Iranian Negotiations: Worth the risk?

After years of negotiations, Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) agreed to a deal providing sanctions relief in return for international monitoring and severe restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) established unprecedented access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and created dialogue between nations that had previously eschewed diplomatic engagement. However, some argue that the negotiations resulting in the JCPOA mark a foreign policy failure. The result of the negotiations and agreement, critics suggest, is a more dangerous international order and jeopardized security for the United States. But one year after the Iran Deal was signed, the reality is clear: had the U.S. never engaged with Iran, U.S. national security would be weakened, not strengthened, and the international community would be in a perilous situation with few – if any – options for a peaceful resolution.

Iran has been interested in nuclear technology since the mid-20th century. After facing some delays during the Revolution, the program reportedly became a major focus of Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Before the JCPOA, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure contained over 20,000 centrifuges, a stockpile of uranium large enough for 8-10 nuclear bombs, and the ability to enrich uranium to 20 percent. The country also boasted a reactor that could produce weapons-grade plutonium and it was estimated that it would only take Iran two to three months to produce enough weapons grade material for a nuclear weapon.

Put simply, Iran’s nuclear ambitions could destabilize the entire region. Nuclear policy analysts wondered whether Iran’s chief regional rival Saudi Arabia would start its own program to respond.  Iran’s nuclear goals also impacted Israel, as Prime Minister Netanyahu made Israel’s concerns clear along with his country’s need to protect itself.

But as a result of effective implementation of the JCPOA, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure has been greatly reduced. The facts are as clear as they are sweeping. Two-thirds of centrifuges have been removed, decreasing the total from 20,000 to just 6,104 – and only the most primitive of centrifuges are currently in operation. Additionally, 97 percent of Iran’s enriched uranium (about 25,000 pounds) has been shipped out of the country, and the country is prohibited from having anything more than 300kg (about 661.4lbs) of low-enriched uranium. Iran’s breakout time has been extended to at least one year and unprecedented International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access reassures the international community that Iran’s nuclear program is credibly constrained. It’s a model for “Don’t trust, and verify too.”

Moreover, the international community has gained first-hand knowledge of Iranian nuclear facilities, a pipedream in the past. And the Arak reactor, once a center point of friction between Iran and the international community, has been rendered inoperable.

US-Iranian relations have often been characterized by mistrust and extremely limited communication. While there are still no official diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States, negotiations fostered a professional relationship between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. The benefits of this dialogue became clear this past January when ten U.S. Navy sailors were taken into Iranian custody after crossing into Iranian waters. Unlike British sailors held for two weeks less than a decade ago, Kerry and Zarif used their established relationship to resolve the issue and release the sailors in fewer than 16 hours. This new relationship also became evident on Implementation Day; Iran released four American prisoners as well as a fifth who was not a part of the deal.

Overall, nuclear negotiations with Iran, while long and difficult, severely constrained Iran’s nuclear program while opening up a new channel for dialogue between Iran and the international community. Without the JCPOA, the U.S. would have limited information on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, fostering regional instability and potentially a regional arms race. The agreement has thus far proven to be effective in preventing Iran’s nuclear weapon capabilities.

Iran’s behavior in other areas, such as human rights violations, ballistic missile testing, and state sponsorship of terrorism, continue to pose a security challenge to the United States and its allies in the region.  But, the situation would be far worse if the negotiations never took place and the JCPOA never came to fruition, leaving Iran’s nuclear program unchecked and unconstrained.