Ask an Expert: Robert Einhorn on the 1-Year Anniversary of the Iran Nuclear Deal



Robert Einhorn is a senior fellow in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, both housed within the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. Einhorn served as the U.S. Department of State Special Advisor for Nonproliferation and Arms Control from 2009 to 2013 and participated in nuclear nonproliferation negotiations with Iran.


Nukes of Hazard: It has been a year since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was struck, how would you evaluate its implementation within the parameters of the agreement thus far?

“Critics make distorted claims about Iranian compliance”

Robert Einhorn: I think it’s been implemented as well as can be expected. It’s gone very smoothly. The IAEA has reported twice now, that Iran is fulfilling its nuclear commitments. Inevitably issues will arise, but so far no issues have arisen that suggest that Iran intends to circumvent the deal. The IAEA reported one incident when Iran temporarily exceeded the heavy water that they could have on hand. When this issue was brought to Iranian authorities they quickly remedied the problem. As far as compliance is concerned, things have gone quite well.

Critics make distorted claims about Iranian compliance. Recently, the German government issued a report suggesting that Iranian illicit procurement had continued or even accelerated in 2015. I don’t doubt that their information is correct, but restrictions on Iranian procurement outside of the JCPOA, did not take effect until January 2016. I am not aware of any information that nuclear related procurement efforts were made outside of the procurement channel after January 2016.

Issues have arisen on the Iranian side regarding U.S. sanctions. Iranians have accused the U.S. government of not fulfilling its obligations with respect to sanctions relief. I believe the Iranians are frustrated that recovery has not gone as quickly as they hoped and they tend to blame this on the United States. In reality, many of the problems that banks and businesses around the world have had with Iran have nothing to do with U.S. sanctions. They have a lot to do with the difficulty of doing business in Iran and the low price of oil.

“the U.S. government has made every effort to demonstrate that it is not trying to inhibit doing legitimate business activity with Iran”

There are residual concerns about running afoul of remaining U.S. sanctions but the U.S. government has made every effort to demonstrate that it is not trying to inhibit doing legitimate business activity with Iran. The U.S. government has gone to banks and businesses around the world to make clear what would be sanctioned and what would not be sanctioned. One remaining concern is that if Iran’s economic recovery doesn’t go as expected, Iranians would look for a scapegoat and the scapegoat would be the JCPOA. This could lead to calls in Iran to abandon the deal. This is one of the big instabilities that exist today.


Nukes of Hazard: Going back to the actual negotiations of the agreement; what would you say was the major turning point in negotiations?

Robert Einhorn: It was in June 2013 when Hassan Rouhani was elected President of Iran. He campaigned on a platform of economic recovery and he was clear that economic recovery would require the termination of sanctions. He set out to have a realistic approach to the negotiations that eventually resulted in JCPOA and the removal of nuclear related sanctions. That was the turning point; the election of Rouhani and Rouhani recognizing that the Iranian economy would not get back on its feet without sanctions relief and that there would be no sanction relief without an agreement.


Nukes of Hazard: Have the verification efforts of the deal been effective thus far?

Robert Einhorn: I think verification has gone very well. The IAEA has done a conscientious job and Iran has cooperated reasonably well. Obviously, Iran is interested in avoiding what it considers to be excessive intrusiveness but it has given the IAEA, at least so far, the access and info that IAEA needs to do its job. This has been reported in two IAEA reports.


Nukes of Hazard: What can the U.S. government do now and in the coming years to ensure effective implementation?

“The job isn’t done when it is implementation day. The job isn’t done when we have made reductions “

Robert Einhorn: The key thing is not to lose focus. We are going to have a new administration in January. We don’t know who is going to be president but assuming the new administration wants to continue with the deal, it’s important that we not lose focus. The job isn’t done when it is implementation day. The job isn’t done when we have made reductions. There has to be focus on keeping Iran compliant, to continue to make clear to Iran that there could be an imposition of sanctions if they violate the deal. The main challenge is keeping focus and realizing that implementation of the deal is just as important as the negotiation of the deal.


Nukes of Hazard: What aspects of the agreement will be most critical for enforcement as time goes on?

Robert Einhorn: I think monitoring the verification and making sure that there is no slippage. The U.S. and IAEA must maintain a high-level of attention and must push back at any efforts to cut corners by Iran in terms of implementation.


Nukes of Hazard: Does the Iran deal provide a framework for future non-proliferation agreements with North Korea?

Robert Einhorn: I think in a very general sense, yes. In the sense that the JCPOA demonstrates that if a problematic country is prepared to accept serious restrictions then it will be rewarded. In that sense the deal provides a framework. With that said, North Korea and Iran are very different situations. North Korea has nuclear weapons while Iran claims that the deal barred them from having nuclear weapons. The agreement provides a diplomatic framework for potentially working with North Korea in the future but the specifics between the two countries are quite different.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed belong to the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the U.S. government or any particular institution.