July 21, 2015

15 Questions on the Iran Agreement


  • Congress must be vigilant in reviewing the final agreement with Iran, given the many concerns it raises.

  • The inspection regime does not meet the “anywhere, anytime” standard that was promised. Rather, it is a time of Iran’s choosing.

  • President Obama promised that sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program would remain in place. Instead, many of them will be lifted.


The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing with Cabinet secretaries to review the agreement over Iran’s illicit nuclear program. President Obama said, “this deal meets every single one of the bottom lines that were established when we achieved a framework earlier this spring.” There are many questions the administration should answer to establish whether that is the case and, ultimately, whether this agreement is good for America.

1. The administration promised “anywhere, anytime” inspections of Iran’s nuclear program. Why did the administration break that promise?

In April, when the framework for the final agreement was announced, the secretary of energy said, “we expect to have anywhere, anytime access” to Iran’s nuclear facilities under the final agreement. This reaffirmed the position of President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, who proclaimed, “under this deal [we] will have anywhere, anytime, 24/7 access” to Iran’s nuclear facilities. The reality of the final agreement does not match this rhetoric. President Obama signaled the shift himself when he announced the final agreement, saying inspectors will have access “where necessary, when necessary.” There is a process for deciding what is necessary; meanwhile, Iran gets to stonewall the inspectors for up to 24 days.

Inspections any time Iran chooses

Iran inspections timeline

Under the agreement, the IAEA can “request” access to a location of concern. Iran can contest this request, and it has two weeks to negotiate the matter. If the situation is not resolved within 14 days, it is turned over to the Joint Commission composed of the eight parties to this final agreement. They have up to seven days to resolve the issue by majority vote, and Iran must implement that resolution within three days. That is not “anytime,” that is at a time of Iran’s choosing.

2. If Iran’s nuclear program was “frozen” under the interim agreement, why did its stockpile of enriched uranium actually grow?

President Obama, his administration, and his arms control surrogates continually claimed Iran’s nuclear program was “frozen” under the interim agreement. Vice President Biden repeated that claim just a few months ago. Yet the president’s own statements show this not to be the case. In the autumn of 2013, when President Obama was preparing to enter into the interim agreement, Iran probably had enough low-enriched uranium for 1-3 nuclear weapons at most, if enriched fully to weapons-grade. In announcing the final agreement, President Obama said, “Iran currently has a stockpile that could produce up to 10 nuclear weapons.” A five-fold increase in capability is hardly a nuclear program that is frozen.

3. How do we know Iran cannot sanitize a nuclear site while it impedes inspector access?

According to a former deputy administrator at the National Nuclear Security Administration, this ability to impede the access of inspectors provides “ample time for Iran to hide or destroy evidence.” President Obama disagrees. He says that “if there is nuclear material on that site,” it “leaves a trace,” and so we will know “there was a violation of the agreement.” This difference of opinion needs to be resolved.

4. Can we believe Iranian claims about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program?

Iran has a longstanding international legal obligation to resolve concerns about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. In 2006, the U.N. Security Council in Resolution 1737 required Iran to “provide such access and cooperation as the IAEA requests ... to resolve all outstanding issues, as identified in IAEA reports.”

In addition to the P5+1 negotiations regarding Iran’s illicit nuclear program, there is a parallel diplomatic track between Iran and the IAEA called the “Framework for Cooperation.” This is directed at ensuring the “exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.” A November 2011 IAEA report included a 12-page annex providing detailed analysis of the IAEA’s “serious concerns” about the possible military nature of Iran’s nuclear program. The Framework for Cooperation was agreed to in November 2013 to provide a process to address these concerns. Not surprisingly, Iran has yet to implement it.

At the very end of the P5+1 negotiation resulting in the final agreement, Iran and the IAEA announced yet another “Roadmap” process to address IAEA concerns, this time by the end of this year. The final agreement references this Roadmap, saying Iran will fully implement it by October 15. This would allow the IAEA to provide a final assessment of the matter by December 15. It is unclear if there are any consequences for the final agreement if Iran does not follow the Roadmap. President Obama has once again punted this issue to the IAEA.

5. What are the consequences if Iran does not fully resolve issues about the possible military aspects of its nuclear program?

The November 2011 IAEA report identified 12 areas of concern for the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. These concerns included experimentation with high explosives used to trigger a nuclear weapon and “activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” The report also outlined the many activities “Iran has carried out ... that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” These include “work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon, including the testing of components.”

The report said that while some of Iran’s nuclear activities have both civilian and military applications, some of the activities “are specific to nuclear weapons.” It discussed how Iran conducted at least 14 progressive design iterations related to elements of loading a nuclear warhead on the Shahab-3 missile to deliver to a target. The report found at the time that some of these weapons-related activities “may still be ongoing.” The IAEA continues to reaffirm, as recently as two months ago, that it is “not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

This information is critical to knowing Iran’s true breakout timeline for obtaining a nuclear weapon and to obtaining a baseline to verify Iranian compliance with the agreement. If the extent of Iran’s past nuclear research is not known – along with information on where the research was done and who was involved in it – then there is no way inspectors can credibly conclude they are monitoring the entire expanse of Iran’s program.

It is unclear if sanctions relief can be withheld under the final agreement if Iran does not resolve these issues to the satisfaction of the IAEA. It is also unclear what happens if it turns out that Iran engaged in weapons work for longer than we thought, or in activity we did not know about.

6. Why does Parchin have a special carve-out from this process?

The IAEA Roadmap provides that the parties “agreed on another separate arrangement regarding the issue of Parchin.” It is a military complex where weapons research allegedly took place and that has reportedly been sanitized. The IAEA alleges that this was the place where Iran conducted “high explosive testing, possibly in association with nuclear materials.”

This type of work is done for no other reason than testing how to make a nuclear weapon. As one Lawrence Livermore scientist explained, “high explosives are an essential ingredient in every nuclear weapon.” In March 2014, 83 Senators signed a letter to the president describing the “core principles” any final agreement with Iran must include. One of them was that Iran “must fully explain the questionable activities in which it engaged at Parchin.”

It seems critical to understand how the Roadmap plans to clarify what possible nuclear weapons activity took place specifically at Parchin. It was even more critical that it be part of the final agreement, with consequences for not completely resolving the issue, rather than as part of a separate process with the IAEA.

7.  Why was the uranium path to a bomb not decimated the way the plutonium path was?

Iran’s plutonium program at Arak, a heavy water nuclear reactor, seems to be physically devastated. The reactor will be redesigned to minimize the production of plutonium and to not produce weapons-grade plutonium at all. Internal elements of the reactor will be rendered inoperable, by filling up parts of it with concrete.

The uranium path, however, will not be similarly rendered inoperable. Not a single centrifuge will be dismantled. Iran will still be able to enrich uranium up to 3.67 percent purity, which represents about 70 percent of the work effort required to get to weapons-grade levels of enrichment. Iran can do research and development on advanced centrifuges. There has been no explanation why the uranium path was not rendered as physically inoperative as the plutonium path.

8. How quickly will Iran’s breakout time decrease after the enrichment limits sunset?

Iran agreed to voluntarily limit its uranium enrichment activities under this final agreement for a period of time. When that period of time expires, however, there will likely be no limitation upon Iran to move to an industrial enrichment capacity if it so chooses. When the limits on enrichment and other activities provided in this agreement sunset, the administration has not said how quickly Iran’s breakout time will decrease.

9. Is this agreement just buying time for a new regime to take hold in Iran?

The New York Times noted on March 14 that “the Obama administration is betting ... a different, or at least a more cooperative, Iranian regime will be in power” by the time this agreement expires. It was similarly argued the North Korean regime would collapse before the 1994 Agreed Framework with that country had to be fully implemented. North Korea still has a belligerent regime that treats the United States as an enemy, except that now it is armed with nuclear weapons. There is no reason to believe the outcome of this Iran agreement will be any different.

10. Why are the U.N. arms embargo and missile limitations not incorporated into the agreement?

In defending this final agreement, President Obama said, “the multilateral arms embargo on Iran will remain in place for an additional five years, and restrictions on ballistic missile technology will remain for eight years.” This is not part of the final agreement, however, although it is a part of the U.N. Security Council Resolution endorsing the final agreement. This appears to have been a last-minute demand of Iran that should have been easily rejected. As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Senate Armed Services Committee this month, “under no circumstances should we relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking.” Instead, it was just one of a series of capitulations that form this agreement. It is the latest advice from military commanders the president rejected.

To be sure, the arms embargo and ballistic missile limitations were levied as a consequence for Iran’s illicit nuclear program. Under the terms of the U.N. Security Council Resolutions imposing these restrictions, Iran was required to do many things in order for those restrictions to be lifted. Most notably, Iran was to suspend all enrichment-related activities, including research and development. That was a demand by the international community, not just the U.S. Iran never suspended its enrichment, and now that is no longer required. Indeed, the final agreement specifically contemplates that Iran will continue to enrich uranium and conduct enrichment research and development.

If the lifting of the arms embargo and other limitations were made part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it would seem Iran would have to comply with those limitations in order to properly gain sanctions relief.

11. Will Iran have to comply with its legal obligations on transferring arms before the limitations are lifted?

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1747 placed a binding legal obligation on Iran prohibiting it from transferring “any arms or related materiel” from its territory. President Obama proclaimed at his press conference that “arms coming in and out of Iran are prohibited” for another five years. Iran has never complied with this obligation, as shown by its support for the Assad regime in Syria, for the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, and its support to Houthi rebels in Yemen.

12. Will the U.S. increase resources for our missile defenses to counter Iran’s access to ballistic missile technology?

The director of national intelligence has already explained the significant threat Iran’s ballistic missile program poses. Just this year he testified to Congress that Iran “has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East,” and it has the “means and motivation to develop longer-range missiles” directed at threatening the United States. This threat is only going to become worse under this agreement.

Both multilateral and U.S. sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program will be lifted. In endorsing this agreement, the United Nations Security Council put in place a plan to lift multilateral sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program. The United States sanctioned Iranian financial institutions because of their support for Iran’s missile program. Many of these sanctions will now be lifted.

This is the exact opposite of the promise President Obama made three months ago in announcing the framework for this final agreement. The White House fact sheet said “important restrictions on conventional arms and ballistic missiles” would remain in place. It added that “U.S. sanctions on ... ballistic missiles will remain in place under the deal.”

The missile defense program has suffered greatly under President Obama. One of his first major decisions with respect to missile defense was to propose cutting funding for the Missile Defense Agency by $1.4 billion. There was then the unilateral abrogation of signed missile defense agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic. Finally, contrary to the certification he provided to Congress as part of New START, he cancelled Phase Four of the European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense plan, which was specifically designed to increase protection for the U.S. homeland. The Obama administration should rededicate itself to increasing U.S. homeland missile defense capabilities, given that Iran’s ballistic missile threat will increase as a direct consequence of this agreement.

13. Does the U.N. resolution endorsing this agreement bind the United States?

Secretary of State Kerry testified to Congress a few months ago he was “not negotiating a legally binding plan” with this final agreement. It appears the Obama Administration is trying to create the impression it has changed the non-legally binding plan into a binding plan by this Security Council action.

Even if that is considered to have happened, thereby breaking the secretary’s promise, it is inarguable that the U.S. Congress has the domestic legal authority to legislate inconsistently with this international plan. It is telling that President Obama decided to seek the legitimization of this agreement by the United Nations before seeking it from Congress.

14. Will we have 24/7 access to Iran’s undeclared nuclear sites?

President Obama has said, “we’ll have 24/7 inspections of [Iran’s] declared nuclear facilities.” Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director, has said that if there is not a covert, undeclared nuclear facility in Iran, it will be the first time in 20 years that is the case.

15. When will the Obama administration stop making the false choice claim that it is either this agreement or war?

President Obama is fond of labeling things “a false choice.” Now he continues to perpetuate the false choice that Iran’s nuclear program is addressed either by this particular agreement “or war.” This is insulting, because the third option of using a stricter sanctions regime to obtain a better diplomatic agreement was never really tested.

President Obama continually opposed the strengthening of the Iran sanctions regime he now embraces as having brought Iran to the table. This may explain why sanctions were not vigorously enforced until late in his first term. His administration did not sanction its first Chinese oil company for doing business with Iran until January 2012, even though then-Secretary of State Clinton admitted a year earlier that there were Chinese entities violating U.S. sanctions law. It may also explain why President Obama demands waivers to legislative sanctions regimes and then sprinkles them liberally around the world. After Congress enacted sanctions to hinder the purchase of Iranian crude oil, President Obama waived sanctions if countries were merely limiting their crude oil purchases rather than halting it completely.

These sanctions were certainly hurting the Iranian economy in 2013. The administration then opposed legislative efforts to tighten these sanctions even more, and they never came to pass. Instead, as the Iranian economy cratered, President Obama gave it a lifeline in the form of $700 million a month in hard currency in the interim nuclear agreement. This gave Iranians significant relief to extract concessions from the Obama negotiating team in reaching the final agreement.

Despite all of President Obama’s claims to the contrary, the deal now before the Congress is not the only diplomatic deal there was to be had with Iran. A more stringent and vigorously enforced sanctions regime was never really tried. It is a false statement to assert otherwise.

It is time to address the deal’s shortcomings

This agreement accepts Iran as a nuclear threshold state. Iran will not dismantle many important parts of its uranium enrichment infrastructure. Not a single centrifuge will be destroyed. This seems to be done on the premise that a better relationship can be built with Iran during the course of this agreement.

Yet there is no reason to believe this will happen. Iran is holding Americans hostage, and it continues to support Assad in Syria and Palestinian terrorist groups. It is engaged in destabilizing activity throughout the region, like in Yemen. President Obama even admitted this type of behavior is likely to continue during implementation of this deal, expressing hope that this agreement “will incentivize [Iran] to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative, to operate the way we expect nations in the international community to behave. But we’re not counting on it.”

His national security adviser said, “we should expect that some portion of that money [coming from sanctions relief] would go to the Iranian military and could potentially be used for the kinds of bad behavior that we have seen in the region up until now.” She went on to say that Iran is “sending money now while they’re under sanctions” to those type of activities anyway, and “they will have more money” to do that when sanctions are lifted under this agreement. This is hardly a ringing endorsement for the benefits of this agreement. As President Obama said, “this deal is not contingent on Iran changing its behavior.”

And so the ultimate question is, since this Iranian regime is likely not going away for a while, just like North Korea’s belligerent regime did not collapse when it signed such an agreement, can we afford to allow Iran to have the nuclear program it will be allowed to have at the end of this deal? President Obama wants this question answered long after he is gone. Congress should answer it now.

Issue Tag: National Security