby exceeding the quota of 130 tons of heavy water it was allowed to keep; the report also fails to criticize the exploiting of a JCPOA loophole that enabled Iran to increase the natural uranium stores it possesses by enriching the depleted uranium it had stockpiled in the past. Another unusual aspect of this report is the fact that it refers to the meeting of the Procurement Working Group (in which all of the parties to the JCPOA participate), owing to the Iranian procurement deal involving the purchase of 900 tons of yellowcake (uranium U308 compound possessing the characteristics of natural uranium) from Kazakhstan, which the parties to the JCPOA agreement intercepted.
Meanwhile, back in Iran
Meanwhile, Iran advances the development of uranium enrichment centrifuges. Ali Akbar Salehi, the Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), stated in late January 2017 that the process of injecting UF6 (uranium hexa-fluoride – a gaseous uranium compound suitable for the enrichment of uranium using centrifuges) into the most advanced Iranian-made centrifuge (IR8) had begun and that the process has advanced more smoothly than expected. However, in a television interview on April 8, he added that the testing of the injection process will take about two years, after which Iran will initiate the manufacturing of cascades for the IR8 centrifuges. Salehi noted that he regarded that as a milestone in the centrifuge development project by his country's experts, and that the project does not contradict the nuclear agreement. Salehi also reported that mass production of the advanced centrifuge models IR2, IR4 and IR6 had already been initiated. In any case, it would appear that the Iranian activities in connection with the development of the centrifuges, contrary to Salehi's statements, are a violation of the JCPOA agreement, according to which Iran may commence testing of up to 30 centrifuge machines (cascades) of the IR6 and IR8 models only after eight and a half years have passed since the JCPOA implementation date, namely – only in the second half of July 2024.
David Albright and Olli Heinonen, the former deputy DG (supervision) of IAEA, referred to Salehi's statements in an article published by ISIS on May 30. They expressed concern over Iran's intention to commence mass production of cutting-edge centrifuges, owing to the possibility that if the agreement fails or when it expires, it will be easier for Iran to sneak out or break out of its commitments and renew its nuclear weapon program, or at least accelerate the progress of the centrifuge project. According to the information available to ISIS, even though the agreement allows Iran to operate only one IR8 centrifuge, in effect, more than six IR8 rotor assemblies were installed at the Kalaye Electric facility in northern Tehran, and Iran also has more IR6 centrifuges and related assemblies than the amounts it is allowed to keep. ISIS also protested that in effect, IAEA is unable to verify the actual amount of centrifuge rotor assemblies and centrifuge parts available to Iran, and that the IAEA report does not refer to the status of centrifuge manufacturing at the Taba facility near the city of Karaj. Another point made in the article by Albright and Heinonen referred to Iran's capability to manufacture all of the centrifuge sub components (about 100 sub components) in addition to the rotor assembly. In the authors' view, Iran must either import some of those components, like ring magnets and frequency converters, or has them on hand in inventories it had imported in the past.
In a new report dated September 21, Albright reported that Iran had exceeded the stock of advanced IR6 and IR8 centrifuges it is allowed to keep. However, he also noted an important development in the tests of those centrifuges: numerous centrifuges had been broken during the tests – more than expected, so the number of centrifuges of these models decreased significantly. Consequently, Iran was pushed, willy-nilly, into a situation where it is closer to complying with the limitations of the deal. In Albright's estimate, as a result of these mishaps, Iran is expected to step up the rate at which the advanced centrifuges are being manufactured, thereby further worsening the extent to which it violates the agreement. In conclusion, according to Albright and Heinonen in their article of May 30, the status picture that portrays the weaknesses of the JCPOA agreement notwithstanding, the JCPOA agreement, plus the Additional Protocol of the IAEA Safeguards Agreement, provide IAEA with sufficient powers to monitor and investigate all of the nuclear activities taking place in Iran. However, it is impossible to determine, based on the reports by IAEA, whether these processes are actually taking place.
The Ballistic Missile Issue
Iran does not rest on its laurels and continues to provoke the USA by launching ballistic missiles, while apparently drawing encouragement from its ally, North Korea. On July 27 Iran successfully launched a Simorgh type rocket to outer space. This rocket can carry a satellite weighing about 250 kilograms, which could be an experimental surveillance satellite, into orbit at a 500 km apogee. Iran claims that the rocket was launched in the context of its space program. However, the USA and its western allies believe that the project is a cover for the development of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Moreover, during the military parade commemorating the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war, on September 22, the Iranians presented their Khoramshahr ballistic missile, which, according to them, can reach a range of 2,000 kilometers while carrying a dedicated payload that deploys multiple warheads. Additionally, a few hours after the parade, Iran aired a video of an allegedly "successful" launch of this missile. However, a few days later the video turned out to be fake footage which in fact shows the failed ballistic missile launch Iran had attempted last January. In any case, Rouhani declared during the parade that his country would not halt its missile program and would continue to boost its military capabilities, despite US warnings and demands.
The report according to which President Trump intends to pull the USA out of the JCPOA on October 15 could be merely a measure in the context of a psychological warfare campaign the US administration is running against Iran. On the other hand, it is very reasonable to expect that President Trump will actually initiate the move of withdrawing from the JCPOA, among other reasons – so as not to lose his credibility. In any case, it is difficult to predict how this move would be accepted among the other parties to the agreement – Russia, China and the members of the European Union, and particularly how Iran would respond
Lieutenant colonel (res.) Dr. Rafael Ofek is an expert in the physics and technology of nuclear power. He had served in the Israeli intelligence community as a senior researcher and analyst