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June 2, 2022
Trump just opened the door for Iran to expand its nuclear capabilities
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Arms Control NOW

This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill.

Fulfilling a misguided campaign pledge, President Trump has chosen to violate the 2015 nuclear deal between the United States and its partners — the EU, U.K. France, Germany, Russia, and China — with Iran and reimpose U.S. sanctions that were waived according to the terms of the 2015 accord in exchange for severe limits and very robust international monitoring on Iran’s nuclear activities. 

Now, the valuable nonproliferation barriers established by the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are at risk. 

Contrary to Trump’s perception that the JCPOA is a “bad deal,” the accord has effectively and verifiably blocked Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb. While some restrictions will be eased after 2025, the JCPOA-related barriers to an Iranian bomb do not expire.

The 2015 Iran deal mandates significant, long-term, verifiable restrictions on Iran's enrichment facilities (from 19,000 centrifuges to 5,060), strict limits on centrifuge research and development, elimination of its stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium and a reduction of its low-enriched uranium stockpile (from nearly 8,000 kilograms to less than 300 kg).

The JCPOA also dismantled the Arak heavy-water reactor, which could have been used to produce plutonium. 

These restrictions ensure that it would take Iran no less (and likely more) than 12 months to produce enough bomb-grade uranium sufficient for one weapon.

If Iran’s leaders were reckless enough to try to amass bomb-grade material, it would very likely be detected within days or weeks.

The JCPOA put in place a robust, multi-layered International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring regime across Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain, including centrifuge manufacturing sites (for 20 years), uranium mining and milling (for 25 years) and continuous, 24/7 monitoring of many nuclear and nuclear-related sites.

The JCPOA requires Iran to implement and ratify the Additional Protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement, which requires early notification of design changes or new nuclear projects and timely access to any Iranian facility of proliferation concern, including military sites. Under the JCPOA, IAEA access cannot be stalled more than 24 days without serious consequences.

Iran is meeting all of its obligations under the JCPOA. The IAEA has reported Tehran’s compliance 10 times. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeotestified to Congress in April that there was no evidence of Iranian noncompliance with the JCPOA.

But now, in response to Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions on firms doing business with Iran, Iran’s leaders could decide to exceed the tough nuclear restrictions established by the accord. If Iran does, a major new crisis will erupt.

In a Tuesday address, President Hassan Rouhani said that "if necessary, we can begin our industrial enrichment without any limitations. Until implementation of this decision, we will wait for some weeks and will talk with our friends and allies and other signatories of the nuclear deal, who signed it and who will remain loyal to it. Everything depends on our national interests.”

If, in the coming weeks, European and other powers fail to insulate their financial and business transactions with Iran from threatened U.S. sanctions, how quickly could it scale up its nuclear program?

Iran now has 5,060 installed IR-1 centrifuge machines and a relatively small amount of low-enriched uranium. Iran could, within weeks, begin enriching the material to higher levels (to 20 percent U-235), but it would still take at least 12 months to amass enough uranium enriched to bomb-grade for just one nuclear device. 

Iran could also possibly reopen the Fordow underground enrichment complex, which was shuttered under the JCPOA, and put back online an additional 1,000 IR-1 machines that were idled under the JCPOA. 

Iran’s centrifuge-based nuclear infrastructure could be further augmented with the redeployment of 1,000 more advanced IR-2M centrifuges, which were put into monitored storage under the JCPOA.

Since these are two-to-three-times more efficient than the IR-1s, the addition of the IR-2Ms would reduce the time necessary to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one bomb to two-to-three months.

With the existing IAEA monitoring system in place, all of these steps would be promptly detected, but within some 12-18 months of exceeding key JCPOA limits, Iran could have a vastly shorter “breakout” timeline. 

“Breakout” calculations must take into account the fact that that before 2004, Iran engaged in an organized program of experiments useful for the development and design of nuclear weapons.

U.S. intelligence authorities and the IAEA report that these activities are no longer underway, but it is prudent to assume that Iran has the know-how to assemble a nuclear device.

Iranian engineers and scientists would likely need at least a year to assemble a workable nuclear device and perfect a ballistic missile system to deliver it, but again, they have the know-how to get there if they are given orders to do so.

These realities underscore why it is critical to maintain the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions and tougher IAEA monitoring to ensure that Iran cannot, in the near-term, acquire the capacity to quickly produce a enough bomb-grade nuclear material for even one weapon. 

Only by preserving the JCPOA do we have the option to negotiate a follow-on agreement with Iran and other states in the region that maintains the core barriers of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Trump may have wounded the JCPOA, but as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said May 8, the deal “is not dead.” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has argued that the JCPOA is multilateral accord and it is “not up to a single country to terminate it.” 

Now, it will be up to Europe’s leaders, along with other responsible actors, to ensure it remains in Iran’s interest not to break out of the JCPOA’s rigorous constraints.

This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill.