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The Iran nuclear deal is actually far from over

- December 5, 2015
A mushroom cloud rises with ships below during Operation Crossroads nuclear weapons test on Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands in this 1946 handout provided by the U.S. Library of Congress. (Handout/Reuters)

Remember the Iran nuclear deal, source of so much anxiety just one month ago? While much of the world watched in horror at the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, Iran began dismantling its centrifuges. But short-term compliance with the deal isn’t as important as what happens when it expires in 10 years. Policymakers can and should work now, and consistently, toward ensuring that Iran will continue to uphold its obligations after the original deal expires.

Why it’s important to think far ahead

Decision theory examines how people can become preoccupied with the road not taken after choices are finalized. Many observers have wondered whether no deal would have been better than this deal. People also tend to pay attention to what’s coming sooner, and have trouble thinking about the longer term, especially when under stress—and fear that this deal isn’t good enough may be stressful for some.

It’s no surprise, then, that many observers have worried about whether the Iranians will comply with the most immediate parts of the deal. Will they or won’t they dismantle their centrifuges, allow access to adequate environmental and material samples and admit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors promptly?

Even more important, however, is ensuring that Iran complies with longer-term requirements, such as adopting and implementing the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s (NPT) Additional Protocol (A.P.). The A.P. is a voluntary agreement the IAEA establishes with individual countries that allows the IAEA to confirm that the country is using nuclear material for peaceful purposes only. Iran adopted its own A.P. in 2003, and implemented it, despite never ratifying, until it ceased implementation in 2006.

The short-term compliance questions can be dealt with promptly, under the deal’s terms. As disputes arise, they will be referred to the Joint Commission (J.C.). The Joint Commission is comprised of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council and Germany, which negotiated on the deal), Iran and the European Union. The J.C. is tasked with carrying out the functions of the agreement, such as redesigning and overseeing implementation of plans for Iran’s new facilities as well as resolving potential issues of non-compliance. The J.C. has 15 days to resolve any dispute.  If it cannot resolve it, the issue will be referred to ministers of foreign affairs of each country participating in the J.C. These ministers then have 15 days themselves to make a determination. This prompt mechanism for resolving disputes does guarantee more information quickly.

But we know comparatively less about what will be going on 10 years from now, when the deal expires. That’s why we must work harder to consider what might happen and what to do about it—even though those possible situations are cognitively more remote and objectively more difficult to assess. But that’s exactly why it’s important to focus attention at that point.

What mechanisms does the deal have for looking ahead?

Some critique the deal as insufficient, suggesting the P5+1 made too many concessions.

As a matter of best practice, states should only sign onto nuclear arms control treaties when those treaties effectively lower uncertainty about adversaries’ arsenals and increase the feeling of security—for both the short- and long-term. When it’s challenging to achieve both, negotiators shouldn’t necessarily walk away from the table. Negotiators sometimes have to forsake the long-term in order to reach an agreement when a negotiated agreement is better than none.

When negotiators do make this trade-off, they commonly narrow the scope, scale and duration of agreements. While this can make it possible to reach an agreement, the comparatively narrow result may not keep uncertainty low over the longer term—particularly  when weapons technology evolves beyond that which is controlled in the agreement. Outcomes can include partners withdrawing from, violating or breaking the treaty.

The Iran deal does indeed provide effective short-term uncertainty management for the P5+1. It includes intrusive inspections and “snap-back” sanctions, which allow for any of the P5+1 to quickly reimpose U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran without going through a new process—just a vote. For Iran, the deal throws off sanctions—and will expire at a known point in the near future.

That end date was probably essential to reaching a deal. States do not tend to sign arms control agreements that limit their nuclear arsenals indefinitely. But most nuclear limitation agreements include provisions for renewal, renegotiation or replacement, all of which help lower uncertainty and increase security over the long-term. The Iran deal does not include any of these.

The agreement by itself, therefore, may not be enough to satisfy the P5+1’s need to manage uncertainty over time. If true, that would constitute a major concession on the part of these countries, possibly for the sake of getting a deal. But it isn’t fatal. That limit could mean that the P5+1 either don’t believe that risks are likely emerge after expiration, or they are relying on other means to ensure security and lower uncertainty in the long run.

Iran’s obligation to ratify and implement the Additional Protocol (A.P.) of the NPT appears to be one of those other means. Optimists and deal proponents insist the A.P. will provide the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) even greater access to information about Iran’s nuclear program than does the current regime. If true, then Iran’s implementation of the A.P. is absolutely critical for long term success—and that’s where attention should be focused as soon as possible.

Pessimists and detractors point to the fact that Iran has once already chosen to abandon the A.P. in 2005, after Iran was branded a member of the “axis-of-evil” and relations with the West, and U.S. in particular, soured. To date, Iranian leaders have said that they will implement the protocol, but only time will tell.

The ideal would be for the A.P. to mitigate uncertainty and ensure security for the cosigners in perpetuity. To get there, the P5+1 would have to actively manage and continually reassess their relationships with Iran from now until the deal expires. They will have to prevent the reemergence of issues that led Iran to cease complying with the AP in 2005, like Iran’s marginalization.

Don’t just hope. Act. 

Policymakers should avoid a passive approach. It may be tempting to allow the A.P. to provide a false sense of security. But hope alone won’t cut it. The key will be in working with Iran to improve trust and increase economic ties. If there are any questions about compliance—if doubt persists and uncertainty prevails—we could expect to see all seven countries back at the negotiation table before the last of the nuclear sanctions are lifted.

Amy J. Nelson is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.