Nuclear Negotiations with Iran: Lessons Learned and Next Steps

February 20, 2020

Publication Type: 

  • Speeches and Testimony

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


Valerie Lincy

On February 20, 2020 the Garfield Center for Public Leadership at Hiram College in Ohio held a seminar entitled, “Nuclear Negotiations with Iran: Lesson Learned and Next Steps.” The Wisconsin Project's Executive Director, Valerie Lincy, joined Ambassador Laura Kennedy on a panel moderated by James Thompson, Associate Professor of Political Science at Hiram College. Ms. Lincy provided an analysis of international efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program and outlined the Wisconsin Project’s work to support this effort. A summary of her remarks is included below.

  1. History of Wisconsin Project Work on Iran

I've organized my remarks by looking back at the milestones along Iran's nuclear path and how a non-governmental organization like the Wisconsin Project has contributed to policy formation and implementation at these critical junctures.

To do this, we need to take a giant step back. While the lead up to the nuclear agreement struck in 2015 and the subsequent U.S. withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 has generated a lot of attention. However, the nuclear proliferation threat from Iran did not start in 2015. This threat has been growing for decades.

The Wisconsin Project was founded in 1986 with the mission of preventing what we call strategic trade from contributing to nuclear weapon programs. Much of the research and advocacy that we've undertaken as an organization has focused on the ways in which technology from the United States and other countries has helped Iran's nuclear weapon and ballistic missile efforts. As an private organization, we rely only on unclassified, open source information to support this research.

I looked back at some of the organization’s first publications on Iran and came upon two that I'll describe briefly.

  • In the early 1990s, the organization raised the alarm about proliferation from China to Iran. We did this through testimony before Congress, op-eds, and reports. In this testimony, we described assistance from China to Iran's nuclear program in the late 1980s, before China acceded to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT). This was roughly around the same time that Iran was importing very sensitive nuclear technology and perhaps nuclear weapon designs from Pakistan.
  • In another example, we published a report in 1991 about licensed trade in dual-use technology – sensitive technology that has military and civilian applications – from the United States to Iran. According to this report, between 1986 and 1990, the U.S. sent 372 dual-use exports to Iran worth $282 million, mostly represents sales of missile-related technology.

Iran has been seen as a threat to the nonproliferation regime for decades and has been critically reliant on imports from the United States, Europe and Asia to build its programs of concern.


  1. Iran Watch

The urgency of the Iranian nuclear threat increased dramatically in 2003, at least publicly, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran was planning to build expansive centrifuge enrichment facility and a heavy water reactor complex. These two projects were red flags. Why? Because they provide Iran with a pathway to make two nuclear weapon fuels: highly enriched uranium and plutonium.

At a plant called Natanz, Iran planned to install tens of thousands of gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment. Processing, or enriching uranium can yield fuel for nuclear weapons (if highly enriched) or for reactors (if enriched to a lower level).

  • Iran said it wanted to use these centrifuges to make fuel for its nuclear power reactor.
  • But the one reactor at Bushehr, not yet online, was going to be fueled by Russia, which was building the reactor.
  • There was no practical short or medium-term commercial application for the centrifuges, but there was practical nuclear weapon application.

Iran's planned to construct a heavy water reactor at Arak alongside a heavy water production plant, for the stated purpose of supporting research and radioisotope production.

  • But the size and type of reactor was a red flag because it's widely considered larger than necessary for research.
  • Most countries that have built this type of reactor have used it to produce fuel for nuclear weapons. The well-known precedents are Israel's Dimona reactor, supplied by France and Norway, and India's Cirus reactor, supplied by Canada and the United States.

In addition to plans for both these plants, Iran was found by the IAEA to have been conducting clandestine nuclear work using imported nuclear material, without declaring any of this activity to the IAEA.

In response to these developments, the Wisconsin Project launched a website on Iran, called Iran Watch. The aim of the website was to provide a resource of primary source documents about the Iranian proliferation threat (e.g. IAEA documents, statements by Iran) and to provide a platform for our analysis.

In the early years of the site, we focused on explaining the interconnection between Iran's nuclear power ambitions and its nuclear weapon ambitions. On example, from August 2003, is an op-ed in the New York Times: “Iran's Nuclear Program, for Electricity or a Bomb?” Our aim was to show, step-by-step, why it's difficult to know if uranium from a power program is being used to make weapons. We examined different steps in uranium processing and asked if Iran could accomplish each step legally under the NPT, and what nuclear inspections can and cannot tell us about the program’s status. We illustrated how far along the path to nuclear weapons Iran could get while claiming peaceful intent or masking any military aims from international inspectors.

Unfortunately neither Iran Watch, nor the JCPOA, nor the Trump administration's withdrawal from the JCPOA, have resolved the Iranian nuclear crisis, so our work on Iran continues. The Iran Watch website continues and is now in its 18th year. The website now also has a focus on sanctions, which have become a critical part of U.S. nonproliferation policy vis-a-vis Iran.


  1. Early Nuclear Negotiations

But let's go back to 2003 for a moment, which is when nuclear negotiations with Iran ramped up. Germany, France, and the United Kingdom led an effort to freeze Iran's nuclear progress after revelations about the expansive nature of Iran's nuclear plans and Iran's failure to declare its work to the IAEA as required by its commitments under the NPT.

This diplomatic effort had some limited success but ultimately failed because:

  • The U.S. wasn't at the negotiating table and we can deliver what Iran most wants, which is relief from sanctions.
  • The agreement wasn't sufficiently technically specific. What nuclear work could Iran do or not do? The agreement didn't spell this out in order to avoid controversy, but as a result there were a number of loopholes.

Both of these shortcomings were addressed in subsequent negotiations that led to the JCPOA.

Negotiations with the EU ultimately fell apart and in 2005 Iran was found in noncompliance with its NPT obligations; the case of noncompliance was sent from the IAEA to the U.N. Security Council.

This shifted the dynamic away from negotiation and toward sanctions – a dynamic that continued for some years, multilaterally as well as nationally. In this summary timeline, you can see that between 2006 and 2010 the Security Council adopted four resolutions applying increasingly strong sanctions against Iran. These resolutions were adopted with support from Russia and China, so there was a broad international coalition that recognized the need to do something about Iran's nuclear program and its nuclear violations.

Here I'll pause again to tell you how a NGO like the Wisconsin Project contributed to the sanctions policy implementation process. The first Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran was adopted in December 2006 and focused mainly on Iran's nuclear and missile programs. A handful of Iranian firms and individuals were placed on the U.N. blacklist because of their role in these programs. The resolution stated that all entities owned or controlled by those listed were also covered by the sanctions. We prepared a report using open sources to identify those related entities, which should be covered by the sanctions. We provided the report to U.S. government agencies involved in sanctions policy and to key EU governments, with all of our source documentation. They, in turn, were able to use our information in the sanctions process. This method of providing governments with open source information for the purpose of sanctions implementation continued for a number of years.

The sanctions were increasingly expansive, targeting not just Iran's nuclear and missile programs but also the sectors and industries in Iran that support the economy, in particular the energy sector. By 2012, the EU and many of Iran's principal oil customers began moving away from purchasing oil and even financing and insuring Iranian oil shipments.


  1. Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

Ultimately, the sanctions were sufficiently painful to motivate Iran to return to the negotiating table and the United States and its partners achieved first a temporary and then a more comprehensive agreement – the JCPOA – in July 2015. The Trump administration withdrew from the agreement in May 2018.

So what are the lessons learned from this experience? To promote the JCPOA, the Obama Administration launched a vigorous campaign in support of the agreement. That campaign was ultimately successful but extremely divisive. The administration argued that you either supported the agreement or you were in favor of war with Iran. We are still living with that divisiveness.

Iran became a partisan foreign policy issue on Capitol Hill, whereas Iran policy had largely been nonpartisan previously. Republicans and many Democrats in Congress did not like the agreement. Some experts in the research and NGO communities didn't like it either. But Democrats in Congress were ultimately brought around to support it as a signature foreign policy accomplishment of the Obama administration, if not for the agreement itself. Many progressive NGOs likewise supported it.

At the Wisconsin Project, our aim was to provide objective analysis about the agreement itself. What were its strengths and weaknesses? What should we watch for in implementation that might present a challenge? For example, we created a timeline showing the different nuclear restrictions of the agreement and how long each restriction remains in place.

Opponents of the agreement argued that it wasn't sufficiently comprehensive. Specifically, they noted shortcomings related to ballistic missile restrictions, prohibitions on arms imports and exports, support for terrorism, and the agreement's "sunset" provisions.

Failure to directly restrict Iran's ballistic missile program:

  • Missiles are an integral part of a country's nuclear deterrent. Historically, countries that have nuclear warheads have all chosen missiles to deliver them; you don't see a nuclear weapon program without a missile program.
  • There are longstanding U.S. intelligence community findings that Iran's ballistic missiles are inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons and that Iran would chose a missile as its nuclear weapon delivery vehicle.
  • Missile restrictions were included in all previous Security Council sanctions resolutions, as integrally tied to the nuclear program. The United Nations had previously required a freeze on both programs.

Failure to directly restrict Iran's arms imports and exports and no effort to prevent Iran's support of terrorism and other "malign" activity.

  • Such activity was an increasing problem at that time the JCPOA was struck, with Iran's presence directly or through proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere often operating counter to U.S. interests.

Almost all meaningful nuclear restrictions expire after a period of time.

  • Iran is not permitted to have nuclear weapons as part of its commitment as a non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.
  • However, there was a sense that Iran had cheated in the past and that cheating pointed clearly to nuclear weapons intention.
  • Many concluded that Iran couldn't be trusted to get to the point where it would be a screw's turn from nuclear weapons, which the JCPOA would eventually allow – albeit at some point in the future.


  1. Current status: US withdrawal and Maximum Pressure

The United States has withdrawn from the JCPOA and imposed sanctions on essentially every aspect of Iran's economy. The key to these sanctions is their secondary nature. That is, almost all sanctions reach beyond U.S. border to penalize – potentially – any foreign party that trades with Iran in pretty much anything. The Trump administration issued some waivers early on that allowed countries to continue purchasing Iranian oil, but those have been revoked.

The most impactful sanctions have been on Iran's energy and financial sectors. Essentially, any foreign party that uses the U.S. dollar in a transaction is exposed to U.S. sanctions. We are seeing the power of the U.S. dollar in supporting an expansive sanctions regime that is having an effect well beyond bilateral U.S.-Iran trade.

Some have criticized the administration for mounting what has been a successful sanctions campaign without having that campaign support a coherent Iran strategy. Specifically:

  • A focus on Iran's malign actions in the Middle East is contradicted by a decision to reduce the U.S. military footprint in the region, which allows Iran and its proxies to gain ground and influence in Iraq and Syria.
  • Withdrawal from the nuclear agreement without a plan in place for when Iran begins to really expand its nuclear program.
  • A break with European allies committed to the JCPOA and then an expectation of their support to extend a U.N. arms embargo, which expires this year.


  1. Iran's Recent Nuclear Steps

What has Iran done since the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018? Iran’s response was initially quite muted. It took no public action outside of the agreement for about one year, hoping that the EU could cobble together a mechanism through which trade could continue outside the reach of U.S. sanctions. This hope has been dashed.

As a result, beginning last July, Iran began unwinding its commitment to the nuclear restrictions of the agreement. It began enriching uranium to a level higher than permitted by the JCPOA. In August, Iran exceeded a cap on the amount of low-enriched uranium it is allowed to stockpile. In September, it began expanding work on more advanced types of centrifuges, capable of enriching uranium more efficiently. In November, Iran resumed uranium enrichment at a plant called Fordow, which is located unground and fortified against attack.

Overall, I wouldn't qualify the steps as dramatic from a proliferation point of view. This is not a full tilt effort to reinstall all nuclear capacity and get the program back up to where it was before the agreement. I would say that that Iran's actions remain in the realm of political signaling.

But the nature of the program is such that the more time passes, the further away Iran gets from what it agreed to under JCPOA and the closer it gets to the ability to fuel a nuclear weapon. Then people will once again start worrying about Iran's nuclear "breakout" ability – the ability to make a dash to produce nuclear weapon. That took up a lot time and energy before the agreement.


  1. Actions by the European Union

Despite U.S. withdrawal and the re-imposition of sanctions, and despite Iran's violations of its nuclear commitments, the deal is not totally dead. That's in large part because the EU is determined to try and preserve the agreement – at least its framework. In response to Iran's actions, the EU has triggered the so-called "dispute resolution mechanism" that is allowed for in the JCPOA.

However, the EU has made very clear that it does not see this as fast track to sending Iran back to the U.N. Security Council. The EU has essentially agreed discuss how to resolve the dispute – namely how to convince Iran to reverse its nuclear steps – for an indefinite length of time.

This is contrary to what the Trump administration was hoping for, which was a quick referral back to the Security Council and the re-imposition of U.N. sanction.


  1. U.N. Security Council resolution 2231

I'd like to say a few words about the role that the United Nations plays in this process. First, there is a U.N. resolution endorsing the agreement itself, resolution 2231. This resolution also imposes restrictions on Iran's missile and military programs. These programs aren’t part of the agreement itself, but they are taken up in the resolution.

Unfortunately, Iran is ignoring everything that is restricted in the resolution, and there is no way to enforce the restrictions because there's no consensus in the Security Council. China and Russia are supporting Iran's looser interpretation of the restrictions. Many of these restrictions also expire. The arms embargo will be lifted in October of this year. Ballistic missile-related restrictions expire in 2023. The resolution also sets up a procurement channel through which Iran is meant to be able to receive sensitive nuclear imports.

The United States is anxious to extend the U.N. arms restrictions, but here again there is no consensus among Security Council members.

If the EU ultimately decides that it cannot resolve its dispute with Iran, the EU can send the issue to the Security Council. At this point, past U.N. sanctions could automatically "snapback" if the Council doesn't unanimously agreed to extend them. This is where the United States could play a key role by refusing to continue lifting multilateral sanctions. Because the United States withdrew from the agreement, it is not able to directly weigh into the discussion currently taking place between Iran and the EU in the JCPOA's Joint Commission.


  1. Looking Forward

Why should Iran be considered a serious and ongoing proliferation threat and a challenge to the nonproliferation regime? What should we be worried about, with or without the JCPOA?

First, Iran has not come clean about its work on nuclear weaponization – not just its efforts to make nuclear weapon fuel but work the non-nuclear components of a weapon, such as the explosives and triggers. We know this because of a longstanding investigation by the IAEA into "possible military dimensions" (PMD) of Iran's nuclear program. The IAEA found strong evidence of an overlap between nuclear and military authorities in Iran and that Iran conducted specific technical work that doesn't have a reasonable peaceful application.

This PMD investigation was not satisfactorily concluded by the IAEA; Iran was never required to make a full declaration of this work. The logic behind this decision was that the United States and its negotiating partners knew what Iran had done and didn't need Iran to come clean about it.

In April 2018, the wisdom of this decision was undermined when we found out about an Israeli raid on a warehouse in Tehran. In an address on live television, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the raid earlier that year during which Israeli intelligence operatives seized tens of thousands of pages of records documenting Iran's past nuclear weapon effort. This is the so-called "atomic archive." These records appear to be official Iranian documents and they provide (according to Netanyahu) new detail about Iran’s Project Amad, a coordinated nuclear weapon program that ran between 1999 and 2003.

In 2003, according to the documents, Iran divided its nuclear program between covert and overt activities. Covert or uncontaminated work without nuclear material was moved to military research institutes and sites. A team of experts was kept together to continue work on this project. Meanwhile, work involving nuclear material that could be detected by IAEA inspectors was moved to universities and public research institutes. The dual-use nature of this work allowed it be assigned a civilian purpose.

It's important to remember that the archive is a snapshot in time taken around 2003. But there's no confirmation that Iran ever canceled the covert stream. The IAEA says that parts of the nuclear weapon effort continued until at least 2009. And in the absence of a declaration from Iran about its past work, the question of weaponization is a continuing area of concern.

Second, Iran's plans for an expansive nuclear power program is also a cause for concern, because such a program includes the ability to make and reprocess nuclear fuel and therefore, inherently, the ability to produce nuclear weapon fuel.

Despite the nuclear material that Iran sent out of the country as part of the JCPOA, Iran still possesses the nuclear know-how as well as key equipment (centrifuges). These machines were dismantled but not removed. They could be reinstalled and operated for the purpose of producing enriched uranium.

Finally, Iran continues to seek sensitive technology illicitly, using overseas networks and agents. This has been a longstanding focus of the Wisconsin Project. According to information published by the United Nations and according to U.S. export enforcement cases, Iran is still dependent upon and seeking to acquire U.S. and European origin goods and technology. In addition, China has become both a source of such items as well as a location through which U.S. technology is often transshipped. Iran relies on brokers and front companies to mask its involvement. And Iran exploits high-traffic transshipment points to mask ultimate destination of the items, including Hong Kong, Malaysia, Turkey, and the UAE.

Thank you very much for your attention. I'll stop here and look forward to your questions and comments.