Where will the Iran Deal lead us? Source: Kuster & Wildhaber Photography, Creative Commons
Where will the Iran Deal lead us?
Source: Kuster & Wildhaber Photography, Creative Commons

On September 10th CNU’s Reiff Center, the Center for American Studies, and the United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula featured a panel of experts who presented arguments for and against the adoption of the contentious Iran deal. CNU’s Dr. Nathan Busch provided the audience with a brief background on the Iran agreement, highlighting the salient issues it sought to address. Panelists Jon Wolfsthal, Senior Director of Arms Control and Nonproliferation at the National Security Council, argued in favor of the agreement, emphasizing the expansive oversight granted to the IAEA. Matthew Brodsky, a Senior Middle East Analyst at Wikistrat, argued the opposition, highlighting Iran’s expansionist ambitions and a number of possible weaknesses in the planned oversight of Iranian nuclear facilities.   The panelists then addressed points made by their opposition in a debate style exchange, which was moderated by the Reiff Center’s Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, and took questions from the audience.

Expanding on our blog post from last week, Dr. Busch’s overview of the context surrounding the Iran deal focused on the technical aspects of Iran’s nuclear development, and highlighted a few of the most prominent Iran nuclear facilities. The primary radioactive materials involved in the development of a nuclear weapon are U-235, which is enriched through isotope separation in centrifuges, and P-239, which is produced using a heavy water nuclear reactor.  Dr. Busch highlighted four primary nuclear facilities. Natanz, a hardened Fuel Enrichment Plant, contains around 15,000 centrifuges, while Arak, a heavy water plant which could enrich enough plutonium to produce 2-3 weapons a year, was shut down in 2013. The Fordow facility is especially concerning to security analysts, because it is heavily protected against airstrikes, and uses underground transport tunnels to conceal activity from aerial observation. Fordow contains 696 centrifuges, which were used to enrich Uranium to 20%, far beyond what would be needed for peaceful purposes.  An additional nuclear site Parchin, which contained explosive material related to nuclear weapons, is particularly disturbing, because it was modified and sanitized to erase evidence of nuclear research.

Dr. Busch then provided a brief overview of the deal itself. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran would remove 2/3s of its centrifuges, reducing Natanz’s capacity to 5,060 centrifuges and Fordow’s to just 1,040. Natanz would be restricted to enrichment levels of 3%, and Fordow would be barred from enrichment until 2030. Iranian stockpiles of low enriched uranium, which has a U235 concentration of fewer than 20%, would be restricted to 300kg a year. Spent fuel used in peaceful nuclear research and power production would be shipped out of the country, and Iran would be restricted from building any heavy water reactors for the next fifteen years.  However, Iran will be permitted to research more advanced centrifuges, allowing them to squeeze out more efficiency from each remaining centrifuge.

Finally, Dr. Busch explained the basics of the verification processes and sanctions relief which will be applied to Iran. All six UN Security Council sanction resolutions will be relieved, along with the U.S. and E.U. sanctions on Iranian oil. Restrictions on Iranian military imports will be lifted after five years, and all Iranian nuclear sites will be monitored for twenty years.

The panelists and organizers (l tor): Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Reiff Center; Dr. Nathan Busch, Center for American Studies; Jon Wolfsthal, National Security Council; Steve Wendell, United Jewish Community; Matthew Brodsky, Wikistrat
The panelists and organizers (l tor): Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Reiff Center; Dr. Nathan Busch, Center for American Studies; Jon Wolfsthal, National Security Council; Steve Wendell, United Jewish Community; Matthew Brodsky, Wikistrat

Mr. Wolfsthal then argued in favor of the deal, first expanding on the oversight allowed to the IAEA under the terms of the agreement. The heavy water reactor at Parchin will be modified in such a way that the weaponization of plutonium will be impossible. Iran will also be incapable of mining Uranium, producing centrifuges or importing materials related to centrifuge production, and unable to enrich enough U235 to effectively create a bomb. IAEA officials gain 24 hour access to Parchin, the ability to immediately reinstate U.N. sanctions at any time, and the capability to visit and personally test any Iranian facility in the country. While Mr.Wolfsthal conceded that these inspections would not always be immediate, sometimes involving grace periods of up to 14 days, he insisted that past Iranian efforts to hide illegal Uranium enrichment had been dismal failures, and the IAEA would be able to detect any signs of foul play.

Mr. Wolfsthal followed with an expansion on the details behind the sanction relief, focusing on the $50 billion which had been frozen in foreign accounts, and will be returned to the Iranians in exchange for their participation in the deal. While Mr.Wolfsthal acknowledged that there was a potential for Iran to use these funds for nefarious ends, he argued that three key factors overrode this concern. Firstly, the $50 billion in “frozen” funds gave negotiators tremendous leverage over the Iranians, and the deal would not have been possible without the release of those funds. , Second, Mr.Wolfsthal believes Iran’s belligerence in the region is unrelated to their stores of available cash; they will support Assad, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shiite militias at the expense of their own social spending. Third, the NSA estimates that Iran requires over $750 billion in funding for pressing domestic issues, including an extensive modernization of Iranian industrial facilities. This need, combined with significant domestic pressure, will push the government to use most of the funds for peaceful causes.

Centrifuges used for uranium enrichment. Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Creative Commons
Centrifuges used for uranium enrichment. Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Creative Commons

Mr. Brodsky then gave his critique of the deal. He argued the deal is only viable if one believes three key points. First, does the agreement prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power? Second, are the concessions granted to Iran worth the price of the agreement? Third, is the deal in the long-term security interest of the United States? Mr. Brodsky believes these points are unrealistic, and pointed to low approval ratings among Americans as evidence that the nation as a whole does not trust Iran.

In Mr. Brodsky’s opinion, the deal is hampered by inherent flaws, and will neither prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon nor dissuade other nations from pursuing nuclear research. For example, Mr.Brodsky argued that permitting Iran to develop more advanced centrifuges will make restrictions on the total number of centrifuges ineffective. He is not convinced the IAEA will be able to keep track of illegally built undeclared sites, and believes that the IAEA should have 24-hour access to all military-nuclear sites in Iran. He also asserted that the Iranians would be conducting their own surveys on their reactors, and sending the results to the IAEA in place of true inspections (This claim was later challenged by Mr.Wolfsthal). Mr.Brodsky contended that the Iranian program had been allow to mature for too long, ensuring the IAEA would be incapable of establishing a baseline of Iranian nuclear materials, facilities, equipment, and progress towards weaponization. As such, the IAEA will be unable to accurately assess any growth in the Iranian program during oversight.

Mr.Brodsky then criticized the means by which the agreement seeks to control Iran. He first highlighted the “snap-back” nature of the sanction relief. If Iran flagrantly defies the agreement, sanctions are immediately resumed. He argued this would limit the willingness of the IAEA to pursue any incremental infractions in Iranian behavior. Mr.Brodsky also criticized the implementation of the so-called “sunset clause”, which removes most restrictions on Iran after fifteen years, arguing that Iran will still be a repressive, expansionist country in 2030. While Mr.Brodsky conceded the immense leverage provided by the funds, he believes the Iranians will not abide by the rules of the agreement after the $50 billion in frozen cash is returned to them. Viewing Iran as an inherently expansionist power, he reasoned that the funds will be used to bolster Iranian military funding, and may ultimately make future military action against Iran a much more dangerous affair.

The two panelists then addressed each other in a debate-style exchange. Mr.Wolfsthal opened by insisting that the IAEA and NSA had developed many indirect methods of detecting Iranian attempts to “cheat” on the agreement over the last decade. Information garnered from these methods allowed the NSA to establish an effective “baseline” through which to judge Iranian behavior. Furthermore, he asserted that the IAEA and NSA would be able to detect activity associated with the clandestine construction of new undeclared facilities, and that such methods of cheating were not feasible.  He then clarified that the IAEA had established a set of responses to small infractions by the Iranians, and that a full “snap-back” of sanctions would not be necessary to punish incremental cheating. Mr.Wolfsthal closed his rebuttal by arguing that no nuke deal was analogous to accepting a future conflict.

Mr. Brodsky responded by highlighting the failure of President Obama’s “Red-Line” in Syria, arguing it indicated a wider rejection of the threat of American deterrence by rouge states. Mr. Brodsky does not believe the deal is transparent enough in its penalties, and would prefer the deal to clearly map out specific penalties which would be used in response to Iranian infractions. Mr.Wolfsthal countered that this would weaken the potency of those penalties, as Iran would be able to develop countermeasures.

The debate ended with a particularly insightful comment from a member of the audience, who asked Mr.Wolfsthal if sanctions could truly act as the deal’s primary deterrent, given the significant lag between a sanction’s implementation and its full effect. The panelists differed in opinion; Mr.Brodsky claimed Iran would use the interim to strengthen sectors of the economy vulnerable to sanctions, while Mr.Wolfsthal argued the Iranian people would not accept another bout of sanctions. Regardless, the question highlighted the two principle uncertainties which will determine the success of the Iran deal. Is Iran interested in shedding its status as an international pariah, and if not, will punitive economic or military action be enough to dissuade them from seeking a bomb? The answer to that question will determine much of the Middle East’s future.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.