The Keys to Closing the Iran Nuclear Deal

The heavy water facility at Arak will be inspected under terms of the nuclear deal being negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 countries. (Nanking2012/Wikimedia Commons)

The French ambassador to the Iran nuclear negotiations said this week that it was unlikely a deal would be struck by the June 30 deadline. There are still considerable details to work out, particularly over procedures for verifying Iran’s future nuclear activities, and the lifting of economic sanctions in return for Iran’s compliance with the requirements of the so-called P5+1 negotiating countries.

Nonetheless, the Iran agreement remains on course to become one of the most significant nuclear non-proliferation achievements in history. If fully implemented in line with the draft framework announced in early April, it will block Iran’s path to nuclear weapons capability.

The agreement reduces Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium, closes the plutonium pathway to the bomb, and greatly increases international monitoring and verification. What follows is an analysis of the key details still being hammered out at the negotiating table.


The draft agreement, officially the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JPCA), contains the “most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated,” according to US President Barack Obama. It provides for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to have unprecedented access to Iran’s nuclear production sites, with the right to investigate suspicious activity with as little as two hours’ notice.

Sites that were previously off limits such as centrifuge production facilities and the heavy water reactor at Arak will also now be inspected. State-of-the-art remote monitoring equipment will be installed at nuclear facilities to enable real-time detection of illicit activity. Iranian imports of dual-use goods will be subject to international monitoring, as part of a “designated procurement channel” under the authority of the United Nations Security Council.

While Iran has agreed to these provisions, it has raised concerns about issues related to IAEA questions on “possible military dimensions” in the past, and the right of inspectors to visit military sites and interview nuclear scientists.

The draft agreement is ambiguous or silent on these issues. The JPCA stipulates that Iran and the IAEA “will implement an agreed set of measures” to address possible past military activities, but provides no details about these. The JCPA allows IAEA investigation of suspicious sites or allegations “anywhere in the country,” but this provision mentions only enrichment, conversion, centrifuge production, and yellowcake production facilities. No reference is made to visiting military sites or interviewing scientists.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared last week that Iran would not allow interviews with its top scientists or grant access to its military bases. Iranian leaders are understandably sensitive on these issues in light of unexplained assassinations of five nuclear scientists in recent years and calls by former US officials for bombing Iran.

While access to military sites and scientists would undoubtedly add extra safeguards, attempts to strengthen inspection protocols need to be weighed against the already considerable improvements in monitoring that are part of the JCPA. The desire for even greater access should not jeopardize the significant nuclear reductions Tehran has accepted as part of the current agreement.


Differences also exist over the process of removing US, European Union, and UN Security Council sanctions on Iran. These have been effective in driving Iran to the bargaining table, but the successful conclusion of the deal requires lifting those measures. At the heart of the negotiations is a grand bargain: Iran agrees to restrict its nuclear program and allow intrusive inspections, and the US and its partners agree to lift impositions designed to weaken its economy.

Under the terms of the JCPA, Iran has accepted substantial limits in its nuclear program. It will reduce the number of installed centrifuges from about 19,000 to approximately 6,000, placing unused machines in monitored storage. It will refrain from enriching uranium beyond 3.67% for at least 15 years and reduce its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium from about 10,000 kilograms to 300kg. The agreement includes redesigning the Arak reactor, shipping its spent fuel out of the country, and banning plutonium reprocessing.

The draft deal calls for terminating the application of sanctions as Iran implements the stated non-proliferation measures, but how that will happen remains in contention. When the JCPA was announced, Iran and the US gave differing interpretations of this provision. The White House fact sheet on the agreement stated that sanctions would not be removed until after international inspectors verify that Tehran has taken all of its non-proliferation-related steps. President Obama said that sanctions would be lifted only in phases and would snap back in place if Iran violates the agreement.

Iranian officials objected strenuously to the White House interpretation. They have insisted that sanctions should be lifted as soon as the final agreement is signed and said there will be no phasing of sanctions removal.

Notwithstanding such assertions, Tehran knows that lifting sanctions will take time. The process of peeling back the thick web that has been imposed on Iran over many years will require decisions by multiple actors. Separate actions will be needed by the Security Council, the EU, and the US government. US Congress will also have a say, with recently adopted legislation setting a one month delay in removing sanctions while it reviews the final agreement. Harmonizing the differences over sanctions relief will require a complicated and delicate choreography of mutually agreed steps during the first 6-12 months of the completed agreement.

A possible scenario during those initial months might be as follows: Iran completes the removal of its stockpile of low enriched uranium, places most of its centrifuges in monitored storage, and allows inspectors to install remote monitoring equipment. Simultaneously, the US and its partners affirm their intention to remove all nuclear-related sanctions and immediately suspend specific measures for a renewable six-month period, in parallel with Iran’s steps toward denuclearization. The UN Security Council then adopts a resolution lifting sanctions and creates the designated procurement channel to control dual-use imports.

A successful outcome to the current negotiations will require a combination of “creative ambiguity” in the few areas where the two sides disagree and certainty in the wide arena where their interests and interpretations coincide. The differences that exist over inspections and the lifting of sanctions are minor compared to the larger benefits of non-proliferation and must not stand in the way of reaching a final agreement.

David Cortright is Associate Director of Programs and Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame.