Grasping at Straws


The Trump Administration and its supporters outside of the U.S. government are laboring mightily to convince the international community that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a bad deal for the United States. Unfortunately for them, Iranian compliance keeps getting in the way.

President Donald Trump (L), Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (C) and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin wait for a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)We can see this in the way in which senior U.S. government officials speak to issues of Iranian compliance. During press availability on the margins of the UN General Assembly, Secretary of State Tillerson was careful to note that Iran is in “technical” compliance with the JCPOA, but argued that this is immaterial because Iran remains a broader threat in the Middle East. He has also argued, in an echo of the comments made by external opponents of the JCPOA, that Iran may be in compliance only because the JCPOA is itself deficient, notably with respect to the sunset clauses.

State Department Director of Policy Planning Brian Hook has stated – though without elaboration – that Iranian compliance is “tactical,” perhaps arguing that though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has consistently reported that Iran is fulfilling the terms, this is all merely a part of the Iranian master plan. This too has its echo in the think tank circuit, where the argument has long been that Iran is merely trying to lure the international community into nuclear complacency.

But, by far the most extraordinary compliance judgment rendered thus far is that of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which reported on September 21 that Iranian compliance with at least one key provision may be “accidental.” The main argument is reported here in full:

Iran’s key advanced IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges have broken much more than expected, leading to a significant reduction in the number of advanced centrifuges. This reduction in numbers has brought Iran more into compliance with the limitations in the deal. But this development is more accurately described as unintentional or accidental compliance. Iran in fact may soon build far more IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuge rotor assemblies than before, aggravating further the compliance issue.

Distilled, the contention is that Iran was in violation of the JCPOA because it was constructing more advanced centrifuges than it needed prior to this point, but then it needed those additional centrifuges because the ones the Iranians were using broke frequently. So, Iran tripped – as it were – into compliance.

The ISIS report goes on to note that there are technical problems with the design of the centrifuges and to suggest that perhaps the carbon fiber being used is not up to snuff. In fact, the report also argues that: "this development shows that Iran is unlikely to ever develop an economically viable centrifuge plant."

Beyond that, there is much innuendo, with the suggestion being either that Iran is presumably bluffing about the nature of its centrifuge failures (since “Iran could replace them within weeks or at most a few months”) or that this is all a ruse so as to justify producing more advanced centrifuges in the first place.

The ultimate conclusion is: "This means that Iran's centrifuge program, if expanded, would be either a colossal waste of money reflecting national hubris or the basis for a nuclear weapons program, which would not care about costs."

I will take second place to none in my skepticism about Iranian nuclear intentions and the need to be vigilant as to what we are seeing in the Iranian nuclear program. But, there are many different problems with this line of analysis.

First, there is the inherent contradiction of the argument that material failures and centrifuge R&D problems will doom the program and the argument that Iran is poised on the edge of a compliance breakout. One can hardly develop and execute a viable breakout strategy when one’s centrifuges are collapsing around their ears. For one thing, people will notice, including the IAEA inspectors who – presumably – are the ultimate source of ISIS’s information. These inspectors will also provide reports to others, so the information will get out. Even if we assume an Iranian crash program, in which they are willing to lose every single operational centrifuge in the quest to produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) – a scenario that is actually plausible – they simply won’t be able to get away with doing so covertly. The United States and our partners will know about the effort in a timely manner and will have time to respond.

Second, even if a truly “crash” program were to be pursued, Iran would need a lot more centrifuges than it has on hand and installed to make the effort. Even with an inflated estimate as to the efficiency of the advanced centrifuges being developed, Iran would need more than 8 IR-8s or 13-15 IR-6s to make a go at breakout.

ISIS did not state that this is Iran’s intention – in fact, ISIS was careful to suggest that the breakout they had in mind was the manufacture of centrifuges, not enriched uranium – but it bears repeating that the only real risk from Iranian use of the advanced machines on hand is that they will learn more about them and be able to improve their fabrication and manufacture methods in the long run. This is a real problem and consequence of the unavoidable Iranian requirement to continue some R&D activities under the JCPOA. But, it is also a known, understood, and limited problem. Iran has much work to do in order to make the IR-6 or IR-8 a viable centrifuge, much less one that can operate in tandem with others as part of a centrifuge cascade. These are engineering problems that Iran has yet to solve and – importantly – won’t be able to solve in the near term given the understood restrictions on Iranian centrifuge R&D under the JCPOA.

Third, the ISIS report itself argues that these centrifuge breakdowns were accidental or unintentional avenues to Iranian compliance, essentially arguing that no one could have predicted they would have so much trouble in the running of largely untested centrifuges. Simply put, this is wrong.

When I was in the U.S. government, we anticipated that Iran was going to have substantial difficulties in fielding these new centrifuges and that breakages were going to take place. The previous ISIS allegation of Iranian violations of the JCPOA by having too many centrifuge parts on hand should therefore be seen in its full context: it is simply of less significance that Iran had 8 IR-8s on hand when only 1 could be tested with uranium hexafluoride gas under the JCPOA because it was widely anticipated that most of those IR-8s would fail. And in fact, ISIS notes that, as of the time of its report, all but one of those IR-8s was intact.

Centrifuge breakdowns in Iran are hardly new and problems with new designs are common. Part of this may come from the fact that, due to U.S. and UN sanctions over the past decade, Iran has found it difficult to obtain the materials necessary for the fabrication of centrifuge parts and been forced to rely on what Olli Heinonen described in 2014 as “lower quality materials.” Heinonen further noted that “they know they have certain limitations and adjust their operational procedures to account for that, but they can still enrich uranium. It will be more expensive and take more time but you will still get there."

For this reason, the United States could not – and did not – rely on Iranian deficiencies in structuring the provisions of the JCPOA with respect to centrifuge R&D, but rather anticipated this very problem and negotiated an approach that would slow Iranian progress by making it harder to learn about and adapt to the problems the Iranian would encounter. Far from an instance of “accidental” compliance, these kinds of centrifuge failures were part of our set of expectations for what would occur within the Iranian nuclear program. This is one of the several reasons why many nonproliferation and arms control experts supported the JCPOA on the basis of its technical terms.

This is not to say that the United States or the international community should take a blind eye to Iranian attempts to exploit the edges of permissible behavior. Iran has and will test the fences in order to see how the United States and other JCPOA parties will respond, and implementation problems will doubtless crop up again if the JCPOA is to be given longer than the next presidential certification decision to operate. The United States and its partners should, in turn, respond to enforce the terms of the JCPOA vigorously.

But, we should also have some degree of perspective in evaluating Iranian activities at moments of time. Since 2016, ISIS has claimed that Iranian advanced centrifuge R&D exceeded what is acceptable. In May 2017, seizing on an erroneous translation of a farsi comment from the head of Iran’s nuclear program, ISIS asserted that Iran was effectively poised to begin operating “a large number of advanced centrifuges.” It is unsurprising that ISIS would be chagrined to note that Iranian compliance had once again been established, requiring invocation of “accidental” compliance as a qualifier. Rather than justify previous exaggerations of a legitimate if minor problem, it would be preferable for those standing in opposition to the JCPOA instead take a deep breath before proclaiming a crisis where there is none.

In a broader sense, it is also instructive for those following the JCPOA and certification debate to consider that, since 2013, the case against the JCPOA has morphed from:

  • An agreement can never be reached;
  • Iran will never comply with an agreement reached;
  • We may not know if Iran is cheating because the Obama Administration and IAEA are cooking the books;
  • They may be complying (as the Trump Administration has said since April 2017) but only as a means of waiting out the international community on a “patient path” to the bomb;
  • They may be complying, but it is a lousy deal anyway; and, finally,
  • They are complying but they don’t mean to do so because we all know that the Iranians mean to cheat if not now then later.

All of these arguments have their counters from those supportive of the JCPOA but the last takes us beyond policy arguments and into assumptions of nefarious nuclear conduct that are unsubstantiated and ill-founded. This is dangerous territory, substituting reasoned analysis for conviction and certainty. It is also territory that we have walked on before, to our regret.


Richard Nephew is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He was a member of the U.S. negotiating team with Iran and director for Iran at the National Security Council. He served as the Middle East team chief and senior Iran nuclear officer in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the Department of State from 2006 to 2011 and before that as special assistant for nonproliferation policy at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.