Full restoration of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran remains the best possible option to avert a nuclear crisis and provide Tehran with sanctions relief, but the Raisi administration’s approach to talks and the country’s growing nuclear program risks jeopardizing those efforts.
When talks resumed in Vienna Nov. 29 after a five-month hiatus, Iran rejected most of the hard-fought progress made during the first six rounds of negotiations from April-June and raised new demands incompatible with the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While these proposals are unlikely to represent Iran’s bottom line, the window of opportunity to negotiate a return to U.S. and Iranian compliance with the accord is closing rapidly. Iran’s failure to fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its decision to continue ratcheting up its nuclear activities risks pushing the United States to determine that the JCPOA’s nonproliferation benefits cannot be salvaged. Either of these crises could kill the prospects for restoring the JCPOA in the coming weeks if negotiators do not take steps to lower tensions and engage in good faith efforts to determine the steps necessary for both the United States and Iran to return to compliance with the accord.
Iran’s Nuclear Advances
The day after talks resumed in Vienna, Iran began enriching uranium to 20 percent using a cascade of IR-6 centrifuges at Fordow, according to a Dec. 1 IAEA report. That same report noted that Iran continues to install additional IR-6s at the site. Iran’s decision to further ratchet up its nuclear activities while talks are ongoing suggests that Tehran is still trying to build leverage to extract further concessions from the United States at the negotiating table. This gambit, however, will likely backfire and makes a win-win outcome less likely. As a senior State Department official noted in a Dec. 4 press briefing, “that’s not a negotiating tactic that’s going to work.”
The advancing nuclear program also risks the United States determining that the nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA cannot be restored, or that the growing risk posed by Iran’s advancing nuclear program precludes a long, drawn-out negotiation. The more knowledge Iran gains from its research and development activities, such as operating IR-6 centrifuges and producing uranium metal, the more challenging negotiations become. That knowledge cannot be reversed and negotiators will need to address these new capabilities in determining the steps necessary to restore the JCPOA or, in the event that the JCPOA no longer proves adequate given Iran’s advances, a new deal.
Another more immediate effect of Iran's decision to accelerate sensitive nuclear activities is that it will decrease “breakout time,” which is the time it would take for Iran to produce enough material for one bomb (weaponizing it may take a further two years). As of the Nov. 17 quarterly IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program, the country’s breakout time was about one month—down from 12 when the JCPOA was fully implemented. That timeline will continue to shrink—and more rapidly given Iran’s decision to use IR-6 centrifuges at Fordow—absent any changes by Iran to other aspects of its nuclear program.
A U.S. official quoted in a Dec. 7 Diplomatic article said that Iran’s breakout could approach the “margin of error,” within the first quarter of 2022. This likely refers to the time during which the United States could not be confident that it would detect breakout before Iran produced enough weapons-grade material for one bomb.
This will almost certainly lead the Biden administration to assess that there is no time left for a drawn-out negotiation to restore compliance with the JCPOA and it will pivot to other options to hold Iran’s nuclear ambitions in check—all of which are inferior to the JCPOA.
A quick interim deal could buy time for further talks on the JCPOA or an entirely new agreement that addresses Iran's nuclear program. Such a deal might involve freezing Iran’s most proliferation-sensitive activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief (both of which would bring each side closer to JCPOA compliance) and may be the best possible option.
If such an agreement cannot be quickly reached, the United States will undoubtedly attempt to further increase pressure on Iran, namely through sanctions, to try to compel Iran to return to negotiations. But given the blow dealt to U.S. credibility by the Trump administration when it withdrew from the deal, as well as changing geopolitics, sanctions will likely be less effective and have less multilateral support. More pressure will also further compound the humanitarian crisis Tehran is facing, as waivers and channels for sanctions-exempt trade have proven woefully insufficient. Iran is also likely to respond to more sanctions with its own nuclear advances, and Tehran can ratchet up its nuclear activities more quickly than the United States can build pressure.
If the breakout time drops under the margin of error, there is also a greater likelihood that the United States (and Israel) will try and set back the program by sabotaging facilities, or perhaps even military strikes. This may increase breakout time in the short term, but Iran has typically responded to such actions by further advancing its nuclear program. Iran’s decision earlier this year to enrich uranium to 60 percent, for instance, was a direct response to the sabotage at the Natanz nuclear facility in April. In a worst-case scenario, Iran may decide that withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is the best way to respond, which would increase the risk of conflict.
IAEA Monitoring Crisis
In addition to Iran’s advancing nuclear program, the growing monitoring crisis between Iran and the IAEA also poses a risk to efforts to restore the JCPOA. Iran’s failure to allow inspectors to reinstall cameras at the Karaj centrifuge component manufacturing facility creates a gap in IAEA monitoring made all the more serious by reports in The Wall Street Journal that Tehran has resumed operations at the facility.
The gap risks that the IAEA will be unable to maintain continuity of knowledge about Iran’s nuclear program, which the agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi says is necessary to restore the JCPOA’s more intrusive monitoring regime. This factor will influence assessments as to whether or not the JCPOA’s nonproliferation benefits can be restored. The gap will also undoubtedly fuel speculation that Iran is diverting centrifuges for covert activities, which undermines confidence in the agreement.
Iran’s failure to cooperate with IAEA over this issue for the past six months also raises legitimate questions about Tehran’s commitment to restoring the accord. Iran removed the cameras in June after they were damaged during an attack on the facility and continues to reject the IAEA’s assertion that inspections should be granted access under a Sept. 12 agreement that allowed the agency to service cameras at other locations. According to a Nov. 17 IAEA report, inspectors have been turned away from Karaj three times. Grossi’s trip to Tehran Nov. 22-23 failed to resolve this dispute, as have subsequent communications between the IAEA and Iran.
The Biden administration has made clear it will convene a meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors before the end of the year to address monitoring concerns and Tehran's failure to cooperate with IAEA inquiries about past, possibly undeclared nuclear activities (for more on that investigation click here). The Board will likely vote to censure Iran for failing to cooperate with IAEA requests. While this move could disrupt the negotiations to restore mutual compliance with the JCPOA by pushing Iran to retaliate— Raisi has said Iran will respond to “unconstructive” action by the IAEA Board—a censure is necessary and appropriate for members of the Board of Governors to support the IAEA and maintain the integrity of the safeguards regime.
The United States did manufacture this crisis when President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018—despite Iran’s compliance—and reimposed sanctions on Iran in violation of the accord. Iran’s concerns about the performance of sanctions relief after Trump’s reckless pressure campaign that denied Tehran the benefits of the deal are legitimate, and the United States does need to be flexible and creative to demonstrate that Tehran will benefit from restoring the JCPOA.
But working through those details will take time—time that the negotiators do not have if Iran’s nuclear program continues to advance and if the IAEA monitoring crisis remains unresolved. If the United States and Iran are serious about restoring the JCPOA, it behooves both sides to refrain from actions that risk further escalating tensions or shortening the negotiating clock, and to bring serious proposals to the table that are compatible with the 2015 nuclear deal. There is still an opportunity to restore the JCPOA, but that window is rapidly closing and there are no good alternatives when and if it is shut.