The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral accord to roll back and ensure intrusive inspections over Iran’s nuclear program, has cleared significant hurdles this week that will enable the parties to begin to implement their obligations beginning on October 18, or “Adoption Day.” With Iranian hardliners and Congressional opponents’ failure to kill the deal over the past three months, the agreement’s new phase will enable the parties to begin to see the benefits of the accord.
On Tuesday, the Iranian parliament passed a bill giving the government permission to implement the agreement by a vote of 161-59. Despite the strong vote, the deal was not without controversy. As a sign of the fierce domestic opposition faced by the deal’s negotiators, one parliamentarian allegedly threatened to kill Iran’s atomic energy chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, and bury him underneath the Arak reactor. Despite the fierce protestations of hardliners, the bill was passed and then upheld by Iran’s Guardian Council on Wednesday, effectively ending Iran’s internal review of the agreement.
On Thursday, the IAEA also announced the completion of a road map on a long-standing investigation into Iran’s prior, possible military dimensions to its nuclear activities. Over the past three months, the road map obligated Iran to provide information on a range of questions on its nuclear activities, largely prior to 2003, and to provide the IAEA with environmental sampling at a building on the Parchin military complex that was suspected of housing nuclear-related activities. The IAEA will issue a report summarizing its findings by December 2015. This progress, only possible following the striking of the JCPOA, should give the IAEA and international community greater insight into the extent of Iran’s past nuclear pursuits.
As a result, the JCPOA will reach “Adoption Day” by October 18, marking the point where the parties officially begin to undertake their obligations. Iran’s concessions are heavily front-loaded. In the months ahead, we should see Iran remove approximately 13,000 installed centrifuges, reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 97%, limit the enrichment of uranium to one heavily-monitored facility, destroy the core of the Arak reactor, and expand inspector access across its nuclear program, among other steps. Had opponents succeeded in killing the agreement, Iran’s nuclear program would be moving forward in the months ahead, not taking significant steps backward.
Iran has indicated that they hope to complete these steps by December 2015. U.S. assessments are more conservative, and it is possible that the work will stretch into the spring of 2016. However, there is incentive for Iran to hurry. While the U.S. and Europe are obligated to issue sanctions waivers on Adoption Day, those will only go into effect on “Implementation Day” – after Iran has completed its aforementioned nuclear obligations. Thus, sanctions will remain in place and Iran will not begin to see the economic benefit of the JCPOA for months. With parliamentary elections and a selection for Iran’s Assembly of Experts coming in February 2016, Rouhani will want to point to evidence of sanctions relief to energize his base and ensure that moderates make significant gains in both critical bodies. Such a shift would almost certainly increase the President’s political capital, and could make it easier for him to take on hardliners intent on maintaining Iran’s harsh security environment.
However, while the JCPOA enters this new phase, we have already seen evidence of hardliners digging in. The test-firing of a ballistic missile earlier this week, Supreme Leader Khamenei’s warning against further negotiations and U.S. influence, and the continuation of escalated human rights abuses overseen by the Iranian judiciary all signal trepidation with shifting events while foreshadowing a continued struggle over Iran’s direction in the wake of the deal. This was far from unexpected, as many observers predicted an initial hardening as factions seek to balance against the success and popularity of Rouhani and his team. Whether the U.S. signals moderation or doubles down on hostility in this new phase could tilt the scales of these coming domestic battles, and also expand or limit any potential diplomatic dividend that follows the nuclear agreement’s implementation.