More specifically, the document details how Iran will exploit that easing to begin to replace outmoded uranium enrichment centrifuges with advanced models that are capable of operating at much higher levels of efficiency. Whereas fewer of the new types of centrifuges will ultimately be installed, analysis of the newly obtained document suggests that the updates will result in Iran have twice its former enrichment capacity before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action even expires.
The significance of this revelation was downplayed by the US State Department and other advocates of the agreement, who emphasized that other restrictions will remain in place for as long as the JCPOA is in effect. These include provisions that limit the amount low-enriched uranium that the Islamic Republic is permitted to keep in the country at one time, and the deal’s advocates maintain that such limitations are sufficient to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Many of those same advocates have estimated that the JCPOA has pushed back Iran’s “breakout time” for a nuclear weapon to as much as 10 years. But increased efficiency in enrichment would presumably shrink that period greatly in the immediate aftermath of the deal. Meanwhile, the JCPOA’s detractors have persisted in disputing initial estimates, especially on the assumption that Iran will attempt to cheat on its compliance.
This assumption is arguably supported by a UN report that was released by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday regarding Iran’s compliance over the first six months since the implementation of the nuclear deal. While the report certified that Iran is apparently complying with its baseline requirements under that deal, it notes that the regime’s broader behaviors demonstrate a pattern of defiance, which violates and damages the overall spirit of the agreement.
These behaviors include the testing of ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and the smuggling of weapons to foreign conflict zones including Yemen and Iraq. According to the Wall Street Journal, Ban expressed concern that these activities would prevent the JCPOA from having the large-scale constructive effects that many in the international community seemed to expect in light of its signing last July. Meanwhile, many in the media seemed to conclude that the uncovered “side deal” amplified these concerns and made it more likely that Iran would continue to utilize the deal to improve its own long-term prospects while making no revisions to its long-term goals. The Christian Science Monitor report suggested this same conclusion when it said that the AP document indicated a lack of change in Tehran’s attitudes, even if it said nothing about the short-term effectiveness of the deal.
The Antiwar Blog responded to the so-called AP revelation by saying that the essential information was never really secret but had been discussed in briefings to the US Congress and had been reported in some other media. However, in this context the essential information is just the limitations on the length of full-scale restrictions on Iran’s enrichment. What the AP document does apparently reveal are the precise details of Iran’s plans for expanding aspects of its nuclear program as the JCPOA begins to wind down.
What the Associated Press also demonstrated in its reporting was that the revelation of the “side deal” has generated responses from Iranian officials, thereby adding to clarity about their apparent attitudes. For instance, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif – an instrumental personality in the negotiating of the JCPOA and a purported moderate alongside President Hassan Rouhani – declared that Tehran had created the document in question as a “matter of pride” for the Islamic Republic and thus would not be reconsidered.
Such references to national pride are highly reminiscent of Iranian commentary on the ballistic missile issue, a main source of the UN’s conclusions regarding limits on Iran’s compliance and cooperation. The Wall Street Journal notes that Iran denied the UN’s accusations of weapons smuggling but eagerly embraced the account of its ballistic missile tests and said that there was no room for compromise on the issue. At least six such tests have been carried out since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations, thereby putting the Islamic Republic at odds with a UN Security Council resolution that calls upon it to avoid such provocations.
Prior to the January implementation of the JCPOA, the relevant Security Council resolution had been more strongly worded, and had been used to justify additional US-led sanctions on individuals and firms connected to the ballistic missile program. In response, President Rouhani ordered the dramatic expansion of that program, and since then the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has made multiple propaganda broadcasts boasting of the size of Iran’s missile stockpiles.
This week, the Iranian Foreign Ministry responded with similar dismissiveness to the UN’s critical commentary on such provocative gestures. Xinhua News Agency reported that ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi had described the Ban’s report as “imbalanced and biased” as a result of having been “prepared under open pressure by the United States.”
Interestingly, just a day after this rebuttal was presented to Iranian media, another Foreign Ministry official made an apparent attempt to pressure the international community into criticizing US and urging a change in policy. According to Reuters, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, who had been the lead Iranian negotiator in the JCPOA discussions, participated in talks on Tuesday with the other parties to the nuclear negotiations and unilaterally declared that the world powers had agreed the US should remove banking restrictions on the Islamic Republic.
This message, that the US should “make more clarification and remove obstacles in the way of banking transactions with Iran,” preceded any public commentary on the talks by members of the P5+1 group, but they reflected longstanding grievances that Iranian officials have voiced over the implementation of the nuclear deal. Although the JCPOA resulted in suspension of nuclear-related sanctions, separate issues including Iran’s human rights violations and support for terrorism have remained in place and have apparently kept restraints on Iran’s would-be economic recovery.
Tehran’s response to this situation has been similar to the UN report on Iranian compliance, in that it claims the US is abiding by the letter of the agreement, but not its spirit. However, both advocates and detractors of the JCPOA on the Western side have claimed that the White House is going beyond its basic requirements by communicating extensively with would-be European investors and by some accounts giving the impression that investment in Iran is not only permitted but actively encouraged.
Meanwhile, Iran has been further criticized for failing to take basic steps that would bring it into compliance with universal requirements regarding access to the international banking system. This inaction reinforces the perception that the Islamic Republic refuses to move beyond the most basic requirements under the JCPOA, even as it accuses foreign powers of bias in their assessment of the deal’s trajectory.