In 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump quit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was clinched between Iran and world powers, and returned unilateral sanctions that had been lifted as per the accord. Since the JCPOA was cancelled, we have learned and confirmed the following:
- The sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on financial institutions were more effective than expected.
- In response to the 2 July 2020 cyber attack on the Natanz facility, Iran began constructing a new, larger, more modern and secure production hall in the heart of a nearby mountain to build advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges.
- The Marivan site at Abadeh, Iran’s outdoor high explosive test site for nuclear weapons, and smaller, better camouflaged ones, remain intact.
- Iran is closer in time to conducting a cold test, one of the last tests performed prior to building nuclear weapons.
- After much pressure, IAEA inspectors visited Marivan and another site, but for some reason they have not yet issued a verification and monitoring report.
- Satellite imagery of Marivan appears to show excavation at one of the bunkers at the outdoor site soon after the IAEA visit.
- The IAEA inspections at Turquz Abad were deemed unsatisfactory in light of Iranian obfuscation; the Iranian claims were deemed “not technically credible” as undeclared activities and enriched uranium were identified there.
- Construction beyond that needed to convert Fordo into a “nuclear, physics and technology center” has been photographed, contrary to the 2015 deal.
- Identification has been made of increased enrichment and purification of plutonium from spent fuel.
- Iran’s overall stockpile of enriched uranium is now 2,442.9 kg, twelve times the amount allowed under JCPOA.
- Although Iran has been transferring the more advanced centrifuges to the underground Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) and Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) at Natanz, it still adheres to the JCPOA limit of 5,060 first-generation centrifuges (IR-1s) actually in use, but it has installed a number of advanced centrifuges ready for use that would increase productivity by 50%.
- Though still manufacturing heavy water necessary for plutonium production, Iran is not pursuing an effort to construct a heavy water research reactor.
- According to the IAEA,
a) Iran’s response to queries has been unsatisfactory
b) Iran’s responses have not been technically credible
c) Iran continues to conduct enrichment activities that do not accord with the enrichment plan to which Iran agreed
d) Iran continues to import design information and centrifuge components from Pakistan not in line with its agreements.
- Just before the re-election of two Georgian senators and the congressional confirmation of Biden’s election, 3 January will be the anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination when a reprisal attack on the U.S. is expected.
- Israel’s advanced Dolphin II submarine transited the Suez Canal headed towards the Persian Gulf with cruise missiles.
Just recently During the US presidential campaign, Biden assailed Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA as a setback for US non-proliferation efforts. He called for a return to the Iran nuclear deal if Iran is in compliance with its terms. It is not. Yet Biden has also said that, “the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations” and lift the sanctions on Iran that Trump imposed. Subsequent agreements to “tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program” would then be negotiated. But with what leverage?
Biden does not come with empty pockets. Luis Fleischman of the London Center for Policy Research and co-founder of the think-tank, the Palm Beach Center for Democracy and Policy Research, is a Latin American specialist, but one who has worked on national security and Middle East issues. He was the main player behind getting Florida to become the first state to apply sanctions on Iran. He offered the following list of levers:
- The threat of resuming and even increasing sanctions
- Absence of an alternative political party in the U.S. that would treat Iran better
- American hardliners are more than a match for Iran’s
- Biden’s outreach to the Republicans
- Trump’s alienation of the security establishment
- Activating the opening for Saudi Arabia to seek to become a nuclear power
- The rapprochement not only between Israel and the Gulf states, but, to a lesser degree, with Turkey as well
- The weakness and vulnerability of Iranian hardliners, signaled by their resort to explaining Fakhrizadeh’s assassination by a remotely controlled robot
- The tensions within Iran and the likelihood that Israeli agents have infiltrated deep into the Iranian state
- The absence of a strong response to Fakhrizadeh’s assassination as a signal that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s bite is not nearly as strong as its bark
- Iranians anxious that Iran rejoin the world, probably Biden’s strongest card
- Or perhaps it is American military might and satellite spy capabilities; after all, before Christmas, American nuclear-powered guided missile submarine USS Georgia transited the Strait of Hormuz and entered the Persian Gulf carrying 154 conventionally armed Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles.
It appears that while Joe Biden is intent on returning to the JCPOA restricting Iran’s nuclear program, Iran is proceeding full speed ahead to getting closer to the ability to build nuclear weapons. Its new breakout time to develop a nuclear weapon is now estimated to be 3.5 months and not the year estimated when the agreement was signed. It would then take another year to manufacture a few bombs. Iran insists that the U.S. first re-enter without preconditions.
Iran’s verry popular Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, has demanded that the United States revoke the executive orders which imposed the sanctions first and then, “Iran will carry out its obligations too.” The problem is made more difficult because Rouhani has less than six months left in his term. In 2013, he was elected on a platform of forging a nuclear deal, getting sanctions lifted and even opening the country up to the West. Trump buried that idea. And the Conservatives in the June election want Rouhani’s head on a stake.
Just getting back to the table and resurrecting the deal will require very subtle diplomacy. But that will be nothing compared to getting a new revised agreement. It would have to:
- Roll back Iranian initiatives beyond that to which it agreed in the JCPOA
- Provide guarantees that the US could not withdraw from the agreement or impose sanctions unilaterally and without penalty
- Satisfy its European allies, Russia and China that the US would continue to be bound by the agreement for more than four years
- Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has called on the new US administration to return to the 2015 nuclear deal as soon as possible
“We hope that the new US administration will return to the JCPOA and resume compliance as soon as possible and unconditionally, lift all relevant sanctions, take concrete actions to fulfill its duties, and advance the process of political settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue and safeguard regional peace and stability.”
- The remarks came in reaction to comments by Jake Sullivan, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, who said that the incoming administration wants to put Iran “back into the box” by rejoining the nuclear deal and forcing them to comply with the terms of the agreement, which would lay the groundwork for a “follow-on negotiation” on broader issues.
- At the same time, Iran is demanding $100 billion for losses suffered as a result of the sanctions
- Find measures of additionality to include missile design and subject construction to inspection since Iran now has an elaborate tunnel network for producing long-range missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
Yet there does not seem to be a strategy in place for dealing with domestic opposition to a deal within Iran; Lotfollah Forouzandeh, a member of the conservative Society of Devotees of the Islamic Revolution, said that, “The people are extremely pessimistic about the United States and are very angry at them because they have lost two national heroes, the hero of resistance — commander [Qasem] Soleimani — and the other a defense and nuclear hero — [Mohsen] Fakhrizadeh.” Further, he cited a poll: 80% of Iranians are opposed to talks with the United States.
Yet the additionality requirement is critical to both Israel and the U.S. Israel has repeatedly attacked Iran’s missile factories and missile shipments in Syria. On the day before Christmas, Israel attacked Iranian missile factories in Syria, killing six. The U.S. is more concerned with Iran’s intercontinental missile capabilities. Given the findings and the analysis, it is highly doubtful that Biden could simply build on the existing JCPOA. On the one hand, given its own Red Lines, there is mounting pressure for America to act. On the other hand, there is the imperative to pre-empt Israeli action; its fuse for action is getting shorter. At the same time, the room for maneuvering economically, diplomatically and militarily is narrowing week by week. There is also no possibility of Iran retracting its hostility to Israel as a condition of a renegotiated agreement.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif has insisted that Iran will never officially recognize Israel. But neither is it intent on throwing the “kikes” into the sea or initiating a military attack. Iran’s policy, however illusory, is to insist on a popular referendum run by the UN and including all Palestinians both in the land and in the diaspora, to resolve the conflict.
All this must be understood in the context in which Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continues to pour cold water on the prospects of negotiations since he claims that talks “got us nowhere.” His words are very discouraging. “They [Americans] interfere in regional affairs. They tell us not to intervene. And while Britain and France have nuclear missiles, they tell us not to have missiles. What does it have to do with you? You should first correct yourselves.” When the EU now raises the issue of missiles, Iran throws it back into their face and claims that the EU is in no position to make any claim since it could not even stop American withdrawal. The demand is “incomprehensible.” However, Khamenei is purportedly quite ill.
Most of the obstacles appear virtually insurmountable to a renegotiated deal. Perhaps that is why Biden agreed to re-enter without conditions and lift the relevant sanctions. Rouhani had insisted that re-entry must be without preconditions. His Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif insisted that the Biden administration need only revoke “three executive orders” that imposed sanctions on Iran; there is no need for “preconditions or negotiations.” The U.S. will likely advance its own position under its own conditions after it rejoins:
- After coordination with Israel
- After coordination with America’s allies in the Gulf
- After coordination with Macron in France and Johnson in Britain who have expressed their own qualms about the existing deal.
Do not count on too much pressure coming from the UAE or Bahrain; the latter, after all, is a Shiite state. Both condemned the assassination of Iran’s lead nuclear scientist. Further, the Gulf states want to avoid a military escalation in the region and are fearful of a repeat of the drone and cruise missile strike on Saudi oil facilities in September in 2019. Finally, Dubai is mainly interested in expansion of its business interests and Iran offers many prospects.
There is another widely acknowledged Iranian internal complicating factor – the huge divide between the so-called moderates and the hardliners. There are even two security services, the Intelligence Ministry (IM) under the direction of the President, and the Intelligence Agency (IA) of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). IA had taken charge of protecting Iranian nuclear scientists. Yet the Revolutionary Guard attacked the Rouhani government for failing to protect Fakhrizadeh (F). In response, IM accused IA of not heeding its warnings. Given that deep divide as a parallel to the one in America, one for diplomacy and one ardently opposed, the complications on the Iranian side multiply.
In the battle over Fakhrizadeh’s legacy, the Moderates display photographs of F “receiving state honors from Rouhani for helping to secure the 2015 nuclear deal.” Hardliners insist F was on their side; they rebroadcast his words: “America can’t be compromised with.” Arguments over Fakhrizadeh are wielded like cudgels by conservatives and reformists alike. “The outcome of these debates could have profound implications for the Biden administration which hopes to renew nuclear negotiations after four years of President Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Tehran.” (Kareem Fahim and Miriam Berger The Washington Post, 3 December 2020)
The core question will be whether America will also carry a big stick and retain a serious threat to back up demands with the threat of the use of military force as well as economic sanctions. On the one hand, this seems unlikely given the trajectory of American withdrawal of military forces from the Middle East. The 1,500-2,000 troops in Syria have mostly been withdrawn and the U.S. is almost totally dependent on a reliance on proxies. However, an effective trip wire remains since the Pentagon assured the president that just over a thousand troops have been withdrawn. However, he was not told that the original totals in Syria were actually much higher since non-fighting personnel and contractors were not counted. Those remaining are certainly more than the 200-400 most Americans believe still remain.
Further, Iran’s adventurism in Syria and Iraq, as well as support for Hezbollah, is not likely to be on the table for real discussion even if the topic is on the agenda. This will be very unacceptable to Israel, the Saudis and Jewish groups in the diaspora. Even Canada’s B’nai Brith has opined that, “The government of Iran is the greatest state-sponsor of terror in the world today. They are a threat to all of us, all around the world. The IRGC is, in effect, the terror division of the government. They must be listed as a terrorist group in Canada without further delay.” B’nai Brith Canada called on members of the public to contact their local Members of Parliament and demand that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) be immediately listed as a terrorist group in its entirety.
Two general items will not be renegotiable. JCPOA delayed Iran’s ability to produce nuclear bombs by 8-15 years as the best of a bad set of options. This period now seems very much shorter than it ever did when JCPOA was signed. But any extension of that period will have to wait and cannot be changed at this time. Secondly, whatever measures are put in place, the development of Iran’s store of knowledge will not be affected. The nuclear threat can be delayed. The long range and precision delivery of missiles might be able to be limited. But research and development are specifically excluded from the agreement so there will be no dint in Iran’s intellectual capital vis a vis a nuclear capability. On the other hand, Israel’s Mossad in 2018 thoroughly penetrated Iran’s nuclear intellectual library.
If a deal is made, it will take Iran almost half a year to get back into compliance while the effect of lifting sanctions will be almost immediate. What will be the effect on Biden’s promise to re-introduce bipartisanship back into American foreign policy? Further, Biden may consult Israel and Saudi Arabia, but what will be their response? Would Dennis Ross’ idea of a staged deal work – Biden offering Iran access to its foreign currency reserves and then lifting sanctions in stages as Iran in tandem moves back to the status quo ante, reducing its enhanced-enriched uranium, cutting down on the total kilos enriched, and dismantling high speed centrifuges in tandem with the American move after which the US would formally rejoin?
Biden will need every source of grace possible to pull this off.