Iran will not be able to produce a nuclear weapon in the near future; the most recent Iranian nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, makes it so. This was the consensus of a panel of University of Arizona professors who met Thursday, Sept. 17, to discuss "The Iranian Nuclear Agreement: Containment or Catastrophe?"
The event was attended by more than 200 people in Crowder Hall, with others nationwide watching via livestream from Arizona Public Media.
Experts in three fields addressed the technical, political and regional implications of the agreement: Philip A. Pinto, professor astronomy and physics in the College of Science; Faten Ghosn, associate professor of government and public policy in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences; and Asher Susser, the Andrea and David Stein professor of modern Israel studies at the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies. The moderators were Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the College of Science, and J. Edward Wright, director of the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies.
The JCPOA is the third and final agreement signed over a span of 19 months; the latest agreement bears the signatures of diplomats from over 100 nations, including Iran and the United States of America.
This plan of action signed in July 2015 seeks to reinforce the details of the 1968 Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty allows for the development of a peaceful nuclear program, while member nations of that agreement retain the ability to monitor those activities.
Ghosn, whose articles have appeared in numerous publications including the International Journal of Human Rights and Middle East Journal, spoke about the negotiating positions of the concerned parties and diplomatic implications of the Iranian agreement. She noted that there are numerous parties to the agreement — it is not a bilateral agreement between the United States and Iran.
Nor is its purpose to completely eliminate Iran's nuclear program.
"Part of the confusion that we are hearing, and that has emerged, is that many politicians have floated the idea that the aim of the negotiations was to dismantle the whole nuclear program, rather than to ensure its nature," she said. "[The Iranians] have the legal right to develop a peaceful nuclear program. So that goal is not even realistic, or possible."
The JCPOA will limit specific resources for nuclear production by eliminating or reducing isotope stockpiles and restricting development capabilities. This puts in place a mechanism for better monitoring and inspection of the means of production, said Pinto, who has served as a consultant to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the United States' nuclear weapons labs. "The total inventory of low enriched uranium in Iran will be reduced from 12,000 kilograms to 300 kilograms, about one-sixth of the amount needed to make a single nuclear weapon," he said. "Iran will not have any high enriched uranium stockpile at all."
Two currently operating enrichment facilities will see changes as well: One will be converted to an enrichment-free research facility, while another will see restrictions on the number of devices it may operate. The uranium produced in that facility will be limited to 3.6 percent enrichment, far less than what is needed for a nuclear weapon.
"To build a bomb, you need to enrich the uranium to more than 80 percent," he said. To produce even a small amount would take thousands of centrifuges linked together, "which would require building a large facility that uses a lot of electric power and experience has shown they are pretty hard to hide."
Pinto said the plan of action also "puts limits on the number and types of centrifuges Iran may have for the next 15 years. Iran will have to remove 13,000 currently operating centrifuges." The agreement also bars Iran from developing plutonium, the fissile material in most atom bombs, creating by irridiating plutonium.
Based on these restrictions, Ghosn said it was highly unlikely Iran could further develop the program in the immediate future.
"It would be nearly impossible for Iran to recreate its entire supply chain, conversion, enrichment facilities, all covertly. In many of the facilities, there will be live technologies that would monitor several sites 24-7," she said.
Iran is considered a nuclear threshold state, a country that has an opportunity to quickly develop a nuclear weapon, but has not yet taken action, Pinto said.
"[The non-proliferation treaty] is not about denying nuclear weapons to nations, it's about buying time to find other solutions," he said. "In the present context, it is about buying time to convince a threshold state that the benefits of remaining nuclear free outweigh any benefits of acquiring nuclear weapons."
Susser, who along with his UA role is also a professor in the department of Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University and a senior fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at TAU, presented regional context for the agreement — particularly regarding Israel, which has been vociferous in its opposition to the deal.
The Israeli position in the region and the world has changed over the past several decades, Susser noted. While Iran has become a strong power in the region and Iran and some Arab states remain at odds with one another, Israel now has Arab allies. One fear is that sanctions relief will allow Iran to strengthen its proxies, such as Hezbollah, which the United States and Israel deem a terrorist group.
The United States and Israel should consider what to do about Iran's hegemonic designs, Susser said.
"The understanding that I think that Israel and the United States should seek to achieve is one that some Arab states may not be party to publicly, but could acquiesce in, as a means of stabilizing the region and keeping Iran from having too much of a regional influence."
As for Iran keeping its nuclear comitments, "Israel and the United States should enter into a parallel agreement about what Israel and the United States should do in unison, in cooperation, when and if Iran does not comply," he said.
"The deal is done and the time has come to end the debate about whether a better deal could have been achieved or not," Susser said.
Some American presidential candidates vying for their parties' nominations for the 2016 general election have suggested that the United States should discard the agreement in favor of a potential future alternative solution. The panel disagreed with this plan.
"Ripping the deal up means there are fewer restraints, fewer checks," Pinto said. "The whole point is to buy time, so you lose that buying time, you lose a decade."
Ghosn said that undertaking this action would undermine the United States' negotiating position and credibility, while at best only allowing for current sanctions to be enforced.
"For that to happen, you still need the cooperation of the rest of the world because sanctions are not a one-way street," she said. "The rest of the world has told us that they are not going to cooperate."
Susser said that what may have been lost in the debate is Iran's commitment to scale back its nuclear advancements.
"Iran has committed itself in this agreement twice never ever to acquire or to develop a nuclear weapon," he said. "How will the Iranians be held to compliance if the United States rips up the agreement? So I do not think that that would be a great idea, and I have my doubts if any elected president in the United States would really do that in office. But, I think it would be an acceleration of a negative direction in Iran, rather than otherwise."