June 23, 2022
Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon than at any point in its history. Tehran can now produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb in less than 10 days—a timeframe so short that international inspectors may not detect such a “breakout” move. Building a bomb would take another 1-2 years, but once the nuclear material is moved to covert facilities for weaponization, detecting and disrupting those processes would be much more challenging. Despite the seriousness of this proliferation threat, prospects for a diplomatic resolution are waning as the Biden administration appears unwilling to make the difficult decisions necessary to resolve this crisis.
The swiftest, most effective way to quell the escalating proliferation risk and verifiably limit Iran’s program is to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). That deal resolved a decades-long crisis spurred by Iran’s illicit attempt to build nuclear weapons prior to 2003, and proved to be an effective bulwark against any future moves to a bomb—until U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in May 2018 and embarked on a “pressure campaign” ostensibly designed to push Iran into new negotiations. Predictably, following the U.S. reimposition of nuclear-related sanctions (and others), Tehran responded by building up its nuclear program in violation of the JCPOA’s limits to gain its own leverage.
Both U.S. President Joseph Biden and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi profess to support a return to compliance with the JCPOA, but the gridlock in negotiations raises doubts about their political will to make the concessions needed to restore the accord. Indirect negotiations between Washington and Tehran over the past year have produced a draft agreement outlining steps to return both countries to compliance with their JCPOA obligations. Unfortunately, talks stalled within sight of the finish line over a symbolic non-nuclear issue: a Trump-era sanction designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).
Iran views lifting the designation as politically significant and a necessary step to reverse Trump’s pressure campaign. The Biden administration, however, has drawn a line at removing the designation without assurance from Iran that the IRGC will take steps to reduce tensions in the region. That the FTO designation is symbolic, gives Biden no additional tools for countering the IRGC, and was put in place by the Trump administration to make a return to the JCPOA more difficult, do not appear to have swayed Biden’s calculus.
Statements from Tehran suggest Iran’s position on this issue might be softening. But rather than returning to the drawing board to come up with new, creative ideas to address this impasse, Washington continues to put the onus on Tehran to drop what the Biden administration views as extraneous demands and accept the draft agreement on the table that would restore the JCPOA.
But while Biden waits for Tehran to blink, Iran’s expanding nuclear program is eroding the nonproliferation benefits of the deal. Biden may pay a political price for modifying sanctions on the IRGC, but it pales in comparison to the price he will pay if talks to restore the JCPOA collapse and Iran moves even closer to a bomb.
Growing Nuclear Risk
While Iran’s initial breaches of the JCPOA were carefully calibrated to build pressure without complicating a restoration of the accord, its violations over the past 18 months pose a much more serious proliferation risk and are more difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.
Iran is now enriching uranium to 60 percent, a level dangerously close to weapons grade, and has produced enough material enriched to that level that Tehran could use the 60 percent stockpile to produce enough weapons grade uranium for a bomb—about 25 kilograms of uranium enriched to 90 percent—in a matter of days. When the JCPOA was fully implemented, that timeframe, known as breakout, was 12 months, more than enough time to mount an effective response.
That short timeframe is even more dangerous because Iran reduced IAEA access (which had been guaranteed under the JCPOA) to key nuclear facilities in 2021, meaning that Tehran could try to produce enough the fissile material for a bomb between inspections. But even if Iran’s move to weapons grade uranium were detected, there may not be time to respond before Tehran moves the fissile material to a covert facility to begin the 1-2 year weaponization process or to detect where those activities are taking place. The United States may tolerate this risk in the short term while prospects for a deal remain on the table, but as a long-term prospect this threat will be destabilizing and increase the risk that the United States—or more likely Israel— resort to military action to put time back on the breakout clock.
Irreversible knowledge gains also put the future of the accord at risk. Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 60 percent—a level it had not achieved prior to the JCPOA capping enrichment at 3.67 percent—as well as its operation of more efficient and advanced centrifuges and experiments with uranium metal, a key activity in weaponization, change how quickly Iran could move to a bomb if a decision were made to do so and the route it would choose. All of these activities were tightly capped or outright prohibited under the JCPOA, and Iran was complying with all of those commitments before Trump’s withdrawal. But now, if Iran masters the latter capabilities and expands into new areas of research, a restored JCPOA may not be able to reliably block these alternative pathways to nuclear weapons.
In addition to increasing the risk that Iran could “breakout” and achieve enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon before being detected, Tehran’s attempt to build leverage in the negotiations by reducing transparency complicates the IAEA’s ability to verify a restored JCPOA. Iran’s nuclear program is now subject to the bare minimum of international inspections, after having reduced IAEA access in February 2021 and announced on June 9 that it was disconnecting IAEA cameras collecting data that would be handed over to the agency if the JCPOA is restored.
IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said on June 9 that Iran’s decision to unplug the cameras will be a “fatal blow” to JCPOA restoration efforts in three to four weeks. Grossi was referring to the challenge the agency will face in trying to reconstruct a record of Iran’s nuclear activities during the period of reduced monitoring. The IAEA will need that baseline to verify a restored JCPOA and provide assurance that Iran did not divert nuclear materials and activities for covert activities during the period of decreased monitoring. While the Biden administration assesses that it will still be possible to reestablish a baseline after three to four weeks, any gap in monitoring complicates the negotiations and could make it more difficult for Biden to persuade U.S. officials about the merits of restoring the deal.
Even if Iran takes no new action to advance its program, the nuclear crisis still will intensify as time compounds these existing challenges: the breakout timeline will decrease further, Iran will gain more knowledge that cannot be reversed, and reconstructing a record of Iran’s nuclear activities will be more difficult.
This alone poses risks to the future of the JCPOA. Unfortunately, it is more likely that, absent a deal, Iran will continue its efforts to build pressure. But given the current threat level, Iran has little room to maneuver. Each day that passes without a return to the JCPOA increases the likelihood that Iran will miscalculate U.S. risk tolerance and take actions that tips the United States to determine that the clock has run out on the JCPOA. That Iran feels compelled to ratchet up its nuclear activities in response to Israel’s acts of sabotage, which are likely to continue and escalate as Tehran’s program expands, further jeopardizes prospects for the deal and increases the likelihood of escalation.
If Biden makes that choice, there are no good alternatives.
There Is No Good Plan B
The Biden administration is already signalingthat if talks to restore the JCPOA fail, it will turn to the typical U.S. playbook for countering proliferation—a combination of sanctions pressure and diplomatic isolation paired with an open door to negotiate an off-ramp and the threat of military action should such efforts fail. The Obama administration and its partners successfully utilized this strategy to build global support for the sanctions that influenced Iran’s decision to negotiate. But 2022 is not 2013. The United States cannot expect the same level of international support this time around—particularly given that the Trump administration instigated this crisis by withdrawing from the JCPOA when Iran was complying with its obligations. That move, which diminished U.S. credibility, combined with the rift between the West and Russia over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and frustration with U.S. sanctions overreach, all suggest that Washington would be hard pressed to build an effective international campaign to sanction and isolate Iran.
The same is not true of Iran, which will be in a stronger position than it was when JCPOA negotiations commenced in earnest in 2013. If Tehran judges that talks are in its interest, it will come to the table with new nuclear capabilities, a larger program that it can leverage for further concessions. Iran’s oil and gas reserves will also become increasingly attractive as the energy crisis deepens, further strengthening Iran’s hand. This suggests that any future deal will be more favorable to Iran than the JCPOA.
Building pressure is also a time-consuming process, increasing the risk that spoilers or deliberate provocations prevent diplomacy or drive an escalatory tit-for-tat spiral toward conflict.
There are multiple flashpoints that could trigger a cycle of escalation, including Israel’s continued campaign of sabotaging Iranian nuclear facilities, assassinating scientists affiliated with Tehran’s nuclear program, and conducting sustained cyber attacks. It is highly likely that Israel, or even the United States, will ramp up covert efforts to roll back Iran’s nuclear program should talks fail.
The likelihood of conflict also increases significantly if Iran’s nuclear ambitions cross a redline for the United States or Israel. Tehran, for instance, is openly discussing enriching uranium to 90 percent, which is considered weapons grade material. And while such a move would be unlawful unless Iran engages in an actual armed attack (or an armed attack is truly imminent) there is a risk that the United States or Israel may be unwilling to tolerate the increased risk posed by crossing that threshold and consider military action to prevent and Iranian bomb.
But if past is prologue, kinetic action will only buy time in the short term and, in the long term, spur Iran’s nuclear activities to new levels and result in Tehran hardening its facilities against future attacks. For instance, after the Natanz uranium enrichment facility was sabotaged in April 2021, Iran announced it would begin enrichment to 60 percent. After Iranian scientist and the so-called father of Iran’s pre-2003 organized nuclear weapons program, Mohsen Fakrizadeh, was assassinated in November 2020, Tehran responded by passing a law that accelerated its enrichment program and reduced IAEA monitoring.
The best of all of the bad plan B options would be to try for an interim deal, or have Washington and Tehran agree to a series of steps that would reduce tensions and buy time to restore the JCPOA or negotiate a new agreement. While this is the “best” plan B option, it still stands a poor chance of succeeding. The European Union, which has served as an interlocutor between Washington and Tehran during the past year of talks, pursued an interim agreement early in the negotiations before giving it up as too time consuming and complicated.
Pursing that strategy now would likely face the same challenges—both Washington and Iran will seek significant concessions from the other side while trying to retain their most significant sources of leverage. On the U.S. side, Congress also will want to review any deal, even an interim accord, under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, and could block Biden’s ability to waive sanctions if a resolution disapproving the agreement is passed by both Chambers. An interim deal that buys time for negotiations without the promise of restoring the JCPOA, or reaching a new comprehensive agreement, may be a hard sell in Congress.
Despite these significant challenges, an interim deal still is preferable to the inevitable escalation that would occur as a result of pursuing other plan B options.
Restoring the JCPOA is the Best and Only Good Choice
The increasingly serious proliferation risks posed by Iran’s expanding nuclear program and the futility of the plan Bs underscore the imperative of seizing the moment to restore the JCPOA now, before Iran’s nuclear advances and a growing monitoring gap significantly reduce the nonproliferation benefits of the accord.
If President Biden is unwilling to bite the bullet and delist the IRGC (which it should reconsider), it behooves his administration to find another, creative way to get to yes on a deal to restore the JCPOA. A serious new proposal might spur Iran to refrain from further nuclear provocations and preserve space for the accord and send a signal that Tehran remains serious about restoring the nuclear deal. But if Biden fails to act he will share the responsibility alongside Trump for allowing Iran to become a nuclear power.
Editor’s note: watch this space tomorrow for additional JCPOA coverage, including proposals for resolving the current impasse in negotiations.