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A Dangerous Game

Iran’s anti-sanctions legislation should be treated delicately, but seriously.

Words: Noah Mayhew
Date:

Following the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian nuclear scientist credited as the father of Iran’s nuclear program, the drive in the Iranian parliament has gained momentum to limit access to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It is probable that this is an example of strategic positioning, meant to prepare Iran for a better deal in future negotiations. However, if this drive is ultimately successful, the consequences for nuclear nonproliferation, as well as regional and global security could be extremely damaging.

Earlier this year a bill was introduced into Iranian parliament entitled “Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions,” which was passed on December 1, 2020. The next day, Iran’s constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council, approved the legislation, clearing the speaker of the parliament to communicate it officially to Iran’s president. Ultimately, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has final approval on nuclear policy matters. The legislation is a part of a broader strategy to provide counter-pressure against US sanctions with the aim of having these sanctions lifted.

If the bill becomes law, it could mean increased nuclear activities in Iran in further contravention of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran Deal. More importantly, if Tehran concludes that the parties are not living up to the letter of the Iran Deal, the legislation could very soon also mean the end of provisional implementation of Iran’s additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the IAEA. The timeline for this could be as short as two months after the legislation enters into law. Either of these moves would hurt Iran’s standing with the international community, rather than help it. If both of these actions are taken, the damage done to nuclear diplomacy with Iran could be difficult to recover from.

It bears mentioning that moving the bill through all echelons of the Iranian government for it to enter into law normally takes some time. Fakhrizadeh’s assassination seems to be expediting this process. In this regard, this legislation may be a move of strategic positioning to give Iran a stronger position in negotiations, especially as President-Elect Joe Biden prepares to enter into office in the United States.

It also bears mentioning that Iranian hardliners have hinted in the past that continued pressure may result in the removal of IAEA inspectors or even NPT withdrawal, steps which thus far have yet to materialize. Indeed, these actions would be profoundly provocative and would risk sinking the Iran Deal entirely, along with Iran’s support from Europe — all good reasons it might not move forward. However, given recent events, it would be unwise for the international community to disregard the threats outlined in the legislation.

INCREASED NUCLEAR ACTIVITIES

Since the US withdrawal from the Iran Deal in 2018, Iran has steadily resumed nuclear activities limited by the Deal. It has done so with a large degree of transparency, announcing openly decisions to engage in these activities and allowing the IAEA’s safeguards inspectors to remain on the ground in Iran to maintain continuity of knowledge. Strategically, this was a smart decision from Tehran, particularly as Iran recently granted the IAEA access to two sites to ameliorate fears of undeclared nuclear activities. These actions give Iran a sort of moral high-ground and paint the US as the withdrawing country.

The ramped-up nuclear activities mandated by the bill, namely an increase to uranium enrichment to 20 percent and deployment of more advanced centrifuges, would not put Iran in a position to produce a nuclear weapon tomorrow. But they would put Iran in a better position to build long-term capacity to do so if it so chooses. Though these actions may be perceived in Tehran as a measure to shore up its security or serve as later negotiation fodder, increased nuclear activities may cross a threshold that has more detriments than benefits if they point increasingly towards weaponization. If Iran decides to move forward with this step, it would be ideal to do so under the inspection eye of the IAEA. However, this too is threatened by the bill.

ENDING PROVISIONAL IMPLEMENTATION OF IRAN’S ADDITIONAL PROTOCOL

As of the Iran Deal’s implementation day, Iran has been provisionally implementing an additional protocol (AP) to its safeguards agreement with the IAEA. An AP is a voluntary measure that the majority of countries undertake to give the IAEA more tools to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear activities that could result in a weapons program. As Iran has not yet taken the domestic steps required for its AP to enter into force, it can cease implementing it at any time.

Indeed, these actions would be profoundly provocative and would risk sinking the Iran Deal entirely, along with Iran’s support from Europe — all good reasons it might not move forward.

If Iran takes this step, it would drastically reduce the IAEA’s capacity to provide credible assurance that Iran’s nuclear activities, though outside the limits placed on it by the Iran Deal, remain peaceful in nature. This would be a grievous blow to Iran’s credibility and invite a dangerous level of unpredictability in the region. Whatever steps the Iranian government agrees upon next, it should continue to allow provisional implementation of its AP.

In the context of the IAEA’s activities in nuclear verification, continuity of knowledge is paramount. If Iran severs that continuity of knowledge, it will be extremely difficult to rebuild and thus strain the IAEA’s ability to give credible assurance on the peaceful nature of Iranian nuclear activities.

WHY THIS MATTERS

There are a multitude of reasons why this bill becoming law would be bad news for Iran. On an international level, any of the steps outlined in the bill would push Iran further away from access to the global economy, further towards a pariah state status and away from powerful allies. On a regional level, Iran already has neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel, that have expressed marked concern about an Iranian nuclear weapon. Iran has implicated Israel in Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, and Saudi Arabia, for its part, has threatened to develop its own nuclear weapons capability if Iran does. Because perception is generally taken as reality, entry of this legislation into law could signal an intention for a weapons program that could spark a deeply destabilizing arms race in the region. Domestically, sanctions and other measures have already damaged the Iranian economy and the isolation that could follow from these steps would worsen this damage.

The Iranian elite surely knows these things and will hopefully act accordingly. Again, let us recall that the legislation is meant to result in sanctions relief rather than intensification. Bearing in mind the speed at which this bill is moving through the legislative process and its likely intent for strategic positioning on Iran’s part, strategic moves will be critical to a response to it.

WHAT COULD BE DONE

The best possible outcome of this scenario is that the Iranian government does not take the actions detailed in the bill, in particular the limitation of IAEA access. But how should other countries play their hands, as the discarding of nonproliferation commitments on one hand is played against strategic positioning on the other? As all parties to the Iran Deal should have an interest in its survival, playing the odds does not seem like a wise move — the legislation should be taken delicately, but seriously. The legislation reflects a major part of the current discourse in Iran and future negotiations will need to bear this in mind.

Internationally, countries should be prepared to reach out now and exert influence where they are able to discourage this course of action, especially considering the opportunities presented by a new US administration in White House. It would behoove US President-Elect Biden to be proactive in communications with Tehran, as he has expressed the desire to return to the Deal as a starting point for further negotiations, given Iran returns to full compliance. In addition, the role of the rest of the P5+1 countries that remain in the Deal, including China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany becomes more important than ever given these developments.

Domestically, the members of the higher organs in the Iranian government should examine their options very carefully. As it stands, this could be taken simply as messaging to the P5+1, meant to queue Iran up for renewed negotiations with the Biden administration. This is the preferable and more likely scenario. But if this legislation enters officially into Iranian law, it will no longer be a question of which country is right and which is wrong. It will be a reinvigorated question as to what Iran’s nuclear intentions are.

Noah Mayhew is a Research Associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, focusing primarily on nuclear nonproliferation, IAEA safeguards and nuclear verification, arms control, US-Russian relations and the peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology.

Correction issued 12/3: This article has been updated to reflect that Iran’s final legislation does not include a provision to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Noah Mayhew

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