Blog Post - Iran Matters

Iran Nuclear Deal Implementation Day: A Belfer Center Expert Round-Up

The Iran nuclear deal was officially implemented on Saturday, as Iran successfully fulfilled its initial key nuclear commitments and the international community relieved major sanctions, including unfreezing about $100 billion of Iranian money. Implementation Day was met with applause from deal supporters in the U.S. and Iran, while critics have raised questions about whether Iran will adhere to its requirements and how it will flex its newfound economic power. Also in recent days, the U.S. and Iran agreed to a prisoner swap that led to the freedom of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and others, and negotiated the release of American sailors detained in Iran. What does the arrival of Implementation Day mean for Iran’s nuclear program and nuclear nonproliferation, and how does it bode for the future of U.S.-Iran relations? We asked Belfer Center experts to weigh in on these and related questions.

Aaron Arnold, Associate, Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center:

Reaching Implementation Day is a testament to achieving what many saw as an impossible feat a few short months ago. In the near term, however, Iran’s march towards economic re-integration will be uphill, especially as many continue to view the Iranian market as plagued with uncertainty and risk. The World Bank’s global governance indicators, for example, place Iran in the lower percentiles for accountability, political stability, government effectiveness, quality of regulatory controls, rule of law, and control of corruption. Moreover, the U.S. will continue to enforce its non-nuclear sanctions, including secondary sanctions against the IRGC—an organization that keeps prominent ties to the commercial sector. This increases global banks’ compliance and monitoring costs and decreases the attractiveness of financing new lines of business. Finally, sanctions relief comes at a time when crude oil prices are sinking to 11-year lows, threatening to dash Iran’s prospects of increasing its oil production. Stabilizing oil prices, however, will likely require Saudi Arabia to pull back on its production—a dimming outlook given recent tensions between the two countries.

Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center:

Since the holidays, my mind has been mostly off in the Applied History file. Among the key questions applied historians ask is: What if? Answering that question requires counter-factual reasoning. That, of course, is subject to debate. But if I ask "What if" the Iran nuclear agreement had not been reached last summer, and consider where we would be today and what would be consuming our attention, my best bet goes as follows. Assume Prime Minister Netanyahu's campaign to spike any negotiated agreement had succeeded, or that after the agreement was initialed by Secretary Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, the Republican campaign in the Senate had succeeded in scuppering it. What would have followed?

The international community would have concluded that the U.S. government had become so paralyzed that it was unable to play any consistent role in the world. The international sanctions regime would have collapsed, with Russia, China, India, and most likely a number of European nations resuming trade and investments with Iran. Iran would have restarted the activity it froze during negotiations: enriching uranium, adding to its stockpile of six bombs-worth of nuclear material, installing additional centrifuges, and continuing construction on its heavy water reactor. This activity would continue shrinking Iran’s "breakout time” — the time required to produce enough nuclear material for one weapon—from the two months at which it had been frozen to one month, or one week, or closer. Israel's prime minister would be threatening to attack Iran—and seeking to push the U.S. into taking the lead. Republican candidates for president would be attacking President Obama for having failed to prevent Iran's acquiring a bomb.

In sum: the world could well have been on the brink of a third major war in the Middle East. So while the nuclear agreement does not resolve all the substantial differences between the U.S. and Iran, it does put what would have been the overriding international challenge of 2016 in a box for the next 15 years. For that, this observer is thankful.

Matthew Bunn, Professor of Practice; Co-Principal Investigator, Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center:

Iran has surprised many by fulfilling its agreement to take down two thirds of its centrifuges, ship out or blend down 98 percent of its enriched uranium, and pour cement into what had been the core structure of its Arak reactor. Iran is now much further from being able to make nuclear material for a bomb than it was, and if the agreement continues to be fully implemented, will stay that way for 10-15 years. This represents a triumph of diplomacy in reducing nuclear dangers.

But dangers remain, and there is much more to be done. This includes: scrupulously implementing our side of the agreement; pushing to ensure that Iran carries out its commitments, pushing back prudently and proportionately if Iran presses at the margins of the deal; giving the IAEA the funding, expertise, and political support it will need to play its role and exercise all of its rights (including inspecting military facilities if necessary); dealing appropriately with the inevitable disputes and disagreements that will arise; and working to strengthen the bulwarks against nuclear weapons in Iran and build a less conflict-prone relationship with Iran to reduce the security risks that could arise as key provisions of the deal phase out in 10-15 years.

Nicholas Burns, Director, Future of Diplomacy Project, Belfer Center:

"Despite criticism of the agreement from congressional opponents, there are clear benefits for American security. Iran’s nuclear program will be frozen for 10 to 15 years now that its plutonium production and uranium enrichment facilities have been largely dismantled. A vast majority of its enriched uranium has been shipped abroad. Tehran will be subject to tight international supervision and monitoring.….

One immediate challenge will be to deal with two Iranian governments at once. Mr. Kerry pounded out the agreement with the American-educated Mr. Zarif, who was backed by Iran’s reformist president, Hassan Rouhani. But real power still rests with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a recluse who is supremely distrustful of all things American and closer to the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps than to the reformists.

The guards corps’s influence over Iran’s national security strategy has been visible since the nuclear deal was announced. In recent weeks, Iran testedballistic missiles in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions and fired rockets close to American warships in the Strait of Hormuz. After detaining American sailors last week, Iran released a demeaning video of the incident.

The guards corps is also driving Iran’s continued support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria and the bloody government of President Bashar al-Assad. It is the guards corps that may be tempted to cheat on Iran’s nuclear obligations and return to taking American hostages.” (From “Talk to Iran but Talk Tough,” New York Times, Jan. 19, 2016)

Chuck Freilich, Senior Fellow, International Security Program, Belfer Center:

The big question is to what extent Iran will truly observe the nuclear deal now that it has achieved its objective—sanctions relief. Iran has not abandoned its long-term aspiration to achieve a nuclear capability and the U.S. and West must be highly vigilant in ensuring compliance. There is virtually no doubt that Iran will push the envelope to the limits, take advantage of every ambiguity and loophole, as demonstrated by its behavior on the missile issue, and seek to position itself as closely as possible to a breakout capability when the agreement expires. It is now time to address the issues that were not covered by the nuclear agreement: Iran’s ballistic missile program and its highly pernicious regional role, especially in Syria and Iraq. Iran remains an aggressive theocracy pursuing regional leadership if not hegemony. Even those who favor attempts at dialogue with the regime, as do I, must remember its fundamental character.

Olli Heinonen, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center:

With Implementation Day behind us, the true test of the JCPOA has now begun when the IAEA and Iran embark on the most important stretch, the long walk toward Transition Day. In other words, the IAEA needs to confirm that all nuclear materials in Iran are in peaceful use.

The JCPOA restricts Iran's uranium enrichment capabilities for a period of eight to 15 years. At the same time, with a carved out permitted uranium enrichment program in Iran, this agreement introduces permanently uranium enrichment in the Middle East. The agreement also does not explicitly forego plutonium separation in the longer term in Iran.

To reduce tensions, alleviate fears and prevent further nuclear proliferation in the region, the JCPOA negotiators have justified the agreement as one based on full transparency, robust verification and strict enforcement. The IAEA’s report acknowledges that Iran has met the key parameters stipulated under the JCPOA. However, it is not possible to infer from the report the actual verification results that would provide a composite picture of current nuclear material inventories and demonstrate how it meets the JCPOA requirements.

A substantially more detailed report from the IAEA in describing Iran's nuclear activities and implementation of the JCPOA is important on several counts. A detailed report would serve to reinforce the transparency of the agreement being enforced. Additional information, for instance on the types and frequencies of IAEA inspections, as well as approaches undertaken in its verification work, can build confidence on the conclusions drawn. An example of the more comprehensive type of reporting would be for the IAEA to include information on actions it has taken after finding (man-made) uranium particles from Parchin in the samples taken last September, four months ago. The presence of those particles is a matter of concern, since they could indicate the presence of undeclared nuclear material and activities.

Martin Malin, Director, Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center:

Will the nuclear deal with Iran contribute to a more general relaxation of tensions in the Middle East? The answer is no one knows yet, but the process of implementation will matter a lot. Since last July, internal political opposition in Iran and the United States has fueled defiant behavior on both sides. The parties also disagree sharply on key provisions of the deal and its accompanying UN Security Council resolution; restrictions governing Iran’s procurement of dual-use technology and prohibitions on its missile development are particularly contentious, as are the imposition or continuation of non-nuclear-related sanctions. If the JCPOA is to facilitate an ongoing process of confidence-building as intended, these disagreements must be viewed as evidence of the need for additional problem-solving, not as confirmation of the unchanging hostility of the other party. Fifteen years is a long time. The seeds of a transformation of interests are contained within the agreement. All sides face a choice, at least for now, of pursuing virtuous or vicious circles of action and reaction. A little strategic empathy in the months ahead could go a long way.

Payam Mohseni, Director, The Iran Project, Belfer Center:

With the implementation of the nuclear agreement and the lifting of international sanctions, analysts will be closely watching the political evolution of the Islamic Republic over the next 10 to 15 years. The immediate ramifications of the deal are most salient in the following key arenas:

Domestically, the nuclear deal has the potential to unravel President Rouhani’s broad coalition as conservatives and moderates had allied over one key objective: the lifting of economic sanctions. While Rouhani may be able to use the agreement to empower his own coterie in next month’s parliamentary elections, much will depend on how the Guardian Council tilts the playing field. News from Tehran suggests that reformists have faced mass disqualification but final decisions have yet to be announced.

Regionally, while the deal will enhance Iranian power in the Middle East, it is still uncertain whether Iran will assume a more conciliatory role or push forward with its revolutionary policies. Likely, the deal will enhance Iran as a “pragmatic-revolutionary” power which stays committed to its ideological tenets but shows more flexibility with adversaries.

Internationally, the agreement opens the door to the possibility of greater engagement between the U.S. and Iran. While the Iranians will tightly manage further openings due to hardliner concerns, there is nevertheless greater potential for cooperation on areas of mutual interest than ever before—a potential that must be seized by the U.S.

Richard Nephew, Program Director and Fellow, Center on Global Energy Policy, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University:

Saturday marked the start of the substance of the deal. For the United States and its partners, Iran’s nuclear program has been stalled and is now under intrusive monitoring. For Iran, sanctions relief will allow economic recovery and, possibly, the reform agenda on which President Rouhani was elected to advance. In time, Iran may be transformed by exposure to the international community (an existential threat to Iranian hardliners, who are working hard to prevent it). But, regardless, this transformation will not occur today; more conflict and confrontation are likely between the United States and Iran. It is critical that the United States wisely and carefully confront Iran where its actions are antithetical to our interests or infringe on the nuclear deal. It is also critical that U.S. actors do not help hardliners by undermining the nuclear deal through rash, counterproductive and unnecessary actions.

Gary Samore, Executive Director for Research, Belfer Center:

Implementation Day represents the essential bargain of the nuclear deal: Iran gets significant sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling much of its nuclear program.  The big question now is whether (or for how long) the deal can survive, given political opposition in both Washington and Tehran and the array of disputes and tensions between the U.S. and Iran outside the narrow parameters of the nuclear issue itself. At least for the immediate future, both the Obama and Rouhani administrations have a strong interest in keeping the deal in place and both seem to possess sufficient political power to defend the agreement against domestic opponents. The longer term is more difficult to predict. The U.S. presidential elections could produce a new administration either openly hostile to the agreement or more determined to punish Iran for non-nuclear behavior that the U.S. opposes. And, as Supreme Leader Khamenei has made clear, the nuclear deal does not fundamentally alter Iran’s suspicion of American influence inside Iran or Iran’s opposition to the U.S. and its allies in the region. In short, Implementation Day is an important achievement but sustaining the deal will require constant attention and hard work.

William Tobey, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center:

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got it about right: “We’ve had one good day over 36 years . . .”

Against years of Iran’s Supreme Leader inciting mobs chanting “Death to America,” backed by kidnappings, bombings, assassinations, and attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, and multiple instances of cheating documented by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the significance of Implementation Day looks less certain.

In his letter to President Rouhani approving the deal, Iran’s Supreme Leader committed to an enrichment capacity nearly 20 times the 2015 level. The vaunted one-year “breakout” time will shrink to days—with U.S. acquiescence. Tehran will justifiably argue that no further action can be taken to prevent it from edging to the brink of a nuclear weapon.

To “cut off every pathway for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon,” the standard set by President Obama, we will need far more than one good day.

Stephen Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Belfer Center:

After Implementation Day: Quo Vadis?

Capping Iran’s nuclear potential was a significant diplomatic achievement, but the more important issue is what the deal portends for Iran’s relations with the international community and especially the United States. The swift and straightforward release of U.S. Navy personnel who had mistakenly entered Iranian territorial waters last week and the subsequent prisoner exchange suggests that the nuclear deal has strengthened moderate elements in Iran and holds out the prospect of a more business-like relationship between Washington and Tehran in the future.

Make no mistake: there are still important conflicts of interest between the two countries and addressing them will require patience, resolve, creativity, and flexibility. But the level of rancor and demonization that has characterized U.S.-Iranian relations for 36 years has been harmful to both countries, because it prevented them from collaborating when their interests overlapped and encouraged both sides to take actions that reinforced the other’s worst fears.

In addition to monitoring Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, the United States should continue to work toward a more normal relationship with Iran. Not in a spirit of naïve idealism, but because Iran is an important regional player that cannot be excluded from any serious effort to address the many challenges that are convulsing the Middle East.

This effort may not succeed, but the nuclear deal shows what the United States and Iran can accomplish when they engage in serious diplomacy instead of mindless threat-mongering. If hardliners in Iran, the United States, or other Middle Eastern countries succeed in reversing these hopeful developments and returning relations with Iran to the deep freeze, a great opportunity will have been squandered.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Arnold, Aaron, Graham Allison, Matthew Bunn, Nicholas Burns, Chuck Freilich, Olli Heinonen, Martin B. Malin, Payam Mohseni, Gary Samore, William H. Tobey and Stephen M. Walt.Iran Nuclear Deal Implementation Day: A Belfer Center Expert Round-Up.” Iran Matters, January 19, 2016,

The Authors

Graham Allison headshot

Nicholas Burns

Chuck Freilich

Gary Samore

Stephen Walt