The world’s leading powers are saying unequivocally that Iran should not obtain nuclear weapons and that they are committed to preventing that from happening. At the same time, they remain bound to the idea of reinvigorating the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) in spite of the fact that the sunset of this deal would leave Iran with the capability to produce a big arsenal of nuclear weapons by 2031 without the West being able to do anything about it. What we can learn from this contradiction is that what really worries the West is to avoid the need of confronting Iran at this stage. They hope that by 2031 some miracle will happen that would enable the West to be saved from the need to act. In the worst case they would live with the consequences of the deal, namely a nuclear Iran with hegemonic presence in the Middle East that threatens Europe and the United States and attempts together with Russia and China to change the world order at the expense of the West.
This is a strange policy. It ignores all the wrongdoing of Iran on human rights issues, on developing ballistic missiles that threaten Europe, on destabilising the Middle East, on aiming to murder its dissidents and its opponents in the West, on denying the Holocaust, and on threatening Israel and wishing to wipe it off the map of the world. All of this is tolerated for the sake of avoiding the need to confront Iran at this point. No wonder that Iran keeps moving forward with its nuclear program and insists on its demands and conditions for America reentering the JCPOA. At this point they insist that the US and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) close the investigation of the nuclear sites that Iran did not declare and that the US provides stronger guarantee that the possible withdrawal of future US administrations from the deal would not harm the Iranian economy.
It seems that to justify this policy the leadership of the West is busy convincing itself that the current situation is worse than reentering the JCPOA. But is it? Let us compare these two evils and try to assess which is the lesser.
Option A: Keep the Pressure on Iran
Under existing conditions, Iran is trying to accumulate enough highly enriched uranium to produce a small number of nuclear devices while it is under economic pressure and its regional proxies are suffering from financial difficulties and limits to their ability to force their will upon the states in which they operate. Iran’s route to having the capability to produce several nuclear devices, and turning these devices to nuclear weapons, is unclear. This is because the Iranians themselves cannot be sure that they actually control the required technology or that their defenses are adequate to foiling an American and/or an Israeli attempt to hit their facilities, preventing them from reaching their goal.
Iran’s entire effort is considered by the international community to be illegitimate and an attempt to break out to the bomb is considered to be an act justifying a preventative military action.
Moreover, the international community has the justification to take severe steps against Iran because of its breach of its commitments according to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) i.e. declining to declare much of its activities to produce nuclear weapons under the Amad project between 2001 and 2003. Iran kept that as a secret until it was revealed recently in a way that led to the discovery of anthropogenic uranium particles in three of the undeclared sites. The Iranian refusal to address the IAEA demand for explanation and to come clean with information about the origin, whereabouts and the amount of the uranium that was processed in these sites justifies sanctions against Iran – and there is an ongoing process in the IAEA board of governors that may lead to such sanctions. This alone makes any return to the JCPOA, as the Iranians demand, totally irresponsible as there is no clue about the amount of unreported uranium that the Iranians have.
Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has just clarified to Al-Monitor that Iran wants the West to repeat the embarrassing and shameful move that enabled the international community to enter the JCPOA in 2015. This happened when the IAEA director general, Yukia Amano, admitted that he did not have an answer to the Potential Military Dimensions (PMD) of the Iranian nuclear program but nevertheless gave his approval for the deal to come into effect. So far, the new director of IAEA, Rafael Grossi, refuses to make a mockery of the agency and himself in that way, and the West hasn’t put real pressure on him to accept the Iranian conditions. However, judging by the West leadership’s will to avoid confrontation with Iran, it won’t be surprising if such pressure is applied soon. The relatively quiet response of the Western leadership to the suppression of the Iranian Hijab protests is another indication of what can be expected.
The problem is, of course, that since there is no coherent strategy to stop Iran from making progress towards its nuclear goals, the Iranians have already managed to get very close to having the capability of producing a small number of nuclear weapons. They already have enough uranium enriched to 60 per cent for producing fissile material for more than one nuclear device within a couple of weeks. Moreover, they possess enough uranium enriched to 20 per cent and to 4.5 per cent to produce enough fissile material for 3-4 additional nuclear devices within 3-4 months. Iran operates advanced centrifuges, some of which are enriching uranium to a high level in the deep underground facility in Fordow, and their scientists have produced uranium metal from highly enriched uranium. The delivery systems for a bomb are available to them in the form of long-range ballistic missiles. The only question mark is how long it will take Iran to weaponise the fissile material and turn it into a nuclear bomb. The answer to this question could lie in what happened in the undeclared sites. Some think that developing this technology from scratch may take up to two years, but I am less optimistic because I think the Iranians have already made some progress on this track and that they are secretly working on it even now. In any event, it will still take Iran about a year during which they are going to be very vulnerable. This means that action within a coherent strategy to stop the Islamic Republic from having the capability to acquire nuclear weapons from the situation we currently find ourselves in has to be taken immediately and it should include a credible military option.
Those in favour of returning the JCPOA claim that the international community and Israel itself are not currently prepared to present and use a credible military option, and therefore the pressing need is to look for other ways to handle the situation. What I can say about it is that the United States presented a credible military option to Israel back in 2012-2013 in its attempt to convince Israel not to take unilateral military action. Israel has also invested enormous amounts of resources during the last 18 years to develop its own capability to take care of the Iranian nuclear program and there is no reason to believe that these capabilities have dissipated. Obviously, more resources and more time will improve these capabilities, but this is a tautological truth. Ultimately, as long as the Iranians believe that the West and Israel may use their military option against them if they keep moving towards having the capability to produce nuclear weapons, there is a good reason to believe they will not break out to the bomb at this stage. In 2012 when Prime Minister Netanyahu drew a red line at the UN General Assembly (250kg of 20 per cent enriched uranium) the Iranians were careful not to cross that line. Ditto when the Americans came out with clear military threats.
Option B: Return to the JCPOA
Now let’s look at the alternative approach, of returning to the JCPOA. Unlike the current situation, adhering to the agreement will mean that in the short term the Iranian capability to break out to nuclear weapons will be much more limited as they will be required to give up the significant amounts of highly enriched uranium that they declared they have accumulated and be left with only 300kg of uranium enriched to 3.6 per cent (if they don’t cheat). Moreover, their advanced centrifuges (IR-6, IR-8, IR-9, IR-4, and IR-2m) should be disassembled and the monitoring of their activities in the declared sites will be resumed.
But, crucially, since the Sunset schedules of the original deal are not due to be extended, some of these limitations will be short lived. As early as 2024 Iran will be able to resume testing advanced centrifuges and by 2026 it will be able to operate some of them, in addition to the 5060 IR-1 centrifuges it operates in Natanz. By 2031 it will be able to enrich uranium to any level including over 90 per cent and to any amount with unlimited number of advanced centrifuges, and carry it out in any place it chooses including the deep underground facility at Fordow. Iran will also be able to advance the plutonium track by activating the Arak reactor with heavy water. It will still be committed to the safeguards of the NPT and hopefully to the treaty’s additional protocol. But judging by past behaviour, the Iranians don’t consider that to be a real obstacle on the way to having a nuclear weapon.
This means that by 2031, Iran will be able to produce a large arsenal of nuclear weapons without the international community being able to do anything about it. It should be emphasised that according to the revamped deal, the parties to the JCPOA are not allowed to leave the deal after the tenth year (early 2026). In other words, the major leverage they have to threaten Iran and force it to stay committed to the deal – the Snapback option – will soon become obsolete.
Furthermore, the road to this dangerous situation will be paved by considerable amounts of money (at least USD 100bn) that will be provided to the Iranians for their readiness to adopt the deal. This fortune will be used not only for improving the economic situation and strengthening the stability of the regime. It will also undoubtedly go towards improving Iran’s military ability to foil attempts to hit its nuclear infrastructure, to strengthen its regional proxies, and to embolden its hegemonic status in the region. In the revised deal Iran gets some guarantees that even if a new administration in the US decides to leave the deal its economic benefits would not be (severely) hurt.
Iran’s success in forcing the United States back into the agreement under its conditions will be presented by the Islamic Republic as a big victory over the evil forces. It may even be interpreted this way by some regional players who might prefer to mend fences with the Iranian regime rather than to confront it, while also preparing themselves to deter Iran. This will mean tensions between the local players and the United States and possibly a nuclear arms race in which regional powers will start seeking their own military nuclear arsenal. This is, of course, a nightmare that might not be prevented with all the good intentions of the US and the Western powers.
The Biden administration is aware of all the deficiencies of the deal and initially tried to present coming back to it as an interim stage that would lead to a ‘longer and stronger deal’. This policy was always out of touch with reality and in recent months the administration has admitted this and given it up. Consequently, the new deal will not take care of any of the weaknesses of the original deal, from the lack of ‘anywhere anytime’ monitoring, including of Iranian scientific experts, to the absence of a ban on the production of long-range missiles that can carry nuclear warheads.
If the West, including the UK, refrains from taking these difficult decisions Israel will have to take the heavy burden on itself. Some Israelis claim that the JCPOA is a lesser evil and a few even contend that Israel too can live with a nuclear Iran. This attitude ignores the real goals of the Iranian regime. It is a messianic regime committed to annihilating Israel and it is going to turn the JCPOA and its possession of nuclear weapons into major tools towards achieving this goal. Iran’s proxies are going to become much more capable and daring in their readiness to challenge and threaten Israel. Iran’s own capability to harm Israel is going to grow significantly and become a severe strategic threat, maybe even an existential threat. Therefore, Israel cannot afford to let Iran progress towards obtaining the capabilities to produce nuclear weapons and will have to take action to prevent it.
Even though Israel is not a party to the deal, the JCPOA will put limitations on Israel’s ability to operate, because of its close relations with the United States and the West. The absence of a deal thus gives the country greater room to maneuver. Moreover, as time goes by Iran’s capability to deprive Israel (and the United States) of the ability to stop its march to the bomb is going to grow considerably. This is an additional reason why Israel opposes the return to the JCPOA.
Difficult Decisions for the US and UK
Between the two problematic options, confronting Iran’s attempt to reach the capability to produce a limited amount of nuclear devices without returning to the JCPOA is the lesser evil, provided the West and Israel are able to present a credible military option. If this is not the case, maybe there is a point in deferring the problem, even if it means a greater evil in a couple of years.
One explanation for the West’s preference to reenter the deal, even if it is weaker than the original JCPOA, may have to do with the political aspect. The Biden administration is committed to the legacy of the Obama–Biden administration, and does not want to admit that a better deal could have been reached (as the Trump administration insisted). Hence, it limits its goals to reentering the weaker version of the original deal. Another political consideration is avoiding the need to take critical decisions at this time and to defer the decision to the next administration, fearing that any decision will have a political cost. Other political reasons have to do with the importance attributed by the administration to keeping the oil price down at this time, a preference which makes increasing the Iranian oil exports an important goal.
All of this reminds me of a meeting I had in 2016 with a key official in the Obama White House who is still deeply involved with the Iranian nuclear negotiations. When I complained about the problematic JCPOA they argued that in the first six years the benefits of the agreement outweigh its disadvantages, and only from year 7 the opposite is true. This means, they said, that the President that would be in office in year 7 (in other words, now) will have to decide whether the US is going to stick to the deal or not and base this decision on Iranian behaviour. If Iran joins the family of nations, renounces terrorism, and becomes a positive player on the global and regional stages, I was told, then it makes sense to keep moving forward. But if these expectations do not come true the president should decide against moving forward with the deal.
Iran has not changed its ways, that is clear. So if the administration is true to its own assessments at the deal’s outset it should not reenter it but rather adopt the policy of preventing Iran from advancing towards obtaining the capabilities to produce nuclear weapons. This can be done by isolating Iran, applying economic pressure, making much greater efforts to preventing Iran from acquiring the material and know-how it needs to produce these weapons, and presenting a credible military option to convince it to give up the pursuit of the bomb.
The United Kingdom can play a significant role in preventing Iran from possessing the capability to produce nuclear weapons. If London under PM Truss adopts an unwavering policy that says Iran should be stopped now and not be allowed to enter the JCPOA, it will change the entire situation and force the other Western powers to revisit their policies. Truss has already committed herself to putting all options on the table if the JCPOA collapses.
At this point it seems that reviving the JCPOA is not only the wrong thing to do but almost impossible due to the Iranian hubris that translates into an insistence that the IAEA close its investigation of the undeclared sites. Britain knows that the Iranians have no intentions of changing course and should draw the unpleasant conclusion that it is necessary to stand firm. PM Truss has previously said ‘we are dealing in a world where we have to make difficult decisions’. This line of thinking definitely justifies doing the right thing which is confronting Iran’s dangerous march towards having nuclear weapons at this point while Iran is vulnerable and not allowing it to become immune and gain the capability to acquire a big nuclear arsenal by returning to the JCPOA.