Iran Inches toward Implementation but Still Raises the Ire of Critics

Before US, EU, and UN sanctions can be suspended, the Iranians must first removal all but 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium from the country, deactivate the core of the Arak heavy water facility so it can no longer produce plutonium, and finish removing from operation several thousand centrifuge machines used for uranium enrichment.

The first of these measures has reportedly been completed, with the vast majority of Iran’s low-enriched uranium having been loaded onto a Russian shipping vessel this week for storage by what is arguably Iran’s main foreign partner. The work on Arak consists mainly of pouring cement and is not expected to take long.

Nonetheless, the overall process of implementation was initially estimated by Western analysts as lasting as much as six months. But despite early delays, the remaining work might be completed in a matter of a few weeks, according to not only Iranian officials but also International Atomic Energy Agency Executive Director Yukiya Amano.

On Friday, National Public Radio issued a sort of progress report on Iran’s implementation measures and indicated that the unexpected speed is partly attributable to the fact that Tehran is evidently not taking care to preserve the operability of first-generation centrifuges. Although this gives the initial impression of eager compliance with the nuclear deal, NPR points out that scrapping the older centrifuges may allow Iran to prepare initially-non-operational centrifuges that are more advanced and would ostensibly be used to replace equipment that breaks down.

But these moves could also decrease Iran’s breakout time for a nuclear weapon if it decides to break or cheat on the nuclear deal by running more centrifuges than it is technically permitted to under the JCPOA. These finer details of the implementation process are likely to contribute to the discord within Western policy circles about the long-term effects of the nuclear deal and the question of whether Iran or the Rouhani administration is trustworthy.

This discord has already been amplified by a series of provocative Iranian activities including two ballistic missile tests since the conclusion of the deal, and an incident in late December when IRGC naval vessels reportedly “test-fired” rockets within 1,500 yards of an American aircraft carrier. The US Treasury Department eventually responded to the first ballistic missile test by preparing new sanctions on entities with ties to the Iranian ballistic missile program. President Rouhani responded in turn by ordering his defense minister to accelerate the growth of Iran’s missile stockpiles.

The US subsequently drew back from its sanctions threat, apparently delaying them but keeping them “on the table.” Specific reasons were not publicly given, but this move could reflect either wariness about escalating the conflict over the missile issue or obsession with preserving the nuclear agreement and opening the Iranian oil and export markets.

The Obama administration’s policies over the past couple of years have been widely criticized both for weakness and for privileging economic issues over various persistent elements of the Iranian threat. European governments and business have been equally subject to this criticism, since they have been in many cases more eager to gain entry to the Iranian markets.

In a look ahead to the coming year in Iran, Al Arabiya indicated that US companies are increasingly worried about falling behind their European counterparts, since the threat of sanctions enforcement has remained in place inside the US, even as the Obama administration continues to pursue rapprochement.

Many companies are reportedly uncertain about the current status of the Iranian market and the extent to which it will be viable for them in the future. The institution of new sanctions would very likely contribute to that confusion, and it is therefore possible that this was a factor in the US Treasury’s decision to delay the new measures that would have constituted a response to Iranian provocations.

But the consequence of this, al Al Arabiya points out, is that the avoidance of new enforcement measures and the continuation of the implementation process serve to give Iran increased legitimacy, even in the wake of its defiant activities. This will help Iran to become, as NPR put it, “much more of a player on the global stage.” And it will also contribute to the trend of allowing foreign businesses into Iran to provide the country and its government with new funding.

Ironically, US businesses may not be prominent among those foreign investors, even though US policy is contributing to the changing situation. As eager as certain American entities are to enter the Iranian market, an editorial by David Ignatius that appeared in the Union-Sun & Journal on Friday emphasized that Iran is not yet open for business, at least for Americans.

This point was underscored by the observation that some of Iran’s recent provocations have specifically targeted American citizens and permanent residents inside of the Islamic Republic who are accused of facilitating “infiltration” of Iran by Western economic and cultural interests. 

This arrest followed upon warnings by the Iranian supreme leader about this sort of infiltration, and Ignatius suggests that it signifies an attempt to discourage Iranian-Americans from entering the country and to retain the current financial elite, mainly composed of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. This lends credence to Al Arabiya’s suggestion that in 2016, hardline entities will retain their hold over domestic issues in Iran regardless of what happens in the economic sphere.

In theory, the US Treasury’s decision to delay sanctions might encourage Americans to continue pursuing investment in Iran, but this effect will be mitigated if sanctions remain on the table, and it may be canceled altogether if Iranian officials make their country seem excessively dangerous for American investors. In this sense, the avoidance of new sanctions could have the effect of legitimizing Iran without contributing to the supposed economic benefits of rapprochement for the US.