Ambiguous Compliance with the Iran Nuclear Deal

A Mellon Foundation Simulation Project – US Air Force Academy

3-5 March 2016

The Context

On July 14, 2015, Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) finalized a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) aimed at blocking pathways—either uranium enrichment or plutonium separation—that Iran might take to develop a nuclear weapon, and to guard against an Iranian clandestine weapons program.

This agreement has been marked by intense political debate, especially within the U.S. and in Iran, as well as by Israel and several Arab states in the Middle East.  The agreement also reflects extraordinary technical complexity.  Under the agreement, Iran would reduce its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98 percent; limit its uranium enrichment capacity and research and development for 15 years; and convert major enrichment and heavy water production facilities into facilities that cannot produce weapons grade material.  The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is charged with verification, and Iran has agreed to provide the IAEA with greater access and information.  In return, the U.S. and European Union agree to lift relevant economic sanctions that had been imposed on Iran.

Critics argue that the agreement would allow Iran to develop a clandestine nuclear capability that would be available shortly after the 15 year term of the agreement, and that IAEA inspections are insufficiently intrusive.  Advocates for the agreement argue that this is the best deal available and the only way to divert Iran from its current program, in which they could have a nuclear weapon in a much shorter time.

The Issue

No international agreement is perfect, not least in the area of arms control and disarmament.  Compromises are inevitable, and there will always be an element of uncertainty regarding compliance with all aspects of the agreement.  Verification should provide a degree of confidence that there is no “significant” non-compliance, but that will always be a political, rather than technical, judgment.

Accordingly, policy makers are always confronted with a stark choice once an arms control agreement is in place—when faced with indications of potentially significant non-compliance, should a concerned party terminate the agreement altogether, or can it successfully address that non-compliant behavior and preserve the agreed regime?  In the former, no party is any longer bound by the obligations of the agreement; in the latter, one hopes to retain whatever constraints or leverage one has through the agreement, even though there is evidence of significant non-compliance.

In the case of a potentially hostile country acquiring nuclear weapon, these are especially high stakes.

The Scenario

It is now October 2016.  “Implementation Day” for the agreement was January 2016.  Nine months into implementation, there is a series of unconfirmed reports that a number of restricted centrifuges were held back from the IAEA and were being kept in an underground facility.  Iran has denied the reports and complained that the U.S. and EU were being slow in eliminating economic sanctions.  Iran was also placing limits on IAEA inspections, arguing that the agreement did not allow the IAEA inspectors unfettered access to Iran’s territory.  One month from the U.S. presidential election, both the domestic and international political climate has become especially volatile, and not only with respect to this issue.

As an interagency team within the National Security Council staff, your task is to develop domestic and foreign policy options for the President to implement as soon as possible.