The lifting of sanctions against Iran was just the beginning. Now the hard work of monitoring and verifying Iran’s nuclear activities will start for the International Atomic Energy Agency, which will need the cooperation of both the U.S. and Russia.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified that Iran has met all conditions under the nuclear deal, in Vienna, Saturday Jan. 16, 2016. Photo: Pool via AP

In recent weeks Iran has rushed to complete execution of last year’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), including shipping most of its stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia in return for uranium “yellowcake” and dismantling thousands of centrifuges that could enrich uranium.

With Russian and U.S. support, China has played a critical role in helping redesign Iran’s heavy reactor in Arak so that it will not produce much weapons-grade plutonium. Iranian and U.S. diplomats have been talking directly about prisoner exchanges and other issues.

The removal of the nuclear sanctions on Iran will unfreeze about $100 billion of Iranian assets, enable Iran to rejoin the international banking system and permit Iran to sell more oil on the international market.

Most importantly, ensuring successful implementation of the JCOPA is critical for sustaining support for nuclear nonproliferation, an area that has seen generally good cooperation between Russia and the United States despite the differences between these countries on other issues such as Ukraine and Syria.

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One challenge is that the United States is continuing its sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear reasons, including those for Iranian government human rights abuses and support for terrorism; many of these sanctions apply to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, who could retaliate against the nuclear deal.

Moreover, Iran’s Oct. 10 ballistic missile test prompted the Obama Administration to apply additional sanctions on eleven Iranian entities and individuals involved with the program. U.S. support for the deal will evaporate unless Iran complies with UN-mandated restrictions on its nuclear, conventional and ballistic missile-related activities.

Iran has agreed to allow for unprecedented monitoring and verification of its nuclear activities, including for the first time in International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) history monitoring of its centrifuge-production facilities.

Tehran has also reaffirmed its obligations that Iran had contested in the past (such as making early declarations of nuclear facilities before they are built). The global community needs to make sure that the IAEA has everything it needs to undertake these important tasks, such as facilities at all important sites and trained personnel.

Monitoring Iran will tax the Agency’s overall nonproliferation potential. The Agency first needs to complete its inspection of Iran’s nuclear program to establish a baseline for future monitoring. It must then widen its mission to detect any undeclared nuclear activities in Iran. In the future, the IAEA will need to ensure that Iranian civilian nuclear energy’s program meets international safety and security standards.

Russia will lead this effort due to its expected prominent role in building Iran’s civil nuclear program, which Russians know can only prove commercially successful if Iran’s nuclear program proceeds in a safe, secure and legal (non-military) manner.

Russian and U.S. cooperation could prove critical for achieving a successful IAEA mission, particularly if Tehran rejects an Agency request of access to its suspect nuclear sites. It will prove hard to resolve misunderstandings or differences in interpretation (such as we saw during the interim agreement) and small violations.

It’s best to avoid Iran testing the limits of what’s possible and killing the agreement to death by a thousand cuts but the West needs to retaliate proportionally for any violation (and not threaten to snap back the entire set of sanctions, which would lack credibility). Although the IAEA will likely have access to Western intelligence and detection technologies, the Agency would benefit from Russian technologies and data regarding Iranian nuclear activities on Iranian dual-use procurements.

The IAEA’s budget has not been increasing sufficiently fast to compensate for its expanded duties. The United States has been the largest contributor to the IAEA Nuclear Security Fund, and provides equipment, experts and trainers to countries.

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Washington also provides almost two-thirds of extra-budgetary contributions that support the IAEA’s Peaceful Uses Initiative to finance activities that promote peaceful uses of nuclear technologies. Increasing support from Russia and other countries is important for making these programs more stable by diversifying their funding sources and more legitimate, not seen as Western instruments to suppress developing nations nuclear technologies.

Russia and the United States must cooperate with other countries and with international nonproliferation bodies to ensure that Iranian procurement remains within legal channels. It’s important to consider whether it makes sense to focus controls and enforcement on a limited set of highly proliferation sensitive technologies even though Iran has shown skill at using or upgrading low-grade dual-use components for its nuclear program.

Furthermore, Russia should put more pressure on Iran to curtail its ballistic missile program, which is a driver of the U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) programs that Russia so strongly opposes. We need to see enhanced bilateral cooperation on interdiction and sanctions, such as within the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) to counter Iranian ballistic missile testing. 

In addition to influencing the flow of civilian nuclear technologies and materials to Iran, Russia, China and the United States will likely remain leading players in the Middle Eastern and Central Asian security and nonproliferation architectures. For example, the three countries might want to encourage Iran to join the Central Asian Nuclear Free Zone or accept other nonproliferation obligations in return for full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

It’s also important to stimulate thinking regarding how Russia, China, and the United States could cooperate with the IAEA to ensure the success of the Agency’s new nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan. Such multinational nuclear fuel repositories could provide countries with reactor fuel in a safer, cheaper and more secure manner than if they tried to develop their own fuel-producing technologies, which can be misused to make nuclear weapons.

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Looking ahead, we will need soon to begin discussing what Iran will be allowed to do after the agreement expires—answering such basic questions as the number and type of centrifuges. Iran has said it will make its enrichment limits and enhanced verification provisions permanent if other countries in the Middle East do likewise, but that will be a challenge for even a much better Russian-U.S. nonproliferation partnership.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

Dr. Weitz would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for supporting his non-proliferation research.