The Iran Nuclear Agreement: What Comes Next?

Remarks at the Heritage Foundation, Washington D.C.

The nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 was officially implemented in January 2016.  As a result, Iran has agreed to restrict the most worrisome parts of its known nuclear program—in particular, its uranium enrichment capability—for a period of about ten years.  It is wrong to assume, however, that the proliferation problem has been resolved, or that the threat has gone away.  It has not; it has just shifted.  Over the long term, there is a risk of a vastly expanded nuclear program because the restrictions imposed on Iran are not indefinite.  What happens in ten years?  In the nearer term, there is the Iranian ballistic missile threat.  Iran’s ongoing development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles is not an activity covered by the agreement.  There are also questions about how robustly the deal will be enforced because the agreement’s enforcement mechanisms have not been tested yet.

I would like to focus my remarks on these last two points: the enforcement of the nuclear deal—specifically inspections, the dispute resolution process, and the new procurement channel—and how the agreement has loosened restrictions on Iran’s missile work.

Inspections and Verification

Inspections are a major part of enforcing the terms of this agreement and ensuring the transparency the deal promised.  The IAEA is in charge of inspections and making sure that Iran maintains restrictions on its nuclear work.  The IAEA’s first report since the agreement was implemented came out in late February.  Instead of containing more information, there was less.

Before the agreement, the IAEA offered robust quarterly reporting, typically about 20 to 30 pages long.  This included detailed annexes, as well as updates on the IAEA’s investigation of allegations that Iran conducted nuclear weaponization work in the past—the so-called “possible military dimensions” or “PMD” investigation.   The February report, however, was only 10 pages long, offered very little detail, and offered no more reporting on the “PMD” investigation, which the IAEA officially closed despite not reaching definitive conclusions.  The result is less public visibility into Iran’s declared nuclear program, not more.

So there is already a question about IAEA reporting on standard, non-controversial access to declared nuclear sites in Iran.  What about undeclared sites?  If inspectors want access to a site not declared by Iran to be part of its nuclear program, then the IAEA needs to request a challenge inspection.  The agreement allows for this type of inspection, and obtaining access to such sites is a key part of ensuring that Iran is not operating secret sites as part of a clandestine nuclear program.  U.S. intelligence has long predicted that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, it will do so at covert facilities—not by “breakout” at its declared sites.  It is important to remember that many of the sites that today are known and part of Iran’s declared nuclear program were launched in secret.

The agreement is very specific about the process for launching a challenge inspection, which is supposed to take place within 24 days of an initial request by IAEA inspectors.  But how this will work in practice is not known.  The process has not been tested yet under the agreement, and past experience of trying to access undeclared sites in Iran has not been good.  There is the precedent of IAEA efforts to gain access to Parchin, a military site in Iran allegedly connected to nuclear weaponization work that the IAEA had been asking questions about for years.  After years of being stonewalled by Iran and observing extensive renovation at the site, the IAEA was reportedly granted the ability only to observe, via video monitoring, Iranian officials taking environmental samples at designated locations at Parchin.  The experience in other countries, such as Iraq and North Korea, is also cautionary.  In Iraq, inspectors had far more authority on the ground after the end of the First Gulf War, and it was still challenge—there were regular disputes and confrontations over access.

Dispute Resolution

Inspections of undeclared sites in Iran are just one area of likely dispute.  There is already disagreement about the pace of sanctions relief.  There could also be disagreement about the approvals or denials of transfers of nuclear technology to Iran.

A newly created Joint Commission was established to handle these disputes.  All parties to the agreement, including Iran, sit on this commission.  According the agreement, disputes are supposed to be resolved quickly—within 15 days.  This seems unlikely, however, because the procedures for how the commission will resolve disputes are highly bureaucratic.  The period of deliberation can be extended, outside advisors can be called in, and disputes can be sent up to the ministerial level.  The mechanism has not been tested, so it is difficult to pass judgment at this point.  But it will be critical to resolve any disputes—small or large—expeditiously and not let any ambiguities linger, or confidence in the agreement will gradually be undermined.

The Procurement Channel

The new U.N. procurement channel is the least well-defined aspect of the agreement and the least publicized.  The nuclear agreement established a dedicated procurement channel for authorized Iranian imports of sensitive nuclear and nuclear dual-use technology.  Before the agreement, Iran was not allowed to import any controlled nuclear and missile-related items, as well as most conventional arms.

The agreement relaxed some of these restrictions, specifically in the nuclear realm.  A Procurement Working Group was created to monitor the sensitive items Iran is now allowed to import.  It will operate for ten years and will review and decide on import requests for controlled nuclear goods.  The review process for requests is to take no more than 30 days.

The IAEA will be allowed to verify end-use locations of some approved nuclear imports that will be going to Iran’s nuclear sector.  Countries are allowed to verify the end use of approved nuclear imports that are intended for a non-nuclear civilian sector in Iran.  These are dual-use goods and technology that have other industrial or scientific application.

There are a number of open questions about how this channel will function:

  • The Procurement Working Group has met but does not appear to have reviewed any proposed sales.  When will goods start flowing into Iran?
  • Will procurement requests and decisions by the Group be made public?
  • How will the end-use of sensitive items from key supplier countries like Russia and China be monitored?  The reality is that countries with the most trade with Iran will be the least interested in doing robust end user or end-use checks.

It will be important to make sure that Iran strictly uses this channel for its imports of controlled technology.


The nuclear agreement has made it more difficult to enforce restrictions on Iran’s ongoing development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.  Previously, the U.N. prohibited all activity related to missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.  U.N. sanctions could be imposed on this activity.

But missiles were not included in the nuclear agreement, meaning the deal’s “snapback provision”—which allows any country to unilaterally re-impose U.N. sanctions on Iran in the case of significant non-performance—does not apply to missile violations.  The restrictions on Iran’s missile program are covered by a new U.N. Security Council resolution that prohibits work on missiles designed to carry nuclear weapons.  This wording allows Iran’s work to proceed because Iran claims its missiles are not designed for this purpose—though the missiles are inherently capable of carrying nuclear weapons and meet the Missile Technology Control Regime’s definition of nuclear-capable missiles.

There is also no longer an explicit U.N. ban on Iranian activity related to ballistic missiles. Under the new resolution, Iran is simply “called upon” not to test.  Iran is not heeding this call, and there have been at least three tests of Shahab-3 missile variants since October 2015.

The new resolution does restrict sales of missile technology to Iran for eight years.  But there is a provision in the resolution under which any country that wants to sell missile technology to Iran can do so by petition to the U.N. Security Council.  The U.N. is expected to tightly control the most sensitive items for the eight-year period, but it may allow certain dual-use imports, ostensibly for civilian purposes.  For instance, imports for Iran’s expanding space program could directly support Iran’s efforts to extend the range of its ballistic missiles.

Going forward, it will be very important to keep strong restrictions on these programs—internationally, to the extent possible, through the U.N., and through national enforcement, including investigations, shutting down illicit procurement networks, interdiction, and sanctions.