The possibility of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—or the Iran nuclear deal—being revived, though difficult, has brightened. It could have been accomplished much earlier if not for the Biden administration’s attempts to extract concessions from Iran that went far beyond the original deal. Even behind former United States President Donald Trump pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal was the premise that he could get a better deal than Obama had negotiated. Finally, faced with the reality that Iran is unlikely to give up its missile capabilities or pull back from regional allies, Biden seems to have come around to the original deal.
Iran is unlikely to remove the more advanced centrifuges it now uses after the Trump administration unilaterally pulled out of the deal. Neither is Iran likely to get an assurance that a future Trump will not abandon the deal again after the 2024 Presidential election in the United States. We have to live in an era in which the United States, the strongest military and economic power, is no longer treaty-capable, whether on global warming or the nuclear deal with Iran.
Washington was not alone in its stupidity of pulling out of an agreement that imposed the most stringent restrictions any country had accepted on its nuclear programs. It was egged on, if not instigated, by Israel, which wanted the United States to do what it could not: remove the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons and defang its missile capabilities. As most technologies required for nuclear weapons or missiles are dual-use, it would have converted Iran to a second-class industrial power as well.
A set of Israeli military experts have now come out saying that asking the United States to pull out of the Iran deal was a huge blunder, and the best course for Israel now would be to work to reinstate it. A report published in January 2021 by Ben Armbruster in Responsible Statecraft, a leading United States website on international affairs, says, “The head of Israel’s military intelligence agency, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva has said that the revival of the Iran nuclear agreement would be better for Israel than if it were to be allowed to collapse entirely”.
If Iran had succumbed to the United States and Israel, it would have given the western powers complete military control over West Asia, including its oil. This would have been in line with President Carter’s 1980 declaration—the Carter doctrine—that the Persian Gulf region was of vital interest to the United States, and it would brook no interference of any outside power in this region. It was similar to the neocolonial Monroe doctrine of 1823 that declared no foreign power could have any military presence in the Americas, the United States’ backyard.
Trump’s reimposition of more than 1,000 sanctions on Iran after walking out of the deal was a heavy economic blow. It was complemented by covert attacks on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure: the sabotage of facilities and assassinations of nuclear scientists in Iran. General Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, was assassinated, as was Iraq’s General Mohandis, in a United States drone strike in Baghdad. Iran’s response has been equally forceful: it struck against United States bases in the region using missiles, continued supporting the Hezbollah and Syrian government forces, and its influence over Iraq continues. After a prior warning to avoid casualties, its strikes on United States bases showed America’s so-called anti-missile batteries are toothless against Iran’s latest missiles. Iran was careful not to cause deaths, nor did it hit United States Navy ships in order not to start a war. But its asymmetric war capabilities showed that the United States’s strategic assets in the region and Israel were now under its missile range, and anti-missile batteries could not protect these assets.
We have earlier dealt with Iran developing asymmetrical warfare capabilities and the ability to use missiles, drones, and smaller naval boats to strike opponents. Supplying Hezbollah and the Ansarullah, or the Houthis in Yemen, with this technology has helped Iran vis-a-vis Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have shown they may suffer heavy losses against the militarily superior Saudi and the Emirati (UAE) forces but have missile capabilities to strike back. With Yemen, the argument of Houthi attacks hitting civilians rings hollow, as the Saudis and Emiratis have inflicted the most savage attacks on civilians we have seen in very long. Yemen’s infrastructure has been destroyed; it has a cholera epidemic and no safe drinking water, and its schools, colleges and health facilities have been destroyed by sustained Saudi and Emirati bombings. Yemen’s only recourse has been to hit back at Saudi and UAE facilities—refineries and airports— hoping to force them into peace talks and settle the war.
Trump and the Israeli leadership had assumed the economic reverses of the sanctions would drive Iran to surrender its independent strategic nuclear role. Iran initially refrained from breaching the JCPOA agreement and asked the other signatories, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China, to continue trading with it. Apart from China and Russia, the European countries gave lip service to continuing JCPOA and reduced their trade with Iran to a trickle. With the dollar as the international currency, no other European country was willing to buck the United States sanctions in any serious way.
This is where Iran started to ratchet up its nuclear enrichment, both in quantity and quality: how much Uranium-235 it would enrich and to what degree of purity. The Iran nuclear deal had the following key features:
Active centrifuges had come down to about 5,000 from 19,000.
Uranium enrichment was capped at 300 Kg at 3.67% purity.
No advanced centrifuges would be used beyond IR-1 and dismantling/mothballing more advanced centrifuges.
Modify the Arak heavy reactor that could produce weapons-grade Plutonium and convert it to use for peaceful purposes.
At the time of the agreement, Iran had stockpiled about 200 kgs of 20% enriched Uranium gas (200 kg of Uranium gas would be 133 kgs solid uranium), which is shipped out to Russia.
In weapons development terms, converting uranium to 20% purity is 90% of the work required to reach weapons-grade uranium of 90% purity. Most of the work involved is achieving 20% purity. In centrifuges, uranium gas is spun to separate U-238, the heavier isotope of uranium, from U-235, which is lighter and the fissile isotope used for weapons. The separation is done by using a cascade of centrifuges and repeating the process again and again. It is time- and energy-consuming and requires a high degree of automation. In Natanz, the Stuxnet malware and a cyberweapon developed by the United States and Israel was used to destroy an estimated 10% of Iran’s centrifuges by attacking its Siemens controllers. This attack was the first use of a cyber weapon in the world.
In November last year, Iran’s atomic agency said its stockpile of 20% enriched Uranium had reached over 210 kg, and 60% enriched uranium to 25 kg. It also has put in a new generation of more advanced centrifuges and efficient IR-2m, IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges. This capability is why there are arguments that Iran has reached breakout capacity as it has enough fissile material for a bomb and is more advanced in its bomb-making ability. Iran is more advanced today than during the original JCPOA as a consequence of Trump’s folly.
The problem with the United States and its allies is how to put the nuclear genie they unleashed by walking away from the JCPOA back inside the bottle. Iran is willing to accept most terms of the old deal but unlikely to mothball its advanced centrifuges again, as it did earlier. It also knows the United States is just one election away from reneging on the deal, so its stakes are temporary. So, how much is Iran willing to sacrifice for sanction relief—though halting and piecemeal, as Obama showed—to get back to the nuclear deal? For the sake of the world, we hope they will, and Biden will live up to the United States side of the bargain, at least for the few years he has as president.