13 August 2015

Decoding the Iran Agreement, Part 2: Jon Wolfsthal

Lucien Crowder

Lucien Crowder

Crowder joined the Bulletin as senior editor in January 2012, primarily taking responsibility for the Development and Disarmament Roundtable series. Before then, he served as associate editor of...

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It's "fantasy" to believe that the United States could reject the recently concluded agreement limiting Iran's nuclear programs, return to the negotiating table, and win a more favorable deal. So argued Jon Wolfsthal, the National Security Council's senior director for arms control and nonproliferation, in a Thursday teleconference sponsored by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The teleconference, titled "Decoding the Iran Agreement: View from the White House," was second in a series covering the nuclear agreement.

Even if only a limited number of countries reacted to a US rejection of the deal by relaxing sanctions, Wolfsthal said, the United States would exercise reduced leverage in negotiations toward a new agreement. US rejection of the agreement would only strengthen Iran's hand, he maintained. "It's not clear to me," Wolfsthal said, "in what world you can get more with less."

The Iran nuclear deal—officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—is the subject of intense political debate in Washington as it undergoes congressional review. If Congress passes a resolution disapproving of the agreement, President Obama is certain to issue a veto—which Congress could then override, effectively scuttling the deal. "We either get this [deal]," Wolfsthal said, "and we prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon" or Iran, freed from sanctions, will have the ability to build a nuclear weapon quickly.

To begin the teleconference, Wolfsthal argued that the agreement prevents Iran from "ever obtaining a nuclear weapon." He identified three routes by which Iran might obtain the fissile material needed for a nuclear explosive—the plutonium and uranium routes, and clandestine approaches through undeclared facilities—and maintained that all three routes will be verifiably cut off (assuming the agreement is fully implemented). "The heavy-water plutonium-producing reactor at Arak will be reconfigured," Wolfsthal said. "An incredibly strong and stringent set of provisions … kills the plutonium pathway for Iran." Uranium enrichment will likewise be cut off through a variety of "very verifiable" steps. As for clandestine approaches, Wolfsthal said that concern is justified because Iran has a long history of clandestine nuclear activities. Wolfsthal noted, however, that "We … have a very long history of … making them non-clandestine."

Wolfsthal addressed several issues surrounding verification work that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will conduct in Iran if the agreement goes into effect. One such issue is the amount of time—24 days in some cases—that the agency could have to wait between requesting and gaining access to specific Iranian facilities. Wolfsthal called this issue "perhaps the most interesting and challenging" of the arguments advanced against the agreement. A maximum of 24 days, Wolfsthal maintained, is an unusually short period of time to wait for access. "Right now," he said, "in no country on the planet can the IAEA … be granted access, no matter what, within 24 days." Wolfsthal called the agreement's 24-day access stipulation undoubtedly a strength of the agreement and expressed surprise that critics have seized on the issue.

Responding to a question about the possibility of a Middle Eastern arms race being sparked by implementation of the agreement, Wolfsthal noted that the Middle East did not see a wholesale march toward nuclear weapons in the Middle East as Iran made progress in its own nuclear program. Rather, he said, nations in the region have pressured the United States to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Middle Eastern nations are cognizant, he said, that Washington would be unable to maintain "the same sort of defense and security relationship with states in the region if they [tried] to match Iran's capabilities."

If the deal becomes reality, Wolfsthal expects Iran to be "very vocal in [its] Non-Aligned Movement activities and [in] supporting [the] global push toward disarmament." In fact, Wolfsthal argued, by agreeing to severe constraints on its nuclear program, Tehran will be better positioned to "argue that other countries should also be making compromises." Such a development, Wolfsthal said, would be "in conformity with the US point of view" that nations should focus on reducing  their reliance on nuclear weapons.

Wolfsthal also discussed the administration's vigorous, ongoing push to make sure the agreement survives its encounter with Congress. Almost all members of Congress, he said, have "spoken to, met in person, or been called by the president, the secretary of state, secretary of energy, secretary of defense, secretary of treasury," or other high-ranking officials. "We are finding," Wolfsthal said, "that we have to re-educate or re-inform members of Congress and their staff about exactly what the IAEA is" and what the agency does.

A podcast of "Decoding the Iran Agreement: View from the White House"—including Wolfsthal's initial presentation and the question-and-answer session that followed—is available here.

A podcast of the first teleconference in the Bulletin's series covering the Iran nuclear deal, "Decoding the Iran Agreement: What Constitutes Effective Verification and Monitoring?," is available here. A write-up of that event is available here.