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The Iran Nuclear Deal: Pitfalls and Promises

Who got what in the Iran nuclear deal? An Iran scholar, a sanctions specialist and nuclear experts discussed the meaning of the agreement and explored what’s next for all parties. This event was the fifth in the Iran Forum series sponsored by a consortium of eight Washington think tanks. They are: the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the RAND Corporation, the Arms Control Association, the Center for a New American Security, the Stimson Center, Partnership for a Secure America, and the Ploughshares Fund.

Date & Time

Jul. 23, 2015
9:00am – 10:30am ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center


Four experts on Iran, nuclear proliferation, and sanctions discussed the P5+1 deal and the potential impact of the deal going forward.

On July 23, 2015, the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, the U.S. Institute of Peace, the RAND Corporation, the Arms Control Association, the Center for a New American Security, the Stimson Center, Partnership for a Secure America, and the Ploughshares Fund hosted the event “The Iran Nuclear Deal: Pitfalls and Promises,” with Joe Cirincione, President of the Ploughshares Fund; Olli Heinonen, Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University; Elizabeth Rosenberg, Senior Fellow and the Director of the Energy, Economics and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security; and Robin Wright, Joint Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Wilson Center. Doyle McManus, Washington Columnist for the Los Angeles Times, moderated the event. Andrew Selee, Executive Vice President at the Wilson Center, provided introductory remarks.

Cirincione began by emphasizing that it is difficult to see this deal as anything less than a diplomatic triumph, and that it may be the most important non-proliferation agreement of the last 20 years. He said that the deal achieved the United States’ three main goals: Iran cannot create a nuclear weapon; there is now a successful verification system; and there is a coalition that will act as a deterrent against Iran. Under the agreement, Iran will destroy 98 percent of its uranium gas and all equipment purchases will be reviewed by an independent body. Cirincione mentioned that political reasons, rather than policy reasons, are preventing this deal from being treated as a triumph.

Heinonen discussed the technological advancements that could occur in the next 15 years to expedite nuclear enrichment and the importance of increased information about Iran’s pre-existing nuclear program as a part of any nuclear deal. In fifteen years, when Iran is allowed to enrich uranium again, it may take a few weeks to enrich uranium to a level usable for a weapon. Since snap-back sanctions take months or years to implement, they would not serve as an effective deterrent.  Additionally, Heinonen argued that it would be relatively easy for Iran to evade elements of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verification system.

Rosenberg explained the sanctions relief that goes into effect on “implementation day,” which occurs when the IAEA confirms that Iran has completed a series of benchmarks. The EU will lift Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) sanctions along with sanctions on energy, financial services, shipping, auto, and banking relationships. The United States will lift sanctions that apply to non-U.S. companies. However, Rosenberg stated that economic reform may be a slow process. International companies may be concerned about a nuclear deal collapsing, that Iran may not be a safe place to do business, or that they may get wrapped up in sanctions violations. She indicated that companies want to get involved, but may be deterred by the high degree of risks involved.

Wright discussed several reasons why Iran chose to engage on the nuclear issue. Iran wanted more than sanctions relief from the negotiations; it also wanted the international community to recognize the Islamic Republic and some assurance that the international community was no longer interested in regime change. Iran also chose to engage in diplomacy because the deal opened up avenues for economic development. Iran needs an estimated $1 trillion of investment to revive its economy. Iran also feels vulnerable, with ISIS coming as close as 25 miles from the Iran-Iraq border. Iran fears rising sectarianism in the region, particularly because its largely Shiite population is surrounded by Sunni states. She said Iranian society is changing, with more than half the electorate born since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. This demographic group wields enough influence—and votes—that the government cannot ignore its priorities. A key question is what Iran will do with the billions of dollars of trapped revenues released when sanctions are lifted—and whether some of the funds will be used to support its activities beyond its borders. Wright pointed out that Congress’s vote on the deal may affect the Iranian parliament’s vote: Hardliners in Iran’s parliament might reject the deal if Congress rejects it first, but they also might approve the deal to undermine the United States. Wright believes that if Congress rejects the deal, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would argue that he was right not to trust the United States in negotiations.

During the question and answer portion of the event, McManus asked what the viable alternatives to a nuclear deal were. Cirincione said that the United States will end up on a path to war if Congress votes against the nuclear deal. Rosenberg mentioned that there are certain executive actions the President can take if Congress votes against the deal. Wright also mentioned that the Iranian Parliament’s vote will be impacted by Congress’ decision. A member of the audience asked about the potential for a multinational company overseeing nuclear enrichment in Iran. Cirincione responded that this solution has been discussed for years, and that Iran agreed to this potential solution, if the facility was in Iran. He supports this option and stated that no individual treaty solves every issue.

By Sara Morell, Middle East Program 


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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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