Iran Deal Hits a Milestone as Challenges Mount

Tehran has gotten rid of huge amounts of uranium, but opponents in Washington and Iran could still derail the landmark deal.

United States Secretary of State John Kerry poses with Foreign Affairs Minister of Iran Javad Zarif during a bilateral talk at the United Nations headquarters on September 26, 2015, at the United Nations in New York. AFP PHOTO/Dominick Reuter        (Photo credit should read DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)
United States Secretary of State John Kerry poses with Foreign Affairs Minister of Iran Javad Zarif during a bilateral talk at the United Nations headquarters on September 26, 2015, at the United Nations in New York. AFP PHOTO/Dominick Reuter (Photo credit should read DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran has shipped more than 25,000 pounds of nuclear material to Russia, a major milestone that leaves the Islamic Republic without enough low-enriched uranium to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

But the development comes as tensions over the Obama administration’s landmark nuclear deal with Tehran emerge from a variety of quarters in the United States and Iran, raising concerns about the deal’s long-term viability.

In Congress, Republicans and some Democrats are hammering the Obama administration for not responding more aggressively after a United Nations panel said earlier this month that Iran had violated a U.N. Security Council resolution by testing a ballistic missile in October.

After the U.N. panel’s findings, Senate Republicans introduced legislation to bar the Obama administration from lifting sanctions on Iran, as agreed to in the nuclear deal, until it certifies that Iran has ended any military-related activity in connection to its nuclear program, among other things. The Obama administration opposes the legislation.

In Iran, the Foreign Ministry is furious over new U.S. visa rules it says violate the nuclear deal by impeding Iranian business. (A spokesman for the ministry said on Monday that Iran may take “its own steps in response.”)

The moves demonstrate the delicate nature of the deal and its vulnerabilities to political shifts in both the United States and Iran. The two sides are looking ahead to “implementation day,” when the International Atomic Energy Agency verifies that Tehran has complied with all its nuclear commitments and stretched out the length of time Iran would need to develop enough nuclear material to build a bomb to one year.

Despite recent tensions surrounding the deal, the White House is confident in its durability and says few would have envisioned the progress made thus far even a year ago.

“For the first time in almost a decade, Iran does not have enough low-enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon,” a senior administration official told Foreign Policy. “That is a remarkable accomplishment.”

Still, critics charge that the administration’s lack of firm response to the Iranian ballistic missile tests give Tehran a green light to develop its missile program while staying in compliance with its nuclear-related commitments.

“Iran simply has to follow the deal to emerge in 10 to 15 years as a much more dangerous adversary with a massive nuclear program, a short path to a bomb, [and] intercontinental ballistic missiles,” Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told FP. Dubowitz has long been one of the deal’s most prominent critics.

Since the signing of the nuclear accord in July, experts say Iran has complied surprisingly quickly with its obligations under the deal but point to a number of obstacles that remain.

Under the agreement, Iran committed to exporting all except 300 kilograms, or about 660 pounds, of its low-enriched uranium. For uranium enriched to near 20 percent, it agreed to either process it into low-enriched uranium, export it, or transform it into fuel plates for a research reactor. It also agreed to accept inspections in exchange for the lifting of a raft of economic sanctions and the release of about $100 billion in frozen Iranian assets.

On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said a Russian ship, the Mikhail Dudin, transported 25,000 pounds of Iranian nuclear material, including its uranium enriched to almost 20 percent, or close to bomb grade.

Besides the stockpiles, Iran has redesigned its Arak reactor, taken steps to reduce its uranium enrichment program, and put in place additional monitoring and verification controls. But experts say the shipment of uranium is by far its most significant step.

“Shipping out the stockpile is a point of no return — it reduces Iran’s nuclear capacity and increases the time it would take for Tehran to move toward nuclear weapons,” said Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association and a supporter of the agreement. “The other steps Iran has taken thus far are reversible. Iran could reinstall the centrifuges it removed, but its enriched uranium is now out of reach.”

David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, said many security experts had doubted Iran would be willing to ship out its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, or LEU. “There was some nervousness in our part of the world that Iran would pull a fast one on the LEU stocks,” he said. “That was a very solid accomplishment.”

The other major boxes Iran still needs to check are the full dismantling of its 13,000 centrifuges, the disabling of the core of the Arak reactor, and taking steps to increase international monitoring and surveillance.

Those steps could occur as quickly as late January, say officials, but that doesn’t mean implementation of the deal has been a smooth ride.

The anger on Capitol Hill over the Iranian ballistic missile test poses one major challenge.

The Obama administration says it’s considering ways to punish Iran for its missile test, but it maintains that Tehran’s launch only violated U.N. Security Council resolutions, not the Iran deal itself. As such, the administration is opposed to the GOP proposals that would put the United States in violation of the agreement.

“We have a whole series of … multilateral tools and unilateral tools to counter Iran,” outside of using nuclear-related sanctions, said the official.

The administration could run into further difficulties with Iran depending on Tehran’s interpretation of new U.S. visa restrictions, which it says violate the nuclear agreement.

In December, President Barack Obama signed into law rules restricting visa-free travel for individuals who have visited Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan in the past five years. The law affects 38 countries that have visa waiver arrangements with the United States and is framed as a measure to prevent Islamic State terrorists from entering the homeland. Given Iran’s staunch opposition to the Islamic State, and the fact that the Shiite-dominated country has not been known to export fighters to the Sunni extremist group, Tehran has lambasted the legislation as senseless.

“Any steps taken outside the agreement are unacceptable to Iran, and Iran will take its own steps in response where necessary,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari said Monday referring to the legislation.

Attempting to ease Iranian concerns, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said Monday that the United States would ensure that it doesn’t prevent “permissible business activities with Iran.”

It remains unclear how Tehran might respond and how far it might go to risk unraveling the deal.

For the moment, Iran has enjoyed a degree of legitimacy from the deal in the form of high-level visits and meetings from political and business leaders.

Next month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to make his first trip to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis. The self-declared moderate was supposed to visit the tiny city-state in November as part of his European tour of Italy and France, but the trip was nixed following the terrorist attacks in Paris.

On the financial front, the governments of Germany, France, and Italy have already sent delegations to Iran to scope out the possibilities for new commercial opportunities, and an uptick in business from China and Russia is widely expected. Still many Western firms remain wary of falling prey to many of the existing sanctions in place against Iran.

The prospect of sanctions relief has translated into tremendous investor and trader enthusiasm in potential new business in Iran,” Elizabeth Rosenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told FP. “But those large foreign companies that understand the exposure to U.S. sanctions that they will still have even after implementation day are wary.”

“Their bankers and underwriters are even more nervous and see little incentive to flirt with the tremendous penalties that will come with violating sanctions,” she added.

Despite the wave of skepticism toward the deal from the U.S. Congress and Iranian hard-liners — as well as the prospect of a Republican president taking office in 2017 — the White House remains optimistic about the deal’s staying power.

“It’s shown its durability to date,” said the senior administration official. “We’re seeing elements of the opposition in both countries continue to oppose the deal, but it’s structured in such a way, and endorsed not only by the U.N. Security Council but just about every country in the world, that the political winds are not likely to derail this deal.”

Photo credit: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

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