August 26, 2015 | Monograph

Improving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

FDD Press

Download the full report here


The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated between the P5+1 and Iran places term-limited constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of many of the most impactful global sanctions. However, the deal contains structural flaws that enable Iran to:

1. Expand the pathways to a nuclear weapon, access to heavy weaponry, and ballistic missile technology during the duration of the agreement as a result of a series of sunset clauses;

2. Build economic resiliency against sanctions pressure, diminishing Western leverage to address non-compliance and enforcement; and,

3. Walk away from the agreement if members of the P5+1 attempt either to re-impose sanctions in a so-called “snapback” sanctions scenario or to impose non-nuclear related sanctions in response to Iran’s other illicit activities.

The sunset clauses—the fatal flaw of the JCPOA— permit critical nuclear, arms, and ballistic missile restrictions to disappear over a five- to 15-year period. Tehran must simply abide by the agreement to soon emerge as a threshold nuclear power with an industrial-size enrichment program. Similarly, it must only hang tight to reach near-zero breakout time; find a clandestine sneak-out pathway powered by easier-to-hide advanced centrifuges; build an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles; gain access to heavy weaponry like more sophisticated combat aircraft, attack helicopters, and battle tanks after the lifting of the U.N. conventional arms embargo after five years; and develop an economy increasingly immunized against future sanctions pressure. Iran can achieve all this without violating the agreement by simply waiting for the sunset dates to be reached. By cheating Tehran will only get there faster, for example, if it refuses to grant the IAEA physical access to suspicious sites and Washington can’t get European support to punish Iranian stonewalling.

The JCPOA also explicitly contemplates that Iran will walk away from the deal if sanctions are re-imposed in response to an Iranian violation.  It also contains an explicit requirement for the United States and the EU to do nothing to interfere with the “normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran.” These are Iran’s “nuclear snapbacks,” wherein Tehran will threaten nuclear escalation if the world powers try to force it back into compliance with the agreement.

In addition, the JCPOA provides significant sanctions relief prior to a demonstrable change in the conduct that first prompted the sanctions and relies on an economic snapback sanctions mechanism to enforce the deal against Iranian non-compliance, a mechanism that will become increasingly ineffective over time.

These and several other defects undermine the effectiveness of the JCPOA in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. This report provides recommendations for concrete amendments to the deal that are both reasonable and achievable. It also examines the potential fallout from a congressional vote of disapproval. A better agreement that addresses these defects can decrease the likelihood of a nuclear-armed Iran and diminish the possibility of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

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