Nuclear diplomacy with Iran has failed. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015, and from which the United States withdrew in 2018, is dead. Any attempt to revive it would now come too late due to the considerable advances in Iran’s nuclear program and unfavorable political environment. Iran’s nuclear program will continue and increasingly bring Iran closer to a “rapid breakout” capability – that is, the acquisition of nuclear bombs in a timeframe that would not necessarily allow for timely detection and reaction. A dilemma for Western and like-minded countries will likely emerge, one which has been summarized for more than a decade now by “the Bomb or the bombs?” question. On the one hand, military action designed to weaken the Iranian nuclear program would require a massive multi-domain campaign, with uncertain results and possibly counterproductive effects. On the other hand, passivity would have enormously deleterious effects on the credibility of the international community and would shake the very foundations of the non-proliferation regime. There is, however, still time to pressure Iran and limit its program.
The JCPOA is dead
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015, and from which the United States withdrew in 2018, is dead. Two years of attempts by negotiating parties – the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union (EU) and, of course, Iran – to revive it have crashed against the realities of the constant evolution of Tehran’s nuclear program and the radicalization of Iranian positions. Moreover, developments of the past twelve months – increasing international tensions, revolts in Iran, the Republican successes at the mid-terms elections – have sounded the death knell for the agreement concluded under the Obama administration, which was designed to cap the Iranian program and put it under strict surveillance in return for a lifting of most international sanctions. Any attempt to revive it would now come too late.
Iran’s nuclear capabilities are now way beyond what they were in 2015. Per the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report issued in November 2022, Iran now has 4,515 advanced centrifuges of all types installed at its three uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, in addition to 7,135 installed IR-1 centrifuges, which are more rudimentary machines. In addition, in late November, as a “response” to the IAEA Board of Governors urging Tehran to fulfill its obligations and allow the Agency to fully verify its program, Iran decided to start uranium enrichment at 60% of U-235 – one step away from the 90% military threshold – in its Fordow facility, and to install a new cascade of advanced centrifuges at its Natanz facility. Per the IAEA report, Iran now has a stock of 62.3 kilograms (in uranium mass) of 60 percent enriched uranium in hexafluoride of uranium (UF6) form. This is 50% more than what it had in the spring of 2022. This means that, on paper, it could produce very quickly, perhaps in only a week, a Significant Quantity (SQ) of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) – a technical term referring to 25 kilos of at least 90% U-235 HEU, enough to build a bomb.
The construction of an actual explosive device would still take time. Despite its enormous efforts at “weaponization” in the 1990s and 2000s, there is no evidence that Tehran has resumed such work since the inception of the JCPOA. Neither is there evidence that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a charismatic scientist who was heading the Iranian team in charge of this effort, assassinated in 2020, was replaced by a high-profile figure willing and able to go further. As a result, even Israel believes that it would still take 18 to 24 months for Iran to do that. As a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) recently concluded, “Iran is on the precipice of becoming a nuclear-threshold state, if it is not one already.” Finally, recall that the first “sunset clauses” of the 2015 JCPOA are now expiring: the arms embargo was to be lifted in 2020, and the cap on advanced centrifuges in 2023.
Any rejuvenation of the JCPOA would also require fulfilling new conditions set by Iran, such as the removal of the US designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization and the closing of the enquiry regarding so-called “outstanding issues”. This refers to the request by the IAEA – unrelated with the JCPOA but by virtue of its mandate – for Iran to give credible explanations to the presence of uranium particles on at least four locations: three in the Tehran region (Turquz-abad, Varamin, Lavisan-Shian) and one near Abadeh (Marivan).
All of this is happening in a context that is becoming increasingly unfavorable to negotiations. Since the election in 2020 of Ebrahim Raisi as president, Iranian policies have radicalized. Attempts to assassinate opponents and attacks against US or Israeli interests have multiplied. Having seen the United States withdrawing from Afghanistan, Tehran authorities tend to view Washington as having lost interest in the Middle East. Despite the re-imposition of some sanctions, the Iranian economy has survived. As a result, support for the JCPOA in Tehran appears to have dwindled. The normalization of the relations between Israel and two Gulf countries, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, may have added to the Islamic Republic’s sense of entrenchment. Finally, it is hard to imagine that the current context of social revolts could, at this point, lead Tehran to more flexibility in its foreign policy.
Meanwhile, Russia and China are no longer constructive partners in the negotiation. They instead now give signs of support to Iran, in line with their assistance in sanction-busting and the increased defense cooperation between Moscow and Tehran (the role of drones in the Ukraine war). They also voted against the 17 November resolution tabled at the IAEA Board of Governors meeting.
The United States itself is less and less inclined to compromise. In Washington, the daily plight of Iranian demonstrators calls for more, not fewer, sanctions. It also makes a mockery of the idea of de-listing the IRGC as a terrorist organization. And the Republican control of the House of Representatives, beginning in January 2023, will further weaken support for reviving the JCPOA.
As per Europe, it did its best to act as a go-between and was instrumental in devising possible compromises since the resumption of negotiations in 2021. However, its patience has run out. As France, Germany, and the United Kingdom put it in September, the final draft suggested last summer “took [them] to the limit of [their] flexibility.” They believe that further concessions to Iran would alter the balance of the text to the point that any resulting agreement would not be worth signing. So what happens next?
One should never completely give up on diplomacy, but it should be clear that the circumstances under which an agreement would effectively cap and put under surveillance Iran’s nuclear program are no longer present. This is valid for both the JCPOA and for any “less-for-less” (less constraints on the program for less economic sanctions lifting) hypothetical agreement.
Iran’s nuclear program will thus continue and increasingly bring Iran closer to a “rapid breakout” capability – that is, the acquisition of nuclear bombs in a timeframe that would not necessarily allow for timely detection and reaction. Indeed, one of the most worrying developments of the past two years was the Iranian decision to stop allowing the IAEA’s monitoring of key production installations in late 2021 to signify its discontent vis-à-vis the Agency’s behavior. Most surveillance cameras were taken out in 2022. Tehran has gained knowledge and experience – in enrichment and metallurgy in particular – that could not be erased by the JCPOA. After a year of limited surveillance, the “knowledge gap” is becoming unbridgeable.
To repeat the point, there is no evidence that Iran has resumed its weaponization work. But Tehran’s denials about nuclear weapons intentions are even less credible than they were at the time of the JCPOA signature. As a matter of fact, high-level Iranian officials are now openly admitting such military intentions as, for instance, did the former head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization (IAEO) Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani in November 2021.
There are other, even more worrying scenarios. A formal withdrawal from the JCPOA would allow Iran to cease any pretense of an interest in moderating its program, at a relatively low political cost given the 2018 US withdrawal. A withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) itself would not necessarily make sense – Iran has been conducting illegal or undeclared activities for decades under the disguise of a “peaceful” program, but it could be seen in Tehran as a way to openly defy the West, a gesture which could be seen as a way to gain support and even prestige throughout the rest of the world. This could be done, for instance, at a time when the United States is dealing with a major crisis somewhere in the world. Note that the current revolts could indirectly contribute to such a decision if the regime saw itself as even more entrenched and threatened by “foreign elements” than is the case today: a more radical regime at home could also mean radicalized policies abroad, if only to attempt a “rallying-around-the-flag” phenomenon (an implosion of the State or a civil war would, however, open up new nuclear risks if the security and control of nuclear facilities was at stake).
Would then military action be undertaken against the Islamic Republic? There would be a terrible dilemma for Western and like-minded countries, one which has been summarized for more than a decade now by “the Bomb or the bombs?” question. On the one hand, military action designed to weaken the Iranian nuclear program would require a massive multi-domain campaign, with uncertain results and possibly counterproductive effects: it could lead Iran to resume and redouble its nuclear efforts and break all relations with the IAEA. On the other hand, passivity would have enormously deleterious effects on the credibility of the international community – starting with the United States and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) – and would shake the very foundations of the non-proliferation regime, leading perhaps to what one could call “the rise of the threshold States” – deliberate actions by worried and insecure nations to ensure that they too are able to quickly build the Bomb. It is very hard to imagine, in particular, that Saudi Arabia would not feel compelled to be one of those: Riyadh does not benefit from a formal US nuclear umbrella (something that South Korea and Japan do, along with most European countries) and its relations with Washington are increasingly sour.
There remains, of course, the possibility that the current Iranian revolts ultimately lead to a positive change in regime behavior, especially as the initial leaders of the Iranian/Islamic revolution of 1979 pass away. Would a democratized Iran – a very hypothetical scenario at this point – abandon its nuclear program? Those who do not believe so claim that the Shah of Iran had the same ambitions. However, despite his claim that his country had the right to nuclear weapons, the Shah – pressured by Washington – ultimately chose international respectability and good relations with the United States over the pursuit of nuclear weapons (there is no evidence that Iran under the Shah engaged in any suspicious, even less military-related, nuclear activity). A more appropriate model would probably be South Africa, which verifiably gave up its nuclear weapons after the fall of the apartheid.
At this point, it remains critical to not let Iran off the hook and make it clear that the international community’s will – as embodied in multiple UNSC resolutions – is that Iran strictly abide by its non-proliferation commitments. So what should be done?
- Signaling that whatever crisis the West is involved in does not signify any leniency towards Iran would be important. A good way to proceed would be for the IAEA, through a resolution of the Board of Governors, to formally declare Tehran in non-compliance with its obligations and refer the matter to the UNSC.
- Negotiating parties and the IAEA should not let Iran off the hook regarding past and possible present undeclared activities at suspicious sites. They should demand not only credible explanations to the presence of uranium particles at such sites but also full IAEA access to them. This is key in ensuring that the international community has constant visibility of the program.
- Interested parties – not only the West, but its friends and allies throughout the world – should make it crystal clear that breaching the 90% enrichment threshold would be a red line holding severe consequences, including imposing back all pre-2015 sanctions. This matters for two reasons: first, because Iran breached the 60% enrichment ceiling in 2021 without penalties; and second, because as stated 90% is the “weapon-grade” level.
- Finally, without openly threatening military action – something that could play in the Iranian hardliners’ hands – we should make clear that we would be ready to stop an Iranian bomb by any available means. While it is unlikely that the current US administration would openly agitate the threat of military action against Iran, it could find ways to state as clearly as possible that no option would be discarded if Tehran were to break the 90% threshold, or if there were indications of a resumption of weaponization activities. After all, did Tehran not suspend its weaponization research in 2003 for fear of a US attack?
 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015), November 10, 2022, http://bitly.ws/xGer.
 For a detailed analysis of some scenarios, see Maximilian Hoell, If the JCPOA Collapses: Implications for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and International Security, Global Security Policy Brief, European Leadership Network, December 2018, http://bitly.ws/xGb7.