A Stark Choice
Aug 31, 2022 | Jacob Nagel, Jonathan Schanzer
After multiple failed rounds of nuclear diplomacy in Vienna and Doha, talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China) moved back to Vienna in July. The revived talks first hit a snag earlier this year when Teheran raised several new demands, including the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the US State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list. Washington initially baulked but reportedly then acquiesced to a partial solution: removing secondary sanctions on companies doing business with the IRGC.
“I am absolutely sincere… when I say that Iran got much more than it could expect,” said Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov back in March. The deal now on the table is far better for Teheran than the one to which Ulyanov referred.
Admittedly, the regime has more than once pumped the brakes on nuclear diplomacy. This intransigence signalled that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, may not have ever wanted an agreement at all. Rather, he may seek to prolong talks to advance the regime’s nuclear program while avoiding harsh decisions by the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Still, recent news out of Vienna suggests a deal may be imminent, with even more Western concessions.
This article chronicles Teheran’s dangerous nuclear advances in recent years, the results of American-led diplomacy to curtail this activity, and the actions Israel has taken both to encourage greater American leverage and to hinder Iranian progress.
Iran’s Quest for a Nuclear Weapon
For more than three decades, Teheran has worked, with varying degrees of intensity, to develop a fully-fledged military nuclear program. Its leaders deny this, citing a purported fatwa, or Islamic ruling, from Khamenei that abjures nuclear weapons. Israel ultimately proved Iran’s assertion false in 2018, when the Mossad exfiltrated from a Teheran warehouse a secret nuclear archive documenting the clerical regime’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.
The archive revealed that Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program, which began in the late 1990s, was far more advanced than Western intelligence had previously assessed. One of the documents included handwritten instructions by Iranian leaders to the program’s directors, ordering them to design, build, and test five 10-kiloton nuclear warheads. Attached to the document were blueprints for a warhead and descriptions of a plan to affix it to a long-range ballistic missile.
The regime in Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which theoretically should restrict its nuclear ambitions. However, this has not stopped Teheran from building uranium enrichment facilities and concealing them from the IAEA, the UN body that monitors and verifies Iran’s nuclear commitments.
For a country to become a nuclear-threshold state, it must develop three key components: fissile material (enriched uranium or plutonium); a weapon system to detonate the fissile material; and a delivery system to carry the weapon. Once a nation completes these steps, its acquisition of a nuclear weapon depends not on technology or capability, but only on political will and timing.
The Iranian regime has worked for years to master all three components. But progress has not been linear. In 2003, Teheran curtailed but did not end its nuclear weapons development, likely fearing an attack by the West in the wake of America’s invasion of Iraq. The regime may or may not have resumed those weaponisation activities. If it has, it is probably keeping a low profile, mostly under the cover of academic work.
Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic has steadily added to its nuclear gains for 15 years and counting. In 2007, it initiated enrichment at the Natanz nuclear site, which had been covert until an Iranian opposition group exposed it in 2002. In 2009, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France exposed another underground enrichment site in Fordow, located in the Iranian province of Qom. Months later, in 2010, the regime began enriching uranium to 20% purity at Natanz, likely to gain leverage in future negotiations.
The level of 20% purity is significant. While a nuclear weapon requires a few dozen kilograms of uranium enriched to more than 93%, the time and effort to enrich natural uranium to 20% purity accounts for the majority of the process.
Between 2006 and 2010, the UN Security Council imposed four rounds of nuclear and economic sanctions on the regime. Between 2010 and 2013, Washington imposed additional sanctions that crippled the Iranian economy. Yet Teheran defiantly continued to expand its nuclear program, ultimately amassing large quantities of uranium enriched to 5% as well as a smaller amount enriched to 20%.
Israel, in turn, launched what it described as the “war between wars” – an asymmetric “grey zone” campaign targeting Iranian assets related to Teheran’s nuclear and conventional military capabilities. According to various sources, this campaign included cyberattacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Fears mounted in both Washington and Teheran about a possible Israeli military strike. This prompted an international effort to reach an agreement that would halt Teheran’s program. Yet the more the West endeavoured to meet Iran’s demands, the more the regime increased them. Teheran advanced its nuclear program and committed additional NPT violations. This was the case a decade ago. It is the case now.
While various initiatives to engage Teheran were reported in the decade prior, the first serious effort to negotiate with the Iranian regime began in 2011. The Obama Administration understood the importance of securing Israeli support for the negotiations given the threat that Iran posed to the Jewish state. Thus began a series of US visits to meet with senior Israeli officials. American officials said they sought an interim deal that Iran would reject, thereby making it easier for the UN Security Council to impose additional sanctions.
Still, the Obama team argued that even if Iran accepted the interim plan, in full or in part, the final agreement would meet Israeli demands, based on the limitations specified by the Security Council. Jerusalem stated that the only suitable outcome would be “zero, zero, zero”. Teheran could have no enrichment facilities or centrifuge research and development (R&D); no plutonium, heavy water reactors, or separation plants; and no fissile material inside Iran.
However, while one American team was building trust with Israel, secret negotiations between the United States and Iran began in Oman in 2012. The talks were led by figures now holding key positions in the Biden Administration: National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CIA Director William Burns, then serving as the State Department’s Director of Policy Planning and Deputy Secretary of State, respectively. These secret negotiations laid the foundation for both the 2013 interim agreement, formally known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), and the 2015 final agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
In exchange for minimal nuclear concessions, the JPOA granted Iran – for the first time – a de facto authorisation to enrich uranium, contravening multiple Security Council resolutions. This concession directly reneged on the Obama Administration’s pledge to Israel. Billions of dollars in sanctions relief injected new life into Iran’s sanctions-battered economy.
With negotiations underway, Israel formed a group of experts from the Israel Defence Forces’ Military Intelligence Directorate and Planning Directorate, the Mossad, the National Security Council, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence’s Political-Military Division, the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, and the Ministry for Strategic Affairs. While Israel was not a party to the negotiations, the group of experts worked intensively with the world powers negotiating with the Iranians to underscore the dangers of an agreement that failed to permanently prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
The team of experts forwarded dozens of technical papers to the American and other negotiators. They called for an Iranian breakout time – the time needed to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb – of at least several years rather than merely one year (as proposed in the talks). The Israeli experts wanted Teheran to dismantle all enrichment infrastructure and ship it out of Iran. They called for a full disclosure of the Iranian nuclear program’s past “possible military dimensions” (PMD).
The experts also sought a complete cessation of Iranian R&D on advanced enrichment centrifuges. They recommended the retention of sanctions on the Islamic Republic for at least 20 years, if not longer. These recommendations went largely unheeded.
A Deal Is Struck
The final round of talks lasted approximately nine consecutive weeks in 2015, concluding with the finalised JCPOA on July 14. The deal gave Iran nearly everything it wanted. Communication between the Israeli experts and the US negotiators broke down. The Obama Administration blamed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech to the US Congress – delivered against the wishes of the President – criticising the emerging deal. But this was not the only reason. The discussions were simply no longer productive. The American negotiators wanted an agreement at almost any cost, and Israel’s protests were no longer welcome.
Thus, even as Teheran continued to call for the annihilation of Israel, the JCPOA provided the regime with a clear path to nuclear weapons and the ability to acquire the necessary infrastructure. The agreement effectively enabled Iran to become an internationally recognised and legitimate nuclear-threshold state. The regime also reaped a massive financial windfall, enabling an alarming increase in Iranian support for terrorist groups across the region – Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen, among others.
Moreover, UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the agreement, codified the JCPOA’s sunset provisions. Per the resolution, the UN arms embargo on Iran expired in 2020 even though Teheran had repeatedly violated it by sending weapons to violent proxies and terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain. Resolution 2231 also removed the ban on Iranian tests of “ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” The resolution merely “call[ed] upon” Teheran to halt its missile development, and even that non-binding language will expire next year. Since 2015, Iran has tested dozens of ballistic missiles.
The Israeli Response
The Israeli cabinet issued a statement rejecting the deal on the day of the JCPOA’s finalisation.
Thereafter, the Israeli government launched a campaign to educate Congress and the broader US public about the loopholes, gaps, and other flaws in the agreement.
It was no use, however. Congress failed to muster the necessary votes to stop the agreement. By the end of 2015, the IAEA prematurely closed its investigation of the PMD of Iran’s nuclear program, paving the way for the JCPOA’s implementation in January 2016. The Iranian economy soon received billions of dollars in sanctions relief, enabling a conventional military buildup and a surge in terror sponsorship worldwide.
Apart from concealing from the IAEA the existence of a secret nuclear weapons archive, undeclared nuclear sites, and undeclared nuclear material, Iran abided by most of its other commitments under the deal. Teheran understood that patience was all that was needed to ultimately gain a legitimised nuclear program along with massive economic benefits. This calculus was upended when US President Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement in 2018. Before he made his final decision, however, the Administration offered the Iranians opportunities to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement. They refused.
Teheran trod carefully at first, but then substantially increased its violations following the November 2020 election of President Joe Biden, who signalled an eagerness to return to the deal and removed a credible US military threat from the equation.
Russia, China, and Europe assert that Iran’s nuclear violations were the result of Washington’s unilateral withdrawal. However, the most egregious Iranian violations did not occur until 2021, after Biden’s election and the subsequent renewal of negotiations. Teheran appeared to be seeking leverage for these talks.
In response, Israel has increased the intensity of its war between wars. According to a wide range of Israeli and other sources, this campaign has impeded Iran’s military expansion in Syria and limited the regime’s efforts to supply its Lebanese terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, with lethal precision-guided munitions. More importantly, Israel has reportedly acted against Iran’s nuclear program, eliminating senior nuclear officials as well as some physical components.
Returning to the JCPOA?
Israel’s shadow war notwithstanding, the regime’s nuclear advances have rendered a return to the old agreement futile. Iran’s nuclear progress since 2015, and particularly since Biden’s election, is beyond the point of containment. This underscores why the original deal was a mistake. The data disclosed by the nuclear archive, as well as new information obtained by IAEA inspectors since 2015, show that the JCPOA failed to account for the full range of Iranian nuclear activities, including activities that preceded the agreement.
Between the JCPOA’s finalisation and America’s 2018 exit from the deal, the Iranian regime increased uranium enrichment and added advanced centrifuges, as permitted under the agreement. This enabled Iran to transition to clandestine underground enrichment.
Worse, the agreement did not bar the regime from stockpiling raw materials or producing advanced centrifuges. This undermined optimistic calculations of Teheran’s breakout time projected by supporters of the deal. Iran has already mastered the enrichment technology needed to amass enough fissile material for a weapon.
As Secretary of State Antony Blinken conceded in April 2022, Iran’s breakout time was “down to a matter of weeks.” Since then, the regime’s breakout time has reportedly dropped to near zero. A return to the original agreement as written is therefore futile.
The Failures of the IAEA
The decision to close the PMD investigation was among the West’s biggest mistakes. Today, the regime insists this issue is not open for discussion. Regime negotiators now demand that all IAEA investigations – new and old – be closed or written off. This is reportedly one of the remaining sticking points in Vienna.
Regardless of the terms of any deal that is reached, the regime in Iran is much closer to a bomb than previously estimated. The IAEA has only recently reached this conclusion, thanks largely to Israeli evidence. The nuclear watchdog appears incapable of fulfilling its mandate independently. This alone raises troubling questions about the feasibility of a sustainable agreement, which would require reliable monitoring and verification.
A fundamental aim of the 2015 deal was to establish airtight, unprecedented inspections of Iranian nuclear sites. The IAEA’s strict inspections were supposed to be the most effective tool in the agreement. Yet these inspections, which never extended to military sites or sites connected to Iran’s secret nuclear-military Organisation of Defensive Innovation and Research, missed the nuclear archive and all the nuclear sites and activities the IAEA subsequently discovered thanks to the archive.
The IAEA Director General, Rafael Grossi, has repeatedly travelled to Teheran in an attempt to reach new understandings with the regime. Yet Teheran has accelerated its nuclear activities, breaching not only the JCPOA but also the NPT, Iran’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, and the Additional Protocol. The IAEA’s failure to address these violations has severely damaged its credibility and could effectively end the agency’s status as an independent body.
The Iranian Strategy
The Iranian nuclear strategy appears to be based on four assumptions. The first is that the United States, under its current leadership, lacks the will to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. This view has yielded a second – and erroneous – belief that Israel lacks sufficient capabilities to strike Iran’s nuclear program and will not attack without American support. Third, the Islamic Republic believes its economy can withstand Washington’s current economic pressure, which is significantly weaker than the sanctions of past administrations. And finally, the regime believes it faces no meaningful internal threats to its survival. These four views explain why Teheran has not exhibited any flexibility at the negotiating table.
A JCPOA-Minus Agreement
With negotiations now at a pivotal moment, Jerusalem’s primary concern is that Washington will agree to a “JCPOA-minus”. The White House is reportedly willing to offer sanctions relief that goes far beyond the JCPOA’s concessions. In particular, the Biden team has offered to lift sanctions on thousands of individuals and entities, including Iranian banks, the Supreme Leader, and his inner circle. Moreover, US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley and his team, together with some EU high officials, have explored ways to comply with the Iranian demand to remove IRGC-related entities from the FTO list despite promises from the White House to the contrary.
Offering additional concessions to the regime is irresponsible, particularly amidst a spate of regime-inspired attacks and plots on American soil. Moreover, Iran is already enriching uranium at 60%, manufacturing and testing advanced centrifuges, and blocking the IAEA’s access to active nuclear sites and other locations where violations have occurred in the past. Teheran refuses to dismantle the advanced centrifuges it has produced in violation of the 2015 agreement.
And the clock is still ticking. In 2027, the JCPOA’s limitations on the regime’s industrial-scale production and installation of centrifuges, including advanced ones, will expire. In 2031, the deal’s restrictions on Iranian fissile-material stockpiles and enrichment, including to weapons-grade, will expire, too. Enrichment at Fordow and the building of new enrichment plants will be permitted. The bans on processing plutonium, storing heavy water, and constructing heavy water reactors will be lifted. Teheran will be in a position to produce dozens of bombs.
Toward A Better Agreement
Should the Biden Administration wish to negotiate a deal that would truly restrain Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon, it must address the three key steps for becoming a nuclear-threshold state. The IAEA should strictly prohibit Teheran from producing fissile materials and or possessing the technology needed to develop a bomb. This cannot be subject to negotiation. Without such restrictions, the Iranians will be three to five months away from a nuclear weapon – with tacit international approval.
Additionally, while the United States and Israel have long measured Iran’s nuclear progress in terms of breakout times, this concept is no longer helpful. Teheran has no intention of “breaking out” to a weapon. Rather, it will “sneak out” in undisclosed underground facilities using advanced centrifuges that enrich at much higher speeds.
Any viable deal must force the regime to come clean about its past activities, reopen the PMD investigations closed in 2015, and answer all questions stemming from new findings. The United States cannot conclude a worthwhile deal if Iran fails to confess to its past violations and fully disclose all its previous nuclear activities.
Finally, addressing the Iranian regime’s delivery systems, primarily ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, requires more than weakly worded UN resolutions. The missile-test ban, already rendered toothless in 2015, will expire entirely in 2023. A better agreement should put a permanent stop to the development of these missiles.
Recent Iranian and American Positions
In nuclear talks over the past year, Iranian negotiators introduced several new demands. In addition to its requirement to remove the IRGC from the FTO list, Teheran called for guarantees for compensation in an event of another American withdrawal. The regime also sought to close all the IAEA’s open files and to end all investigations, past and present.
In an effort to demonstrate it has not capitulated to the regime’s terms, Washington made new demands: Teheran must commit to halt aggression in the Persian Gulf, particularly by curbing the IRGC’s activities there, and to communicate directly with Washington. The viability of such an arrangement is questionable given the regime’s past behaviour and stated goal of destabilising the region. Interestingly, US efforts to reach a “longer and stronger” accord, as the Biden team promised upon his election, have ended.
An immediate concern is that the JCPOA’s restrictions will soon sunset. In 2025, world powers will lose the “snapback” mechanism to reinstate all sanctions in response to an Iranian nuclear violation, as stipulated in the original agreement. Iran has already committed multiple violations to justify such a move.
The neutering of the IAEA is further undermining Washington’s ability to hold Iran to account. The IAEA has already halted its investigation of Iran’s development of uranium metal. Three other files relevant to illicit nuclear activity await Iranian explanations that will probably not materialise. If Washington and Teheran reach a new agreement, the likelihood that the IAEA will press for answers on other possible Iranian nuclear violations seems even more remote. The United States should wield its economic leverage to require the regime to come clean on its past activities.
The talks in Vienna present Washington with a stark choice. It can acquiesce to the regime’s demands and empower a terrorist state with nuclear ambitions. Or it can devise a joint plan with Israel and other Middle Eastern allies to push Iran to embrace a new and completely comprehensive agreement. The goal must be to permanently and verifiably block the regime’s path to a nuclear weapon. Such a deal would restore American and IAEA credibility in the region while preventing a slide toward war.