As the JCPOA proceeds on schedule, santions relief will depend on Iran's ability to complete a number of physical reductions to its nuclear capabilities.
The nuclear deal (or JCPOA) reached between Iran and the P5+1 in July has been proceeding, for the most part, on schedule. This, and the fact that the agreement has been upheld by both the US Congress and Iranian parliament, are positive indications for its implementation. But the timeline for sanctions relief remains open ended. At the very least, it is several months off. It will depend on Iran’s ability to complete a number of physical reductions to its nuclear capabilities, and there are already signs of delays.
The JCPOA and its commitments officially came into effect on 18 October. On that day, the US and EU began legal preparations for the eventual lifting of sanctions, and the IAEA confirmed that Iran had completed its reporting requirements. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran must now begin work on reducing its centrifuges and stockpile of enriched uranium, and redesigning the Arak reactor. Only once the IAEA has verified that Iran has completed these and other steps will the US, EU and UN lift sanctions.
There are discrepancies over how long this process will take. Iranian officials have said they can complete the steps in just two to three months, while nuclear experts and US officials argue that it is more likely to take six months. When sanctions will be lifted will depend on how quickly Iran can begin the process, and whether there are any impediments to or disputes around IAEA monitoring of Iranian progress.
The Supreme Leader has prohibited most reductions to Iran’s nuclear capacity until after the IAEA publishes its final report on possible military dimensions of the programme. The agency plans to submit this on 15 December. It therefore seems probable that Iran will not undertake the majority of work until after this date. Indeed, there are already conflicting reports from officials at the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation regarding what concrete steps – if any – it has taken to remove centrifuges.
If the sixth-month timeline is correct, sanctions relief would not come until early summer 2016. There are strong reasons to believe that this is a realistic forecast, including the technical challenges of storing over 13,000 centrifuges. We also anticipate some challenges around IAEA monitoring, based on previous impediments to the agency’s access to nuclear sites in Iran. Still, we assess that it is unlikely at this stage that these factors would derail the implementation of the agreement.