Jeffrey LewisJofi Joseph on the Iran Deal

Since I’ve already inflicted my thoughts on the Iran deal over at Foreign, I am happy that my friend Jofi Joseph has agreed to share his here at the blog.

Pleasant Surprises and Grudging Disappointments

Jofi Joseph

Jeffrey has kindly offered his blog as a venue for my thoughts on some of the specific technical elements of the P5+1 political framework with Iran announced last week.  For someone who worked on this issue in the U.S. government between 2011 and 2013, it is gratifying to see the efforts of many, many individuals in multiple governments finally bear fruit.

What follows is a checklist of pleasant surprises and grudging disappointments when it comes to this agreement’s nonproliferation bona fides.  Like many others, I was quite pleased at the depth and specificity of Iranian commitments when it came to real world constraints on their fuel cycle capabilities, but recognize the hardest negotiations are likely to take place over the next twelve weeks as broad text is translated into detailed annexes.


Pleasant Surprises:


Iran Only Permitted to Use IR-1s for Enrichment for Next Ten Years


At one time, the Administration was prepared to concede to Iran the flexibility to deploy various centrifuge models at its own discretion, so long as overall enrichment capability remained under an ironclad SWU ceiling.  In other words, if Iran was limited to an operational capacity of 7500 SWU per year, it would be the AEOI’s choice as to whether to deploy a larger number of the inefficient IR-1 centrifuges or introduce a smaller number of more advanced machines.  Although this formula would help ensure any prospective Iranian breakout timeline would not fall under one year, it contained a potentially fatal flaw – enabling Tehran to exploit production-scale enrichment to further develop and perfect more advanced centrifuges.


Under this agreement, however, Iran will only be permitted to enrich uranium with 5060 IR-1 machines at Natanz, which means the P-5+1 has frozen Iran’s enrichment program at existing levels for the next ten years.  Not only are the IR-1 centrifuges woefully out of date and prone to high failure rates, Iran has been using these machines for almost a full decade.  In other words, it has nothing further to learn from continued enrichment with this technology, and the next decade becomes a “lost decade” when it comes to the modernization of Iran’s enrichment program.


Broad Constraints on Iran’s R&D Capability


Some critics argue that, because Iran will be permitted to continue limited research and development on the IR-2, IR-4, IR-5, IR-6, and IR-8 models over the next decade, it can use the next decade to master operation of these more advanced models and launch a more powerful enrichment program once constraints under the CJPOA begin coming off.  Yet this argument ignores the significant differences between limited, small-scale testing of individual centrifuges in a laboratory setting and production-scale operations employing large centrifuge cascades where actual enrichment can occur.  The halting progress of Iran’s enrichment program over the past fifteen years underlines the difficulty its scientists have faced when taking laboratory-scale technology into a real world setting.  Without the ability to test these advanced models with actual enrichment and utilizing production-scale cascades, Iran will only make incremental progress in developing more advanced centrifuge models.


Comprehensive Transparency and Verification Requirements


As Jeffrey has so usefully argued before, the real danger from Iran’s nuclear program is not a breakout involving one of its overt facilities, but rather Iran’s use of a civilian nuclear program to camaflouge covert facilities/activities where inspectors are not present.  The best means to ferret out a covert program is a broad-based set of inspections, verification requirements, and transparency measures that aims to detect the production of fissile material at every iterative step of the process – from the initial milling/mining of natural uranium to the final steps of weapons grade enrichment or reprocessing of spent fuel rods.

And that is exactly what the U.S. and P5+1 negotiators have managed to achieve.  Whether it involves continuous surveillance of uranium mines and mills or access to the production facilities where Iranian centrifuges – and key parts like bellows and rotors – are assembled and manufactured, the agreement covers all the bases remarkably well.  While “anytime, anywhere” access was never a realistic objective, the Iranian agreement to concede IAEA access to any suspicious sites where covert enrichment – and necessary precursor steps like uranium conversion, yellowcake production, and centrifuge manufacturing — may be occurring is an important one.  For the duration of this agreement, it will be extremely challenging for Iran to carry out a covert program on its own soil.


And The Not-So-Good Stuff:


The Curious Language Surrounding Iran’s AP “Implementation”


Longtime ACW readers are quite familiar with the tortured history of Iran and the Additional Protocol.  Iran originally signed the AP in 2003, but never got around to ratifying it.  Several years later, when the United Nations Security Council formally took up the Iran file, Tehran retaliated in part by suspending its implementation of the AP, where it has stood ever since.  Getting Iran back into compliance with the AP has always been a key objective, not least because this agreement is uniquely constructed to help ferret out potential covert activities to produce fissile material.

It is for that reason why the language in the U.S. fact sheet outlining Iran’s commitment here is so curious.  The fact sheet only declares that “Iran has agreed to implement the Additional Protocol of the IAEA”.  It does not specify the duration of this commitment; will Iran only implement the AP for a period of ten, fifteen or twenty five years, or is this an indefinite commitment?   If the latter, then why doesn’t Iran agree to take the necessary steps to eventually ratify the AP?  The joint statement read out by the EU High Representative and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif is even more disconcerting, as it refers only to the “provisional application” by Iran of the Additional Protocol.

Resumed Iranian compliance with the AP has always been assumed to be one of the easy “gets” in any final agreement, not least because the AP is in no way specific to Iran; it is a universal agreement which the vast majority of other NPT signatories have signed and ratified.  Iranian insistence that it be treated like every other normal NPT state holds no water when it comes to AP ratification – because that is what normal NPT states have already done!

I don’t have any good guesses on Iranian motivations here.  There may have been a reluctance by the Iranian negotiating team to commit to future action involving ratification by the Majles when that may be out of their lane of authority.  Any final agreement should better flesh out the specifics of what Iran will do when it comes to AP implementation and lay out a clear rationale if that implementation will be time-limited.


Last and Perhaps Least – the PMD Dossier


And, finally, the long nettlesome issue of investigating and documenting Iran’s past efforts to develop a nuclear warhead capable of fitting onto a ballistic missile.  The U.S. intelligence community concluded in 2007 that Iran halted such efforts in 2003, although concerns have persisted to this day on whether some elements have continued at low levels.   Those critics who have insisted that any comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program include a full accounting of such efforts are likely to be disappointed by the language in the U.S. fact sheet:  “Iran will implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns” regarding the PMD issue.  Negotiators may have reached agreement on a much more detailed set of understandings on what these measures entail, but I doubt it.  Iran has agreed to “measures” on PMD before, most recently in 2013 in the run-up to the agreement on an interim accord, yet then proceeded to largely ignore its implementation, even while continuing intensive talks with the P5+1 on a broader agreement.


All this points to an unavoidable reality:  like it or not, if an Iran deal is ultimately to succeed, the quest for a full accounting of Iran’s past activities may have to be sacrificed.  Put yourself into the shoes of a U.S. negotiator.  You recognize upfront that you will not get everything you want from Iran and you will have to accordingly prioritize.  Eventually, you may have to choose between insisting on tougher constraints on Iran’s future nuclear activities that serve the purpose of deterring both an overt and covert breakout vs. an exhaustive historical inquiry that assesses what exactly Iranian physicists may have been doing in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  For most folks, the decision there is relatively straightforward.


Some argue that it will be very difficult to identify future covert Iranian nuclear weapons efforts without a detailed understanding of what happened before.  I’m not so sure.  It is not clear if the individuals involved with the previous Amad Plan would be the ones tapped again for a future covert program or whether a clear understanding of their previous actions would help identify future efforts.


What is of some concern is where this leaves the IAEA and its Director General – Yukiya Amano.  DG Amano in some respects has served as the necessary skunk at the picnic on this issue – reminding everyone that the allegations surrounding PMD remains an outstanding piece of the puzzle.  If this deal is completed and then implemented in good faith by all sides, there may come a time when the PMD issue will have to be gently brushed aside.  Let’s hope that the good Director General doesn’t get caught in the stampede.



















  1. peter huessy, president of geostrategic analysis (History)

    A colleague writes from Israel: “The details of the deal are not important. Iran will or will not make nuclear weapons as it sees fit. The significance of the deal is the deal itself, especially the fact that it is being concluded while Iran is busy digesting another country (Yemen). The deal will make Iran the richest and most powerful country in the Middle East, eventually dominating it – all this with US blessing (and eventually with restored diplomatic relations, see Cuba). I cannot but agree with the NY Times that this is part of Obama’s vision of disengaging from the Middle East. No wonder the Saudis and the Gulf States are in fear for their lives.”

    I would add: The administration says tougher sanctions are not useful and in fact in the NPR interview said sanctions didn’t work–the ACA’s Kimball makes that point saying during the sanctions period Iran dramatically increased its operating centrifuges.

    But what is the solution proffered by the administration should disputes remain? Sanctions will “snap” back! Who thinks of these metaphors? Fortune cookie analysis if there ever was!

    Sanctions never snapped into place in the first place and no business will invest in the Iran oil and gas sector, for example, without some long term prospect of success–such projects take a longtime often to materialize.

    If not sanctions or military pressure, what’s available?

    Dr. Brzezinski gave us a clue years ago: we had to limit the effect of sanctions, otherwise China and Russia would not agree at the UN to vote for them. But he also said sanctions would not ultimately end the Iranian nuclear program. But without such “international cooperation” the only option was war and thus we had to maintain the charade of international cooperation even though the cooperative work on sanctions–weak as the cooperation often was–would not stop the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons.

    This morning that is exactly what Secretary Schultz and Secretary Kissinger explain in sharp detail in the WSJ.

    The arms control wonk and his colleagues are simply stretching credulity when they equate IAEA monitoring with anything other than what has been the history of such efforts–better now under the current leadership of IAEA for sure, but a disaster under his two successors. After all, did IAEA find the nuclear programs in North Korea, Libya, Iraq or Syria? No. They were wonderful watchdogs face down in their bowls of Viennese Alpo, sound asleep. Disputes will arise–repeatedly. The key is how they are meant to be resolved. Everybody says we go to the UN, to the IAEA, to sanctions…Is not this exactly how we ended up where we are now?

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Right, so let’s back up on the Israeli and Neocon point of view here.

      Underlying assumption: Iran is a serious threat.
      Underlying assumption: Iran is not going to stop on their own.
      Underlying assumption: Containment has not worked.
      Conclusion: We must fight a war to end them as a threat.

      Each of those is subject to interesting discussions and has some validity. The conclusion, however, assumes that the three assumptions are absolute ground truth with no grey in the picture, and that war therefore is the only possible response other than backing down and ceding the area to an internal war.

      The Gulf states are prudently aligning in ways that they can execute that strategy if forced to, but not asking for it outright.

      Israel is threatened by destabilization now (mediated by willingness to fight wars to reduce), and by conventional missiles now (mediated by apparently workable missile defenses), and potentially by nuclear weapons.

      I understand why Israel wants a war; I understand why they want us to fight it. The problem with that is that it’s not our only option, EVEN IF our core goal is preventing or delaying to the longest period possible an Iranian nuclear bomb. Especially if we consider that Iran is likely to abrogate any agreement and the NPT if their nuclear program is attacked short of a general war to defeat their regime and introduce regime change.

      Let us simplify to three scenarios:

      1. We get agreement and for 20+ years they have no bomb.
      1.a …and conventionally contain them on other aggressiveness with no war.
      1.b …and we end up having to fight the war (3) below because containment fails.

      2. We bomb, but do not invade, and 10 years from now they’ve rebuilt so deep we can’t bomb again, and 15 years from now have a bomb.

      3. We invade, committing as much combined force as we had in all of Iraq and Afghanistan with all our allies combined, against an enemy who is frankly militarily in much better shape than Iraq was after 1993 until 2004 and is much larger. We can do that and defeat them, but the almost certain legacy is another violent chaos zone with terrorism and violence breeding and exported around the region in harder to contain ways.

      The naive “bomb” asks that we believe 2 will just work. It won’t. Anyone who argues for 2 needs to be confronted that in 5 to 10 years we are faced with 3 then or a bomb in another 5-10, and their conventional forces will have spent that much time getting ready for us so our casualties will be much higher.

      We can do that, but the question is, is that the best or smartest or wisest answer.

      We, the NPT community who seem to be concluding that the framework agreement can do 1 if finalized appropriately and effectively, need to make it VERY CLEAR that 3 is what bombing gets, not 2. We need to be in the pro-bombing parties’ faces about it, in the press, and bringing it up in sound bites (“ten thousand dead american soldiers the year we go to war”…) etc.

      We also have to acknowledge that 1a. containment and 1b. containment then war are possibilities and risks, so we don’t completely avoid risk of war anyways, but the argument is fairly easy that “we’re going to war to prevent them invading Saudi Arabia” (which we did against Iraq, in the 90s) versus going to war to prevent a nuke when we could have negotiated.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Sanctions did not directly end the Iranian nuclear program, but they have brought Iran to the negotiating table. If the negotiations result in a good deal (and I don’t mean “perfect” wish fulfillment), we effectively persuade Iran to stop its covert pursuit of nuclear weapons.

      War is the most expensive option (both in money and lives) for dissuading Iran. A deal is far less costly, by orders of magnitude. Why pay more than you have to get the outcome you want? You might as well pay $5,000,000 for a car you could have bought for $5,000.

      I also don’t see the benefit of war, if the alternative is a good deal. George’s option #2, bomb their existing nuclear facilities, is self-defeating as it would likely motivate even more strenuous efforts to obtain a bomb. George’s option #3, invade and change the regime is a multi-trillion dollar cost, where the “benefit” may be a regime even worse or just plain chaos.

      A good deal also motivates Iran to pursue the path of no bomb. If Iran cheats anyway, the options of reimposing sanctions and/or war still remain.

    • krepon (History)

      I would like to pile on here.
      I remember when SALT was a big mistake because of Soviet inroads into the Horn of Africa.

    • krepon (History)

      Permit me to pile on here:
      I remember back when SALT was a mistake because of Soviet inroads into the Horn of Africa. And Angola.
      Thanks for sharing.

  2. George William Herbert (History)

    I would like to emphasize and go beyond the last point, on PMD.

    I am already hearing press rumblings of attacks on the vagueness of PMD disclosure and threats that a final agreement would get blocked by Congress without PMD disclosure and the like.

    I am on the record that I would like PMD disclosure (very much) but that in real terms, here and now, PMD disclosure *means nothing about* the scope of whether we can prevent an Iranian breakout or sneakout in the future.

    Breakout is covered by making an agreement which is comprehensive enough and good enough to them that they fulfil it. Sneakout is covered by intrusively inspecting the whole process from raw ore to centrifuge factories to centrifuge floors to enriched fuel assembly tracking. If that is covered adequately in the final agreement, and the framework looks good there, then our chances of detecting a sneakout happening rise to very very high.

    We can worst-case bound the sneakout case PMD non-disclosure risk by assuming that everything we think we know is in fact true, and then some. What we think we know (worst case) is that a R265 was designed that fits in a warhead for their IRBMs, that it was tested through 2003 with a natural uranium core in a Parchin test chamber with multiple shots and a penetrating core density mapper device. Assuming those tests were successful (worst case) then they have on the shelf a design (and, worst case, actual test or combat units of the bomb) which lacks only HEU cores in the “20 kg” range to name a sample significant quantity of HEU fissile material we’d need to watch for. With that (times whatever number of bombs) they’d be either live or one assembly step away from live.

    Worse-worst-case, assuming things we don’t think we know but might guess, would include more conventional and efficient implosion systems with lower HEU quantity required, down into the “15 kg” range, and which might fit on their smaller missile systems. For giggles we could also tag on them having successfully cloned the W33 as an artillery, rocket, or missile delivered weapon with “50 kg” of HEU, if they thought they could consume mass quantities.

    Even if we assume worst-worst-case there is no sign of a weapons system that could go thermonuclear on any missile they have.

    • Cameron (History)

      Thanks for making this statement so clearly. To make the negotiating issue as clear as possible I’d add the following.

      Like in any FP negotiation, with PMD everyone should just assume the worst case, that there is an Iranian program, that it has advanced past the blank shot testing phase, and that a IRBM design is ready to be fitted with fissible material. Either:

      a) it’s true and Iran wants or thinks in the future it might need a nuke or 6.

      In this scenario Iran has all the components and knowledge to build a weapon with 15-20 kg of HEU. What’s the best case scenerio here, short of memory wipes from the Men In Black? Keeping them from the HEU that is needed to complete a bomb is the ideal solution, and we enter into your 3 options.

      b) it’s false, but not provable

      Maybe Iran had 3 copies of “The Manhattan Project” and the latest Oppenheimer bio on a shelf and refered to it as a nuclear program as a negotiating ploy.

      Or they had a full fledged research program and shut it down in the face of sanctions and investigations before more than basic research. There’s no way to 100% convince -political- (I’m looking at you Bibi) actors of this. In this case those fears have to be taken into account when crafting any negotiating position, and we’ve come back to sub a.

      c) it’s false, and provable

      To quote that great American philosopher Homer Jay Simpson: In theory, communism works. In theory.

      No set of cirumstances short of war, followed by an archival hunt after a peaceful capture of all documents and facilities involved would satisfy those who believe that Iran has a program. Some of them probably still think Iraq does.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      The proposed rebuttal against “c) it’s false, and provable” is not airtight. The evidence must be available only to prove to reasonable people that something is so, not necessarily to prove it to every crackpot and extremist. People and governments in Russia, China, and Europe, and even some political parties in Israel and U.S. are likely to be reasonable.

      I’m also not sure how you can have a search anywhere, talk to anyone, intrusive type of safeguards agreement, but then say, no, you can’t search Parchin and you can’t talk to our nuclear scientists. Maybe there is some “clean” way to separate investigation of past PMD from prevention of future PMD, but I am not sure it will be easy in practice. In any case, an investigation can lead to a presentation of facts, either public or confidential, that IAEA can interpret one way and Iran can interpret another way.

    • Cameron (History)

      Jonah, I’m afraid we’re coming from different points on point c. The convincing to “reasonable people” standard doesn’t take into account the sheer number of non-reasonable people who are involved in shaping the response to these negotiations. I tried to be flippant because I don’t want to sound crazily partisan, and I fear a longer response will sound a bit frothing at the mouth. But here we go:

      The Neocons – they shape a large/all of US Congressional Republican views on foreign policy, and they believe that Iran can never be trusted and wants nukes. In this situation nothing short of occupation level investigation is going to work, due more to the occupation than the investigation. [I still recall where I was when Rumsfeld went on TV and said that we’d never find the WMDs without Iraqi help. I don’t remember how long I swore at him, or how much I drank.]

      Bibi – comes a bit under the Neocons, but also believes that his national self-interest lies in convincing the US to go to war with the only regional actor in the Middle East that he views as an immediate strategic threat to Israel. Has the ear of the folks listed above.

      here’s where I stop before I start to sound crazy when talking about Cotton’s links to defense contractors and Obama derangement syndrome, but to sum up, a lot of powerful actors involved in this are not, sadly, as rational as they should be.

  3. Rob Goldston (History)

    This discussion seems to have missed the sentence in the US paper, “All past UN Security Council resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue will be lifted simultaneous with the completion, by Iran, of nuclear-related actions addressing all key concerns (enrichment, Fordow, Arak, PMD, and transparency).”

    For my money, I don’t think the Iranians need to be ashamed that/if they worked on nuclear weapons up to 2003. The President of the United States was telling the world that their arch-enemy Iraq was loaded with them. However they do need to be transparent about whatever they did, so the IAEA can know who/what/where and track these 3 W’s, and where they lead, into the future.

  4. George William Herbert (History)

    Here is why we can and should ignore PMD if we have to:

    We can safely assume worst case, and we know what that is.

    Once we do that, all that matters is making sure that 15-20 kg of WG HEU never make it into those presumed bombs, by making sure they never make it.

    Even a full reveal of PMD *would never prove* there wasn’t another set of plans, another bomb factory working off them without any tracable connection, etc. You both can’t prove a negative and can’t find one rogue machineshop in a modern industrial nation-state from outside.

    Even with full disclosure the only way to be sure is prevent the fissile production.

    Just do that.

  5. Paul (History)

    I’m always puzzled by discussions of Iran’s nuclear program that do not mention Israels. How can we critique the situation and omit mentioning the 50-200 nucs Israel developed in secret and the veiled threats to use them.

    Also not mentioned is that Israel did not sign the nuclear proliferation treaty. It makes one wonder whether all Iran would have to do to get sanctions lifted is to abrogate their participation in that treaty as Israel has done?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      It’s easy to omit Israel for the same reason we omit, say, Pakistan — Iran’s nuclear program is not driven by Israel. It’s a convenient talking point for Iranian officials, but if Israel had no nuclear weapons, the situation with Iran would be exactly the same.

  6. jeannick (History)

    At a first glance , it seems pretty clear the Iranians are dead set of finding themselves into the endless inspections Iraq was submitted to , for no purpose , no sanctions lifting and no security guarantee , in fact while UN inspectors were busy affirming there was no WMD
    the sanctions had been maintained and bombs were falling on Bagdad ,

    so on the two main points
    “Resumed Iranian compliance with the AP has always been assumed to be one of the easy “gets” in any final agreement, not least because the AP is in no way specific to Iran; it is a universal agreement .”

    that was a tool to go anywhere , anytime and inspect Iraq military capability
    Same with Parchin or any other site inspectors would see fit to go to , a refusal by the Iranians would then be an excuse for not lifting sanctions .
    making unacceptable demands would then be a way for the US of welshing on the deal.

    ” Eventually, you may have to choose between insisting on tougher constraints on Iran’s future nuclear activities that serve the purpose of deterring both an overt and covert breakout vs. an exhaustive historical inquiry”

    the point is does the US want to limit Iran to a civilian nuclear program or does it want to keep the sanctions ?

    I can’t really work it out but today’s congress deal with the administration leave little choice for Teheran but demand the immediate repeal of the United Nations sanctions ,It doesn’t require any congress approval leaving it to a new Bush administration must be sending shivers down Iranians spines