Volume 14, Issue 5, July 13, 2022
After a three-month stalemate, indirect talks between the United States and Iran over restoring compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), resumed in Doha June 28. Rather than producing a breakthrough and de-escalating tensions, the two days of talks underscored that the inflexibility of the U.S. and Iranian positions on issues extraneous to the JCPOA continue to jeopardize efforts to restore mutual compliance with the original 2015 nuclear deal.
Given the intransigence on both sides and the growing proliferation risk posed by advances in Iran’s nuclear program, it is increasingly likely that efforts to restore the JCPOA will soon collapse—unless Washington and Tehran are willing to be more creative and flexible in bridging the remaining gaps that stand in the way of an agreement to resurrect the nuclear deal.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell directly emphasized the urgency of the current situation when he tweeted July 5 that “decisions are needed now” if the parties want an agreement to restore the JCPOA. He warned that the political space to revive the nuclear deal “may narrow soon.”
Despite Borrell’s warning, no further talks are scheduled, and the United States and Iran continue to point fingers over who is to blame for the impasse.
U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley described the round of negotiations as “a wasted occasion” in a July 5 interview with NPR and noted that Iran came to Doha with added demands that have “nothing to do with the nuclear deal.” According to Malley, the EU, which is mediating between the United States and Iran, “put on the table a very detailed outline of what they think a fair outcome would be” and the United States is “prepared to take that deal,” but Iran “has not said yes.” Malley went on to say the Biden administration assesses that Tehran needs to “come to a conclusion about whether there are now prepared to come back into compliance with the deal.”
Iran’s attempt to reopen old issues may appear to support the assessment that Tehran is uninterested in a deal or stalling to further build leverage—but this is a tactic Tehran has used in negotiations in the past. Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said July 5 that Tehran is pursuing “no claims that go beyond the JCPOA” and is “determined to seek a good, strong and lasting accord,” suggesting that Iran is still interested in a deal to restore the JCPOA.
But time is not on Iran’s side if it hopes to string out talks to increase its leverage and extract more from the United States. Nor is it on the side of the Biden administration if it attempts to wait Iran out.
Both Tehran and Washington must seize the moment now to find a creative approach to address the outstanding issues in the talks, namely Iran’s demand to lift sanctions designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization and for guaranteed economic benefits.
Iran’s advancing nuclear program confirms Borrell’s assessment that Washington and Tehran must act with greater urgency to address these issues and restore the 2015 nuclear deal. Tehran is closer now to a nuclear bomb than it has been at any point in its history and is subject to the bare minimum of monitoring. At this point, there is no guarantee that the international community could quickly detect an attempt by Iran to amass enough fissile material necessary for a nuclear weapon.
But even if Iran demonstrates restraint—which it so far has been unwilling to do— and takes no new steps to expand its nuclear activities, the current trajectory of its program and the reduction in monitoring will threaten efforts to restore the JCPOA and increase proliferation risk. If the Biden administration lets the door close on reviving the JCPOA, it has no good alternatives for effectively and verifiably reducing the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.
At that point, the best possible outcome would be for the Biden and Raisi administrations to take actions to deescalate tensions and stabilize the current crisis, which would build up time to negotiate an interim deal. Even this approach would be very difficult and time consuming to negotiate, is fraught with risk, and would be subject to spoilers, further highlighting the critical necessity for a last-ditch effort to restore the JCPOA before it is too late.
Breakout on the Brink
Iran’s ongoing and accelerating violations of the JCPOA are heightening proliferation risk and decreasing the window for restoring the nuclear deal. The impacts generally fall into three categories: reduction in breakout time (the time it would take to produce enough weapons-grade nuclear material for one bomb), irreversible research and development, and decreased transparency.
The reduction in Iran’s breakout time—from more than 12 months when the JCPOA was fully implemented to less than 10 days as of early June 2022—poses the most significant short-term proliferation risk. If Tehran decided to dash for a bomb, the 10-day timeframe would allow Iran to attempt to break out between IAEA inspections, which currently occur on roughly a weekly basis, and transfer its weapons-grade uranium to a covert site to complete the weaponization process. Building a bomb would likely take another 1-2 years but that process would be more difficult to detect and disrupt, which is why the United States has historically focused on ensuring that Iran could not quickly produce the nuclear material for a weapon and negotiated limits that produced a breakout time under the JCPOA (12 months for more than a decade) that would create ample time for the international community to respond to any attempt by Iran to move toward a nuclear weapon.
The precipitous drop in breakout since 2019, when Iran began to breach its obligations in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA a year earlier, is due to several factors. Most notably, Iran began ratcheting up enrichment to 60 percent uranium-235 in April 2021, a level just shy of the 90 percent considered weapons-grade, and can now enrich uranium more efficiently than it could in the pre-JCPOA period due to its development, installation, and use of more advanced centrifuge machines.
As of the May 30 IAEA report, Iran had produced an estimated 43.3 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent. Iran claims 60 percent enriched uranium is necessary for research reactor fuel and a future submarine program, but there is no legitimate civil justification for Tehran to be taking this step—no other non-nuclear weapon state enriches to this level. Now, having produced more than 40 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent, Tehran could use that stockpile of material exclusively as feed to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb, or about 25 kilograms of uranium enriched to 90 percent.
Iran’s enrichment capacity is also nearly three times what was permitted by the JCPOA, which limited Iran to enriching uranium with 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges and strictly regulated the testing of advanced centrifuge machines. As of the May 30 IAEA report, Iran has installed an additional 1,000 IR-1 centrifuges at its enrichment facility at Natanz, as well as about 1,000 IR-2 centrifuges and about 500 IR-4 centrifuges. Iran also has plans to install 1,000 IR-6 centrifuges, distributed between the Natanz and Fordow sites, about 500 of which were installed as of the May 30 report.
Even more concerning is the fact that Iran notified the IAEA July 9 that a cascade of IR-6 centrifuges installed at Fordow is configured in a way that allows Iran to switch enrichment levels more quickly. While Iran informed the IAEA that the planned enrichment level is 20 percent, that could change if Tehran seeks to build further leverage. That this activity is taking place at Fordow, a facility buried deeply into the mountains near Qom, will likely be even more concerning to U.S. policymakers as it would be difficult, if not impossible, to destroy or damage the site with a conventional military strike.
As a result of these advances, Iran could produce enough weapons-grade material for a bomb (25 kilograms of 90-percent enriched uranium) in less than 10 days. The Biden administration confirmed the risk posed by this shortened timeframe when U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley testified May 25 to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Iran “could potentially produce enough fuel for a bomb before we can know it, let alone stop it.”
Restoring the JCPOA’s limitations will not push the breakout back to 12 months, as Iran’s irreversible knowledge gains have eroded that timeframe. However, the JCPOA’s limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment program will have an immediate impact of increasing the breakout to an estimated six months through at least 2030, alleviating the heightened risk of an undetected breakout and giving the international community adequate time to respond to any move toward a bomb.
While breakout poses the most significant and immediate proliferation risk, it is not currently a driving factor in the Biden administration’s calculations regarding the viability of a restored JCPOA. Nor does Iran’s crossing the threshold of undetectable breakout appear to be spurring any urgency toward reaching an agreement.
In late 2021, undetectable breakout appeared to be a red line for the United States. Now, however, the Biden administration appears willing to tolerate this increased risk level in the short term, or at least as long as restoring the JCPOA remains a viable option. This may be because while breakout can be useful in measuring the time it would take for Iran to produce weapons-grade material, it does have limitations in measuring threat. Breakout relies on worst-case scenario calculations and assumptions, and more importantly, it does not take into account intent. The Biden administration may feel more confident that the risk posed by a short breakout can be managed if they believe that national technical intelligence means would be sure to detect a breakout, even if it occurs between IAEA inspections, and/or they feel confident that Iran has not, and likely will not, decide to build a nuclear weapon. Iran’s continued rhetoric in support of a deal to restore the JCPOA suggests that Tehran still concludes the costs of pursuing nuclear weapons outweigh the benefits.
In the longer term, particularly if restoring the JCPOA is no longer a viable option, such a short breakout could be destabilizing and increase the risk of conflict. A sudden decision by Iran to pursue the bomb, a new government in Israel that views the short breakout time as a more imminent threat, or faulty intelligence assessments could all push the United States to use force. Even if Iran does not undertake new nuclear activities, given the short breakout time, leaders in Washington may assess at some point that military options are the only means to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. While that could increase breakout in the short term, Iran would likely respond, as it has in the past, by ratcheting up its nuclear activities even further. At worst, it could push Tehran to assess that covertly or openly pursuing nuclear weapons is the best option to prevent further attack by the United States or Israel.
Irreversible Research and Development
While the shorter breakout timeline does not appear to be driving the Biden administration’s current calculus regarding the window of opportunity for restoring the JCPOA, Iran’s research and development activities may drive the United States to reassess the value of the JCPOA, as the irreversible knowledge that Iran gains from these activities will continue to decrease the nonproliferation benefits of the accord.
Iran’s initial violations of the JCPOA were carefully calibrated to pressure the remaining parties to the deal to deliver on the relief envisioned under the accord after the United States withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions. These early breaches, which began a year after Trump pulled out of the accord, consisted of activities that Tehran had undertaken before the JCPOA’s implementation—actions that could quickly be reversed and posed no new challenge to the JCPOA’s nonproliferation benefits. These actions included enriching to 5 percent uranium-235, slightly above the 3.67 percent limit established by the JCPOA but below the 20 percent Iran had produced before 2013. Iran also breached the stockpile cap of 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent—a clear violation of the deal, but one easily rectified by shipping out or blending down excess stocks.
Iran’s breaches, however, have grown more serious and more difficult to reverse as Tehran has taken increasingly drastic steps in an attempt to increase its leverage and to respond to attacks against its nuclear facilities and assassinations of its scientists, acts which Israel has often claimed credit for.
For instance, after the November 2020 assassination of Mohsen Fakrizadeh, a nuclear scientist deeply involved with Iran’s pre-2003 organized nuclear weapons program, Iran passed a law requiring the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to take certain steps to expand its nuclear program. While some of the required steps, such as resuming 20 percent enrichment, were activities Iran had undertaken before the JCPOA’s negotiation, most of the required actions broke new ground and resulted in the acquisition of irreversible knowledge. The law, for instance, required Iran to install and operate 1,000 IR-2 and IR-6 centrifuges, which are much more efficient models that Iran had little to no experience using for large-scale enrichment before the JCPOA’s negotiation. As a result, Tehran has gained knowledge that cannot be reversed about the production and operation of these more advanced machines.
The law also required Iran to begin work on a facility to produce uranium metal. While the IAEA has confirmed that Iran completed the installation of the equipment necessary for the first stage of metal production but is not operating it, the AEOI did begin laboratory experiments that resulted in small quantities of uranium metal. Iran claims this work is necessary to develop fuel for its reactors, but uranium metal is also directly relevant to nuclear weapons development. While Iran conducted uranium metal experiments as part of its pre-2003 nuclear weapons program, it does not appear to have mastered the capability nor did it have such a facility when the JCPOA was implemented, as the deal prohibited uranium metal work for 15 years.
Germany, France, and the United Kingdom have raised particular concern about Iran’s uranium metal work and its potential impact on JCPOA restoration. In a June 7 statement, the three countries said that uranium metal “is a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon” and the “more Iran is advancing and accumulating knowledge with irreversible consequences, the more difficult it is to come back to the JCPOA.” The E3 warned that “it is essential that Iran does not resume these activities or commence any further work.”
Iran’s decision to enrich uranium to 60 percent in response to an act of sabotage at its Natanz site also broke new ground. After testing several configurations for 60 percent production, Iran appears to have settled on a particular uranium enrichment process, suggesting that it is mastering this new enrichment level, which is dangerously close to weapons-grade levels (greater than 90 percent uranium-235).
To date, the Biden administration appears to assess that the knowledge Iran has gained from these new research activities can be managed under a restored JCPOA and the deal’s nonproliferation benefits of the accord remain strong.
However, given that Iran appears intent on continuing to build leverage, it is likely that Tehran’s research and development activities will expand over the coming months. But the reduced transparency and the undetectable breakout timeframe give Tehran little room to maneuver. There is an increasing likelihood that Iran’s quest for leverage will lead Tehran to take steps that render the JCPOA’s nonproliferation benefits beyond repair or, at worst, trigger a military response. Vague and contradictory statements that the Biden administration has made about its red lines for military action against Iran’s nuclear program and upcoming elections in Israel increase the risk of Iranian miscalculation.
For instance, some officials within the Raisi administration are pushing to begin enrichment to 90 percent, a move that the U.S. intelligence community warned that Iran will consider if it does not receive sanctions relief in its 2022 Worldwide Threat Assessment. While the Raisi administration may view this step as just another means of increasing its negotiating leverage vis-a-vis the United States, even a small-scale effort to produce 90 percent would result in new knowledge for Iran that would likely kill any prospect of restoring the accord.
Furthermore, given the immediacy of the risk posed by enriching to 90 percent, such a step would significantly increase the likelihood that the United States and/or Israel assess that Tehran intends to pursue nuclear weapons, in turn triggering the use of military force to prevent Iran from accumulating enough bomb-grade uranium material for a weapon.
There are other actions, short of enriching to 90 percent, that Iran could take which are less likely to prompt a military response but would jeopardize the nonproliferation value of a restored JCPOA. Experimenting with more efficient centrifuges and different cascade designs would further erode breakout under a restored JCPOA. Another such action might be using 20 percent or 60 percent enriched material as feed for centrifuges, even if Iran does not withdraw the enriched uranium product.
If Tehran does not show restraint and continues to pursue new capabilities, the Biden administration will have to take these advances into account when determining if restoring compliance with the JCPOA will still provide nonproliferation benefits that address U.S. security concerns and are equal to the sanctions relief Iran would receive under the deal. Washington and its JCPOA partners will also need to determine what steps Iran may need to take to mitigate the proliferation potential of these capabilities, prolonging negotiations to restore the accord and the risk of spoilers disrupting those efforts.
Bare Minimum of Monitoring
Iran’s reductions in monitoring and transparency further complicate efforts to assess the impact of Iran’s research and development activities, detect breakout, and maintain an accurate record of Iran’s nuclear activities—a history that will be necessary to reimplement the JCPOA.
The monitoring regime established by the JCPOA is the most intrusive ever negotiated. Iran has always been legally required as a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to implement a comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) with the IAEA, which gives inspectors access to facilities where nuclear materials are present to ensure that Iran’s declared nuclear activities are peaceful and must continue to implement that agreement regardless of the JCPOA’s future. CSAs, however, have proven inadequate in preventing states from conducting illicit nuclear activities, underscoring the importance of the JCPOA’s additional monitoring provisions, particularly for a country like Iran that violated its legally binding NPT commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons in the past.
The JCPOA builds on the legally required CSA by requiring Iran to implement an additional protocol (AP) to its IAEA safeguards agreement, which gives IAEA inspectors access to more information about a country’s nuclear activities and to any facility that is part of the program. Under an AP, for instance, inspectors can access centrifuge production facilities, which are not included under a CSA because there is no nuclear material present. The JCPOA also requires continuous surveillance of key sites, real-time monitoring of enrichment levels, and daily access to enrichment facilities.
Furthermore, the Joint Commission, the body established to oversee the implementation of the JCPOA, can vote by a majority to require Tehran to allow the IAEA access to any site in Iran to investigate evidence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities within a set time frame (JCPOA, Annex I, Section Q). This is designed to prevent Iran from stalling IAEA investigations, as it has in the past.
As a result of Iran’s JCPOA breaches, only the CSA currently remains in place. After Iran announced it would stop implementing its AP and other JCPOA-specific monitoring measures in February 2021, Tehran and the agency reached an agreement whereby IAEA cameras would continue to collect data during the period of reduced agency access that would be handed over to inspectors if the JCPOA was restored. The data collected would allow the IAEA to reconstruct a history of Iran’s nuclear activities and maintain its continuity of knowledge about Tehran’s actions, which would provide a baseline for monitoring a restored JCPOA.
Iran, however, announced June 9 that it was disconnecting 27 of the IAEA’s cameras that were critical to maintaining continuity of knowledge. While Tehran does not appear to have destroyed the data collected to that point, the gap in the monitoring of even a few weeks will have significant consequences. IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi described Iran’s decision as dealing a “fatal blow” to efforts to restore the JCPOA within 3-4 weeks. While that period has now passed, and the Biden administration assesses that continuity of knowledge can be restored after a longer period of reduced visibility, the gap will certainly cause significant challenges, both politically and from a verification perspective.
The lack of adequate international monitoring and transparency increases the risk that Iran could break out undetected or move equipment and materials for a covert program to an undeclared site. It would be time-consuming and difficult—if not impossible—for the IAEA to reconstruct history and definitively determine that Iran had not taken such steps if the JCPOA is restored.
As Germany, France, and the United Kingdom noted in a June 9 statement, Iran’s decision to remove the cameras “will only aggravate the situation and complicate our efforts to restore full implementation of the JCPOA.” The decision also casts “further doubt on Iran’s commitment to a successful outcome.”
Even if the IAEA can account for Iran’s activities, the gap will fuel speculation that Iran engaged in illicit actions during the period of reduced monitoring. Whether there is evidence to support this conclusion or not, it risks undermining the sustainability of JCPOA.
In addition to the challenges, this poses for quick detection of illicit activities and/or diversion, the reduction in monitoring will complicate efforts to restore the JCPOA and garner the necessary political support in the United States to sustain the accord.
In his June 9 news conference, Grossi raised concerns about being able to reestablish a baseline to accurately verify compliance with a restored JCPOA. When the JCPOA was first implemented, Iran had to provide the IAEA with certain access and information before receiving any sanctions relief. This allowed the IAEA to establish a baseline against which to verify Iran’s JCPOA commitments. A similar process would likely be included in a deal to restore the JCPOA.
If Iran delays or stalls on that process, or if the IAEA is unable to establish such a baseline, it could prove challenging to verify the deal and for the Biden administration to certify to Congress that the IAEA has the capacity to monitor the deal—an assessment that will have to be submitted within five days of an agreement to restore the deal being reached as required by the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. Depending on the sequence of actions that Iran must take, the United States may need to submit the verification assessment before the IAEA can determine if such a baseline can be reestablished and if Iran will provide the information necessary to do so. This could undermine support for the JCPOA in Congress before the agreement could be restored.
The JCPOA Remains the Best Option
If Iran’s advancing nuclear program is not prompting the Biden administration to act with greater urgency to close a deal to restore the JCPOA, the lack of viable alternative options for reducing Iran’s nuclear risk should.
The Biden administration is already previewing its approach for countering Iran if talks to restore the JCPOA should fail: increasing sanctions pressure and diplomatic isolation to push Iran back to negotiations; shoring up military defenses in the region; and threatening military action if necessary to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.
This playbook worked for the United States in the past when the Iranian nuclear program was far less advanced and before the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA. The Obama administration spearheaded a campaign to shore up international support for UN and US sanctions, including from China and Russia, countries that are outspoken against sanctions overreach, a particularly unilateral measure which they describe as an infringement of sovereignty. The Obama administration paired this pressure campaign with credible offers for diplomatic negotiations that ultimately produced the JCPOA.
However, it is very unlikely that the Biden administration would be able to reconstitute the same level of support for sanctions that it did in the lead-up to the negotiations on the JCPOA in 2013.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions targeting Moscow have only reinforced opposition to these measures in Russia and China. The current global energy crisis, as well as the perception that the United States caused the current nuclear crisis with Iran by withdrawing from the deal without cause in May 2018, will make it more difficult to build global support for sanctions and likely give Tehran more willing partners in its attempts to evade sanctions. Even France raised the need to explore the possibility of using Iranian oil to stem rising prices and meet global demand in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine squeezing the energy market.
It is also extremely unlikely that the Security Council will take any action on Iran, even if the IAEA Board of Governors refers Iran to that body for failing to meet its safeguards obligations (the IAEA is investigating undeclared nuclear materials from the pre-2003 period) or for engaging in new, undeclared nuclear activities. Absent convincing evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, a Russian or Chinese veto is almost certain.
France or the United Kingdom could attempt to use the sanctions “snapback” mechanism in Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, to force the reimposition of Security Council sanctions that were modified when the JCPOA was implemented in January 2016. But that move, which cannot be vetoed, will be more difficult after the Trump administration attempted snapback in September 2020 without any legal standing to do so. The Europeans may also be reluctant to take such as step, given that it would likely spark further divisions between the states party to the JCPOA.
Given the challenges of reconstituting international support for sanctions, it will be a long and arduous process for the United States and its partners to build enough pressure so that Iran determines negotiations and restraint are in its best interest. During that time, Iran will also have had the opportunity to continue expanding its nuclear program—which it can do much more quickly—giving Iran more leverage in future negotiations. Iran could use its new capabilities, such as higher-level enrichment and advanced centrifuge development, to bargain for more concessions in future talks. Having to take these capabilities into account in a future accord could result in the United States giving up more to reach an agreement as effective as the JCPOA.
While Iran’s short-term escalation dominance could give it an upper hand in any new negotiations, Tehran’s expanding nuclear program also increases the risk of the United States and/or Israel resorting to military force to reduce the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Israel’s ongoing efforts to sabotage Iranian nuclear facilities and assassinate nuclear scientists suggest that kinetic action to try and roll back the program will continue. Biden, like his predecessors, has also made clear that the United States will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, implying that Washington will use force, if necessary, to achieve that goal.
Iran’s ability to break out undetected and its apparent determination to continue upping the pressure on the United States by expanding its nuclear activities significantly increase the likelihood that Tehran miscalculates in expanding its nuclear program and crosses a U.S. and/or Israeli red line.
While a military strike may set back Iran’s nuclear program in the short term, it is far more likely to drive Tehran to further harden its nuclear facilities against an attack and expand its nuclear program, as it has in the past in response to acts of sabotage. An attack will also fuel the arguments of policymakers in Tehran that favor pursuing nuclear weapons and that withdrawing from the NPT and building a nuclear deterrent is the only way to thwart future attacks. Even if an attack is successful in the short term, the United States could, at worse, face a full-blown war with Iran and the prospect of Tehran openly pursuing nuclear weapons, or, at best, driving further nuclear advances that it will have to contend with in any future negotiations.
An unrestrained Iranian nuclear program could also lead to further proliferation challenges in the region that the United States is ill-equipped to address. Saudi Arabia has openly threatened to pursue nuclear weapons if Iran’s nuclear program is not limited. Riyadh has thus far refused to negotiate new safeguards with the IAEA, despite its intention to expand its civil nuclear program and the fact that its current IAEA monitoring regime is based on an outdated protocol deemed insufficient by the agency and foreswear developing enrichment and reprocessing capabilities in its nuclear cooperation negotiations with the United States. Satellite imagery also suggests that Saudi Arabia is pursuing its own ballistic missile production capabilities, which would give it the means to deliver nuclear weapons.
If Saudi Arabia follows through on its threats or attempts to build a nuclear hedging capacity that preserves its option to move quickly for a bomb in the future, the typical tools of statecraft that the United States relies on for countering proliferation will likely be inadequate. It will be more challenging to sanction Saudi Arabia, given its military relationship with the United States and its oil reserves, and to diplomatically isolate it.
If a restored JCPOA is no longer on the table, the best of this list of bad options would be for the United States and Iran to negotiate an interim deal after first agreeing to a set of de-escalatory steps to stabilize the current situation. Since negotiating even an interim deal would itself be a time-consuming, complex undertaking that could be threatened by spoilers, it would behoove each side to take voluntary steps to build time for diplomacy and avert the risk of war.
On the Iranian side, Tehran should consider steps that would increase transparency and give IAEA inspectors greater access to the country’s nuclear program. Greater transparency would provide more assurance that Tehran does not intend to pursue nuclear weapons and that moves in that direction would be quickly detected. Even if Iran continues to try and build pressure by further expanding its nuclear program or engaging in new nuclear activities, an increase in transparency and monitoring would reduce the proliferation risk that these activities pose. It would ideally prevent a precipitous move to use military force based on bad intelligence that was suggesting a dash to a bomb and provide a better baseline for implementing any future deal.
In return, the United States and its P4+1 partners could include limited sanctions relief that targets humanitarian sectors in Iran and/or unfreeze a limited amount of Iranian assets held abroad for those purposes. That could provide Iran with an infusion of cash to address the worsening economic crisis in the country.
Actions along these lines would allow both sides to retain their most significant leverage and demonstrate a commitment to a peaceful resolution and prevention of war. Stabilizing the current situation would also create time for a new diplomatic foray that could focus first on negotiating an interim deal that halts and rolls back Iran’s more proliferation sensitive activities, such as enrichment to 60 percent, freezes the development and installation of further advanced centrifuges, and prohibits new research activities. In return, Iran could receive commensurate sanctions relief.
Ideally, by reducing the immediacy of the proliferation risk and building confidence in the diplomatic process, an interim deal would create the time and space to negotiate a new agreement along the lines of the JCPOA that considers Iran’s nuclear advances and Tehran’s legitimate concerns about the performance of sanctions relief.
Diplomacy With Iran Worth a Political Price
While critics of the JCPOA may applaud Biden for walking away from the JCPOA rather than removing the IRGC from the foreign terrorist organization list, he will pay a far higher price for allowing the opportunity to restore intrusive monitoring and strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program slip by. If Biden cannot find the flexibility to remove the symbolic designation that has failed to reign in the IRGC’s destabilizing regional activities, his administration must put forward additional practical, realistic solutions to address the current impasse. If Biden loses this opportunity and does not move quickly to stabilize the current situation and build time for new negotiations, he risks going down in history as the president that allowed Iran to get to the brink of a bomb or the president that went to war to stop it.
Just as it is critical for the Biden administration to demonstrate creativity and flexibility, Iran must also show some flexibility and some restraint. Iran has hinted that it has relaxed its demands on the IRGC issue, but has failed to articulate clearly what it wants instead, and continues to put unrealistic demands on the table, such as a U.S. guarantee that Washington will honor an agreement post-Biden and the IAEA dropping its safeguards investigation into undeclared nuclear activities and materials from pre-2003. Tehran’s adamance in expanding its nuclear program and reducing transparency, despite the heightened proliferation risk, further jeopardizes the accord and increases the risk that Iran miscalculates, and tensions escalate to military action. Neither side wins if talks to restore the JCPOA collapse.
The JCPOA is a proven and effective strategy that verifiably blocks Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons. If fully implemented, it is the swiftest, most effective way to roll back Iran’s nuclear activities, put its program under a microscope, and provide Tehran with the sanctions relief necessary to revive its flagging economy. The United States and Iran must agree to return to talks and hammer out a path forward for restoring the JCPOA before it is too late.--KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy