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The US Past And Present Position On Iran WMD Programs – Analysis

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For the last four decades, the United States has been in diplomatic conflict with Iran due to the problem of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). From as early as the 1950s, the United States helped the Iranian government develop its nuclear energy capacity by training their personnel and acquiring the infrastructure to enrich uranium. Unsuccessfully, the change of regime in 1979 threw the United States off the control of the Gulf States as the new revolutionary regime drafted a new chapter for the country under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (Katzman, 2011).

Due to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s uncompromising stance on Iran, he openly contends with Tehran’s renegotiation. As a result, to show his seemingly unyielding support of Israel, in May 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out from the deal negotiated under his predecessor, President Barack Obama. He, Mr. Trump, reinstated stringent economic sanctions against Iran, aiming to destabilize its economy and primarily the oil revenue and financial institutions. The decision to pull out from the JCPOA was a colossal obstacle in discouraging and preventing Iran from seeking nuclear weapons. These sanctions may work for a short while; however, it will not stop Iran from attaining its optimum goal of becoming a nuclear country and a power broker in the region. Briefly, the sanctions fuel the Iranians’ ambition to obtain a nuclear arsenal. In turn, it will use it as an honor for the Iranian people and more so to leverage when negotiating with the world powers.  

Today, the Trump administration still faces Iran’s threat, like was the case with the last five presidents of the United States. The U.S. has to draft a new policy on Iran that will ensure WMD’s threat no longer persists. President Donald Trump has openly stated that his administration has no interest in continue honoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement signed in 2015 by Iran and the P5+1 parties (Fikenscher, 2015).  Hence, based on the development, the country needs to urgently draft an effective policy that will settle Iran’s issue. Many believed that the JCPOA agreement would solve the problem as the western countries had already lifted some of the economic sanctions imposed on Iran. However, President Trump thinks it is possible to get a better deal that would not favor Iran as the case is with JCPOA. As such, this policy background will analyze the available information on Iran’s WMD, assess the options available to the United States, and recommend an appropriate course of action. 

Definition of Terms

1. Uranium-this is a radioactive chemical element that is the main ingredient in nuclear energy production. 2. Weapons of Mass Destruction- refers to the different types of weapons that may be biological, chemical, radioactive, that can cause massive destruction of human lives, infrastructure, and natural habitats. 3. Economic Sanctions- these are trade bans imposed on a country such that other states cannot do business with it. 4. Nuclear reactor- a device that can control and maintain a chain of nuclear chain reactions.

Iran Interest in Enrichment and Reprocessing Capabilities1

In 2007, The U.S. Intelligence community conducted a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s WMD capability. The intelligence community concluded with “high confidence” that Iran had advanced technologically to the point that it can enrich uranium, build nuclear warhead systems, along with the delivery capability that would allow it to launch a nuclear arsenal reasonably in a short period. As alluded to earlier, Iran’s optimum desire is to become a power broker in the region, thus working hard days and nights to attain such status (Clapper, 2012). In 2014, it became clear that Iran has two major facilities that enrich gas centrifuge, and they include the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant and the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (Conca, 2017). The processes at the two facilities are currently enriching centrifuge that produces low-enriched uranium (LEU). As it stands, the LEU can only be used in research reactors and nuclear power. They have a concentration of 5% to 25% of the uranium-235 isotope. 

On the other hand, highly enriched uranium (HEU) capable of being weaponized contains more than 90% of uranium-235 (Katzman, 2017). It is also clear that Iran is in the process of developing its nuclear reactor in Arak that uses heavy water to generate nuclear energy that has plutonium. Even so, the Iranian government indicates that the plant intends to produce radioisotopes for research and medical purposes. There is a high possibility that the country can engage in reprocessing that will separate the plutonium from the fuel and make weapons (Tabatabai and Samuel, 2017).  For this reason, the United States still believes that Iran has within its reach nuclear weapons based on the current capacity of its nuclear reactor facilities.

Analyzing Iran’s Suspected Past Nuclear Weapons Progress.

Iran has progressively improved its nuclear capabilities over the years. Iran started with building the Tehran Nuclear Research Center to host all the planned activities of developing nuclear energy. In 1967, the country received its first 5.54kg enriched uranium from the United States (Hirsh, 2018). A year later, Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which solidified its position as one of the limited numbers of states in the area to pursue nuclear energy development. The western powers believed that President Mohamed Reza Pahlavi had good intentions for the country and was in full control of its political power (Bipartisan Policy Center, 2018). Besides the United States, private entities and governments, such as Germany and France, signed deals with Iran to advance their nuclear technology and facilities. 

Presently, independent investigation and the declarations from Iran based on the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) deal in 2014, Iran had remarkably advanced its technologies and was able to develop nuclear weapons. According to Hirsh, Iran has a nuclear power reactor built by the Russians (Hamilton, 2010). It appears the country abandoned most of its old nuclear technology initiated by the Germans and Americans in the 1970s, before the revolution. Tabatabai notes that the bombing of some of the facilities by Iraq forces in the 1980s slowed down the facilities’ development. Iran’s joining the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was good riddance to the international community as that would allow inspectors from the agency to assess the nuclear development activities. In 2003, the IAEA asserted that Iran’s nuclear facilities were all within the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s limits.

However, reports over the years indicated that Iran advanced its nuclear capabilities towards developing weapons. In 2007, Iran’s interior minister admitted they had 3,000 centrifuges, 100 kilograms of enriched uranium, 150 tons of material to produce uranium gas (CNN, Iran’s nuclear capabilities, 2018). The government of Iran further announced its uranium enrichment program at the Natanz pilot enrichment plant. Hence, with the assistance of the United Nations Security Council, the international community pressured Iran to stop their nuclear activities geared towards developing weapons of mass destruction.

Way Forward for Inspections.

Since Iran joined the Nonproliferation Treaty in the early 1970s, it has become a primary focus of the IAEA. The country signed the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) in 1974 before the revolution, and everything seemed okay with the country’s nuclear activities until the 1979 revolution (Samore et al., 2015). The last few decades’ lessons suggested that the new regime intended to use the existing facilities to improve the country’s capacity to build WMD. The discovery of clandestine nuclear activities by Israeli intelligence in 2002 showed the world the essence of intensifying inspections and verifying the country’s nuclear programs (Besheer, 2018). 

The United States has been in the vanguard to pressure both the United Nations and the IAEA to monitor Iran’s activities closely. The signing of the JPOA in 2015 was a crucial step in creating an open space for inspections and verification process. The agreement indicated that Iran would only maintain its Natanz nuclear plant for eight years and allow the IAEA to conduct surprise inspections in them even that they suspect a breach of the deal (Kim, 2018). Apparently, this agreement was a fair deal that would keep Iran in check, expecting that the threat of economic sanctions would keep them off the illegal activities.

Regrettably, the U.S. dismissed the JPOA agreement in 2018, and the issue of inspection reverts to the previous plan guided by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (Weeks, 1999). Without a working agreement in place, the United States and its allies will have to rely on covert means to monitor Iran’s situation. Fallows argues that even with the undercover collection of information from Iran, the United States will still depend on IAEA to verify WMDs’ presence in the country (Fallows, 2018).

The Trump government’s hawkish stance against Iran in general and particularly its ambition to acquire WMD has hardened Tehran’s opposition toward the United States demands and more so to renegotiate with the U.S. from scratch leaving it more vulnerable to crippling economic sanctions. Furthermore, the U.S. unrealistic demands for a drastic redirecting of Iran’s ambition for nuclear weapons will not yield the desired outcome pleasing to the U.S.  Additionally, the U.S. warlike attitude against JCPOA has alienated many of our partners to urge Iran to uphold and honor the JCPOA. In contrast, those partners continue to talk to the Trump administration for a possible acceptable agreement by both sides.

Policy Options.

The following policy options should guide the United States in the process of dealing with the current threat of Iran and WMD.

Diplomatic Approach 

The relative success of both the JPA and JPOA is attributable primarily to the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts and the other countries. Despite issuing economic sanctions, it was evident that President Obama was inclined to negotiate with the Iranian government to pursue nuclear energy powers. Kerr and Katzman assert that the fact that Iran is a party to the NPT gives them a right to pursue safe nuclear energy (Kerr and Katzman, 2018). Consequently, attempts to make Iran abandons its activities in totality are likely to face obstacles. Correspondingly, the diplomatic option would help the U.S. negotiate a better deal with other interested parties’ help. 

Informational approach

As it stands, the United States remains an indirect threat to Iran’s activities to develop WMD. Hourta believes that Iran’s ultimate objective is not to attack the United States or any European countries but to dominate the Persian Gulf region, particularly (Hourta, 2017).  Acquiring weapons of mass destruction would make Iran a formidable power in the area, and they will also have leverage when negotiating with the western powers. As a result, the United States can adopt a covert approach that relies on gathering information on Iran’s developments and making them available to the relevant authorities. Kaye and Wehrey argue that countries that face a direct threat from Iran, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, will benefit from such information (Kaye and Wehrey, 2007). Additionally, when accurate and credible information is available on Iran’s activities geared towards developing WMD, then the United Nations and many participating international bodies can act swiftly.

Military approach

Within the United States, it is possible to develop a policy that would engage the military in forcing Iran to submit to international regulations on nuclear energy. In this case, the U.S. can directly invade Iran and destroy all the nuclear facilities or find proxies to engage the Iranian government. Such an offensive would aim to install a new regime in the country that will cooperate with the international community and abide by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  

Economic sanctions approach

The United States still controls the global political and economic spheres and can enforce economic sanctions that would force Iran to acquiesce to its demands (Rubin, 2008). Over the years, the use of sanctions against Iran has proved effective in making the regime suspends or somewhat abandon its uranium enrichment programs (Blanc and Ewers, 2017). With limited functioning economic power, Iran would have no option but to abandon its ambitious nuclear projects and focus on providing its population’s basic needs. 

Conceptualization of Creative Alternative Solutions 

Another option available to the United States is to negotiate or impose sanctions on the specific countries currently helping Iran enhance its nuclear capabilities. Reardon notes that Russia is a critical ally of Iran’s nuclear program also can build weapons of mass destruction (Reardon, 2017). If Iran is isolated, it will not be in a position to advance the production of weapons of mass destruction. It implies that all avenues to acquire skills, equipment, and even raw materials for the nuclear project is suspended (Mousavian and Mousavian, 2018).  Nevertheless, this would be an ambitious strategy given that the United States has limited control over some of the countries that assist Iran. Moreover, Iran will seek covert avenues to develop its nuclear projects by engaging private contractors in covert operations. Another option is the use of cyber-attack to jeopardize the efforts of Iran to pursue nuclear powers. 

The Anticipation of Reactions and Objections

The abrupt action of the U.S. to terminate the JCPOA agreement did not please the P5+1 nations. According to Maloney, China, India, Russia, Brazil, and the E.U. members were eager to start doing business with Iran as a critical emerging economy in the Middle East region (Kates, 2016). The re-introduction of the sanctions by the U.S. indicates that Iran remains isolated economically. There is a high possibility that the participating countries will ignore Trump’s administration’s position and maintain their economic relationship with Iran (Cronberg and Erasto, 2017). Such a move will impact the United States and render both its current and future foreign policies on Iran ineffective.  

Currently, the U.S. wants to assert its authority in the world by initiating a new round of sanctions targeting Iran. Heavey argues that global politics is shifting with the economic trends (Heavey, 2018). The United States still maintains a strong political influence in the United Nations because of its robust military and economic power in the world. The country supports a sizeable budget of the NATO forces and has strategic allies around the globe. Still, the newly developed economies such as China, India, and Russia are increasingly threatening the U.S.’s economic position (Scott and Nader, 2012). Therefore, it is expected that Trump’s administration will impose new economic sanctions on Iran, and doing so will affect its political dealings with the P5+1 countries. The five countries may resist supporting US-backed motions concerning Iran in the UNSC (Hamilton et al., 2001). Additionally, the U.S. also hopes to maintain a strategic political relationship with partners in the Gulf region (Martellini and Zucchetti, 2016). Darian et al. believe that Iran’s current policy was partly influenced by countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia that are opposed to the strengthening of Iran (Darian et al., 2018).

Advantages and Disadvantages of Each Policy Option 

Diplomatic option

As noted, using diplomatic means to approach the issue of Iran has proven effective in the past. United Nations believes that diplomatic policy would create a win-win situation since Iran would negotiate for its interests (U.N., Joint Comprehensive Plan, 2018). Like was the case with JPOA, the diplomatic option will also include other countries with interest in the negotiation and develop solutions that would last for years to come. For instance, it will be possible to include clauses that will indicate how long the specific terms of the agreement will hold. This option also allows for dynamic solutions that may not have been foreseen by the United States.

On the downside, adopting a diplomatic policy implies that the United States would have to compromise on Iran’s demands. Nephew states that Trump’s administration pulled out of the JPOA agreement because some of the clauses favored Iran (Nephew, 2018). So, it will not be possible to negotiate for a deal that only leans towards the United States, and this is a notable disadvantage of a diplomatic approach. Furthermore, the process can be slow, allowing Iran to continue surreptitiously with uranium enrichment.

Informational option

The advantage of this policy option is that the United States will spend fewer resources focusing on Iran. The intelligence agency charged with collecting international data can easily acquire accurate information from Iran using their covert operations and pass it to the relevant countries. It would be possible for the UNSC to sanction Iran or for the neighboring states to invade Ian with the support of other international allies (Albright, 2019).

The disadvantage of this option is that it may fail to work without including diplomatic or military policies. More so, interfering with Iran’s sovereignty when collecting covert intelligence from their territory might trigger serious conflict. Iran may also evade the surveillance of the U.S. intelligence units and continue with their operations. Becker points out that the process of uranium enrichment does not require many people or huge facilities (Becker, 2013). As a result, it is easy for Iran to weaponize its nuclear without being noticed.

Military policy option

The advantage of this policy option is that the United States will be able to comprehensively destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities and even change its regime. The U.S. can oversee a new government’s installation as it happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya (Morgan, 2015). Tertrais asserts that effective military action will also prevent other countries such as North Korea from developing WMDs because they will fear an invasion (Tertrais, 2015).

Regrettably, military policies are expensive and dangerous to pursue. A military offensive has myriad dynamics that may affect the outcome. The United States may fail to overturn the regime or even give room to a worse government to control the country (Cordesman, 2005).  Military action would have severe consequences. It has a high probability of sparking a regional war; thus, it should be the last resort after everything else fails to yield a desirable outcome or to make Iran halt its WMD program.  Furthermore, the international community is also not ready to witness another conflict in the region, considering Europe’s problems because of the refugee crisis emanating from the Iraq and Syria conflict.

Economic sanctions policy option

The United States and other western powers have in the past economic policies effectively to gain cooperation from rogue regimes ((Epatko, 2018). The approach was also influential in making Iran advance to the negotiating table and signed the JPOA agreement. Phillips indicates that economic sanctions will work correctly if the United States gains the support of the UNSC (Phillips, 2018). It will ensure that many countries participate in the embargo, and its effects will force Iran to comply with IAEA standards. The disadvantage of this option is that the United States has tried the same strategy on different occasions and failed. Tertrais states that Iran is now prepared to face severe economic sanctions from the West (Tertrais, 2015). The country is progressively reducing reliance on vital imports by increasing the capacity of the local industries. There is also a possibility that some countries will not agree to impose trade bans on Iran and will go ahead to deal with them.

Analysis of Technical Aspects of Program Policies

The JCPOA was instrumental in reducing the threat of Iran. Apart from stopping the Iranian government from nuclear weapons development activities, the deal also included the unrestricted access of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors in Iran to check if the country is engaging in illegal activities (Maloney, 2009). Thus, it was expected that the 25 years’ operational period of the deal would help tame Tehran. Since the current U.S. regime has terminated the agreement, the other nations which were part of the contract may choose to continue and exclude the United States. 

A critical analysis of the US-Iran relations reveals that it is highly dependent on the ruling regime’s policies. Both the U.S. and Iran have, on several occasions, rolled back the gains made by the previous administration after the change of guard. In this case, President Donald Trump introduced drastic changes in U.S. policy and canceled the Obama administration’s progress (Murphy, 2019). If Trump loses elections in 2020, the incoming government may develop a new policy strategy. The same case can happen after the current president Hassan Rouhani leaves office in Iran. The gains made by the policy in the few years of implementation may be futile in the event of a change of leadership.

Recommendations and Implementation Processes.

Based on the four options analysis, this policy backgrounder recommends a hybrid policy framework that will incorporate the diplomatic and economic sanctions option. Since the JPCOA collapsed, the U.S. has to engage in new economic sanctions that will ensure Iran cooperates with the IAEA safety standards and the Non-Proliferation Treaty provisions. The economic sanctions will allow the parties involved to usher a new wave of diplomatic negotiations to achieve long-term solutions. Therefore, a critical analysis of the situation established that the new U.S. regime needs to take drastic measures in dealing with Iran’s threats. It is clear that depending on economic sanctions only does not stop Iran (Borzykowski, 2018).  The country is already developing mechanisms to reduce its reliance on imports, especially from the western powers. Bearing this in mind, it necessitates a multidimensional approach that will combine diplomatic and economic policies. 

The incoming Biden’s administration has made it clear that it hopes to return to the previously 2015 negotiated deal with Iran. Succinctly, if Iran returns to the agreement by honoring its obligations that it has been violating, the Biden’s administration will do the same. And quite frankly, if both sides fail to come up with a practical deal agreed on both sides, the Iranian nuclear program will go deeper underground. By then, it will be too late to curtail them from becoming a full-blown atomic power in the region. As a result, it may cause Israel to pre-emptively attack Iran to cripple its capability to initiate a missile assault against Tel Aviv. 

Biden’s administration should get the European Union to convene the P5+1, and they all will agree about the leading country for the negotiations. We hope that Biden’s administration would reverse many of Trump’s hawkish positions by executive orders. From Iran point of view, it is doubtful and cautious about being willing to go back to the JCPOA with an open arm without the U.S. fierce commitment and some concessions, such as the lifting of many economic sanctions for Iran to sale its oil in the world market beyond its basic needs for food and medicines. For the reasons mentioned above, Biden’s administration must find innovative ways to assure the treaty that everybody abides by it. It is hard to do, and it will take time because of past experiences; each side would like the other to show a genuine commitment to the future new deal. 

The United States also needs to incorporate its allies’ help in stopping Iran’s strategic plan of dominating the region. This document recognizes ongoing political tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and their interests often clash. Also, each country does not trust the other, and each one manages its domestic affairs distinctively. For this reason, it is strongly suggested an icebreaker solution to the nuclear stalemate will emanate by restoring relations between Washington and Tehran. Bilateral dialogue between the U.S. and Iran is imperative in de-escalating the tension over Iran’s nuclear program.  The talk can initially begin by merely establishing a cultural exchange, tourism, and sports events, then a diplomatic talk step by step. Doing so is necessary for both the U.S. and Iran to win each other’s confidence, and eventually, the relations will begin to improve as time goes.

Furthermore, this document proposes building a multi-nationally owned and operated enrichment space in Iran, utilizing any one of the participants’ centrifuges. This member would supersede Iran’s nationwide used enrichment facility. A multinational owned facility will require internationally staffing from all participating members as a condition of the deal. The participating member nations would jointly and primarily manage the facility, and it will be under ongoing exhaustive inspection. Also, the participating member nations staff will be on duty around the clock, as well as will work side by side with Iranians. From the Iranian’s perspective, a joint-endeavor enrichment plant could satisfy the Iranian desire for enrichment in their respective territory. In essence, it is a national pride for the Iranian people as a whole.  

Conclusion

The policy backgrounder shows that successive U.S. presidents have failed to solve the current threat of Iran. From the historical data, it is apparent that the U.S. played an active and direct role in building Iran’s capacity to acquire nuclear energy. Unfavorably, the 1979 revolution changed the status of the US-Iran relationship. All the administrations from president Reagan to Obama imposed economic sanctions with allies’ help with minimum sustainable solutions. The JCPOA offered a viable solution to the problem, but the Trump regime poured water on it and reverted to the sanction approach. It is not known if the sanctions will be useful in stopping Iran. Mainly, suppose the U.N. and other U.S. allies will support the policy of economically isolating Iran despite its initial corporation with the JCPOA agreement. In that case, therefore, the only policy option that remains unexploited in the case of Iran is a military offensive with the aim of regime change and destruction of nuclear installations. This approach would be a risky and murky direction to take but maybe the most promising in the long-term.

It should be noted here that Tehran is under severe economic pressure to abandon its course for attaining nuclear weapons, and the said pressure has not compelled Iran to acquiesce to the US’s demands. Furthermore, the sanctions have not translated into Iran’s noticeable change of action; instead, it has adamantly and drastically progressed in its development and uranium enrichment to build a nuclear arsenal. If Biden’s administration returns to the JCPOA only with an executive order or Presidential authority, it may work for a year or two. Nonetheless, it will most likely not yield long-term desired outcomes due to the lack of backing from Congress. Consequently, Biden’s administration has to work hard with Congress to pass bold legislation that will be binding to the US and the European Union to assure Iran to have a stake in the deal.

*Dr. Mustapha Kulungu is the Principal Researcher at the ILM Foundation Institute of Los Angeles, California. He graduated from Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, California. 

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Dr. Mustapha Kulungu

Dr. Mustapha Kulungu is the Principal Researcher at the ILM Foundation Institute of Los Angeles, California. He graduated from Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, California.

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