Obama’s strategy concerning Iran worked insofar as Iran put its nuclear program into reverse, decommissioned most of its high-speed centrifuges and significantly reduced its stock of uranium enriched beyond 3.67%. Mined uranium has only a 1% concentration. When, using centrifuges, it is concentrated up to 4.5% to be used in nuclear power plants. When enriched to 20%, the uranium is within easy distance of producing 90% enriched uranium required to make a bomb. Note that the uranium enrichment of 20% is 80% of the work; enrichment to 90% is only 20% of the work. This is one distinct source of the time pressures on reinstating the deal.
However, another distinction is made by Jim Jeffries, former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey and the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and currently Chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. There is a difference between Iran acquiring enough fissionable material to produce a bomb, wherein the threat of producing one is its main leverage, and the possession of a bomb and its threatened use, which would bring a far higher level of risk of military intervention in Iran.
Though not part of the agreement’s intentions, the nuclear deal did not succeed in strengthening the moderates within Iran, dialing back its meddling in neighbouring states or modifying its missile program. That hoped for transformation – the movement of Iran from a cause to a normal country in Kissinger’s words – just did not happen. Quite the reverse. Compare Iran’s activities in 2013 versus 2018. Iran’s meddling and aggression increased exponentially in the interim until the end of 2018. The missile program especially seemed to be advancing much more quickly. And both the Obama administration and the Trump administration in its first two years were both asleep at the wheel as far as these developments were concerned.
The answer why is readily apparent. Iranian policy focuses primarily on regime preservation and on exporting its revolution initially to the rest of the Middle East. The acquisition of nuclear arms – or, more importantly, the effort to build a capacity to possess nuclear weapons – is instrumental. It can be bracketed if necessary, but not if it will compromise the preservation of the religious foundations of the regime or its export into the region. This means that any deal beyond a nuclear one is almost insurmountable.
When Donald Trump in May 2018 withdrew America from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal with Iran signed in July 2015 under the Obama administration, he ignored the fact that Iran had largely complied with its terms requiring the country to dismantle its nuclear program vis-à-vis military uses and allowed the program to be subjected both to more extensive and intensive inspections. However, as I previously documented, compliance was not perfect, particularly with respect to inspections. (See my blog Israel in the World: Part II Resurrecting the Iran Deal,” 3 December 2020 in which I focused on Israel and Saudi Arabia forming a common front to deal with the Biden administration given the prospect of resuming negotiations with Iran.) More importantly, Israel was not part of any agreement and felt free to launch a cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment and high-speed centrifuge production plant at Nantanz as well as assassinate a leading figure in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Qasem Soleimani.
Trump’s initiative to apply maximum economic pressure on Iran had four objectives:
- Debilitate Iran’s economy
- Undermine Iran’s abilities to fund its surrogates throughout the Middle East, including support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza
- Contest Iran’s actual presence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen
- Create a regional resistance alliance to Iran consisting of the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni regimes in the Gulf.
However, the downside was the increased risk to the benefits of the JCPOA in setting back Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon. The extent of the risk soon revealed itself. An objective of the Trump initiative was not a reform of the JCPOA. Among the shortcomings of the JCPOA, the expiration deadlines were seen to be too short – in ten years from the date of signing, that is in seven more years, centrifuge restrictions were scheduled to be lifted. The limits on the production of highly enriched uranium were also to be lifted in fifteen years. The date for limiting conventional weapons had already passed. In addition, Iran, instead of using the funds that had been impounded and then released upon signing the agreement for improving the well-being of its own citizens, intensified its conventional military support for its adventurism in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
With America’s withdrawal and the re-imposition of even greater and other sanctions, Iran’s economy went into a tailspin. Iran had previously been largely in compliance. Even after Trump withdrew from the deal, Iran demonstrated remarkable patience for about a year as the U.S. ramped up sanctions. Finally, Iran began gradually breaking through one limitation after another in the deal. Iran resumed the production and operationalization of high-speed centrifuges, began enriching its stock of uranium first up to 4.5% and then to almost 20% in its secret Fordow facility within a mountain near Nantanz, sufficiently pure to power a nuclear weapon.
It is estimated that Iran now possesses at least 2500 kg of such enriched uranium, twelve times the amount permitted under the JCPOA and twice the amount Iran possessed when the JCPOA was signed. With enough material, the window to produce a bomb, the so-called “breakout time,” is reduced from one year to less than three months. Note, the breakout time is not the period it would take to produce a bomb, but the period of time it would take to collect enough material for a nuclear weapon, and that period is falling quickly below even the three months before the negotiations for a nuclear deal were begun. More than three months is needed to weaponize the enriched uranium.
The effect of the withdrawal from the JCPOA and the increased pressures on Iran, therefore, stalemated Iran’s growing power and influence in the region while also putting its nuclear program back on the front burner. Dealing with that shifted to military and cyber sabotage, specifically by the Israelis. In response to the bombing of its missile plant by Israel, Iran intensified and sped up efforts to finish a production facility within the mountain. These moves were only made after the EU members, and even Russia and China, refused by and large to ignore the American sanctions. Iranian oil production fell precipitously, though it managed to sell considerable oil at lower prices on the black market, especially to China. Nevertheless, both China and Russia demonstrated far less freedom in getting around U.S. sanctions than many had anticipated. During that time, Iran developed a much better camouflaged nuclear test site.
Biden ran for election vowing to re-enter the JCPOA in a reverse tit-for-tat, dropping sanctions steadily in response to Iran restoring in stages its compliance with the JCPOA. The formula was “less for less.” Only the problem of going into reverse was not as simple as it sounded. Just negotiating the terms of such a reversal required time, and time is what the Biden administration had in very short supply given the priorities of American domestic demands. Further, an Iranian election was scheduled for June. Electioneering began in April. That was preceded by a two-week religious holiday in which the whole nation literally shut down. If anything was to be done, it had to be completed by March. With less that three months, forging such an agreement seemed a stretch. And if Biden hurried, the administration would be criticized for bowing under the pressures of his own self-imposed deadline. But if nothing was done to reverse Iran’s progress towards making a nuclear bomb, Iran would have purified enough uranium to make several bombs. Further, without a demonstration of real progress in re-establishing a version of JCPOA, the position of Rouhani, who had been elected on the promise of negotiating a nuclear deal, would be undermined. The forces for moderation would be weakened and the position of the Revolutionary Guard strengthened. Thus, in addition to the process question of which country made the first move, there were the many external pressures on the length of time available to make a deal.
In other words, with respect to initiation, “You first, Charlie.” But that is what the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran, had said. The U.S. withdrew so the U.S. would have to make the first moves to return. The ball was in Washington’s court to reinstate the deal. On the other hand, Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran who is not eligible to run for office in the 2021 June elections under the Iranian two-term limit, seemed absolutely ecstatic at Donald Trump’s departure and declared that now, “the Iran nuclear deal is alive and more kicking than ever.” After all, the JCPOA is his historical legacy. But he added that it was now up to Washington to abide by its obligations under the accord. Iran in its phased “commitment reduction” program had stepped a considerable way from the deal on practically all its provisions. However, if Biden “honestly” restored and honored American commitments, Rouhani assured the P+5 that it too would reverse the steps that it had taken.
We have a reverse challenge to the one in which two potential fighters face off and which one would first attempt to remove the chip on the other’s shoulder. Biden – if Iran comes back in compliance, we will too. Rouhani – if America comes back into compliance, we will too. If who goes first could be overcome by a congruent time-phased agreement, that might, however, prove insufficient given Iran’s breaches in undercutting the UN inspection regime and the expansion from its secret Fordow facility.
The UN inspectors still have not issued a published report on its inspections at the Marivan site at Abadeh, the site for conducting large-scale high-explosive tests, especially important since satellite imagery revealed suspicious excavations at the site after the inspectors left; two bunkers and a test ramp had been built. Further, the IAEC inspectors officially reported that the Turquz Abad inspections were unsatisfactory. After all, Iran prevented the UN nuclear inspector from even entering its uranium enrichment facility and revoked her credentials under the specious claim that she tested positive for explosives.
Antony Blinken, Biden’s new Secretary of State, held out the prospect of getting around this problem by forging a new deal altogether, one that would include the missile program and limitations on Iran’s regional activities, a non-starter if the declarations of Iran are to be believed. However, Biden through his press secretary, Jen Psaki, indicated that this was also Biden’s position – he wanted to toughen the deal “to address other issues of concern.” It appears that the Biden administration will not simply re-enter the deal but will insist on a reformed package that will entail better and longer-term inspection provisions and no longer exclude restrictions on Iranian missile development and extension of its military mischief within Arab states.
Biden has other problems. Though not likely to be in the front row of priorities, pushing human rights forward on the foreign policy agenda is one aim. But as long as Biden is lining up not only with Israel, but with Saudi Arabia, and as long as the Saudis since last March continue to hold hostage the 20-year-old and 22-year-old sons of the ex-chief of Saudi intelligence, Saad Aljabril, who now lives in Toronto, unless the latter agrees to return, Biden has a challenge of hypocrisy if he pushes Iran on human rights but is soft in dealing with Saudi Arabia.
Biden also has a domestic political problem. He has vowed to govern as much as possible in a bi-partisan way. Jake Sullivan, the new security adviser, has insisted that a reinstated agreement would have to be politically sustainable as well as diplomatically advisable. But the Republicans in the Senate as well as some of the Democrats are deeply wary of any efforts to negotiate with Iran. If Biden cannot corral the Senate, he certainly will be unable to get Russia and China to back his plan for a renewal and strengthening of the agreement.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif then went further in the other direction and insisted that the US government return to the nuclear deal “without” any negotiations. A not very promising start! Were there any Track II or backroom secret negotiations between the Biden team and Iranian representatives? None that were known. Tehran’s government spokesperson, Ali Rabiee, seemed to confirm that indeed there had been no informal talks thus far. He further added that even backroom negotiations would have no point unless the U.S. first returned to the agreement as it had promised.
In Joe Biden’s first week in office, he reversed many of Donald Trump’s Executive Orders, such as ordering the American withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. But the restoration of the JCPOA was not on that list. However, the international currency market seemed to be voting against the persistence of a stalemate. The value of the riad, Iran’s currency, which had plunged drastically following Trump’s sanctions, rose 10% in one week.
However, it would appear that any quid pro quo would prove insufficient, even according to Rouhani’s matching formulation: “If US signs, so will Iran. If US issues order, so will Iran. If US returns to commitments, so will Iran.” However, Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., who holds dual citizenship, as does Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of the influential Atlantic magazine, both insisted that the U.S. hold out for a tougher and more encompassing deal, a position echoed by Yossi Klein Halevi, not known as a hawk.
There are others that go even further. However, Kentucky Senator Paul Rand, no friend of foreign wars, urged Biden not to launch an ambitious program of supporting regime change. Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan policy institute, who is an expert on both Iran’s nuclear program and its threats throughout the region, went even further than Rand and argued that the U.S. should not re-enter that Accord or even a rewritten version at all.
Washington is home to a number of other experts and influencers concerning Iran. For example, Robin Wright, the USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Fellow and contributor to The New Yorker, distinguishes process issues (initiation and length of time and possible intermediaries) from substantive issues themselves. The latter are divided into two buckets. First, there are the modifications wanted to the agreement itself with reference to existing terms, such as the sunset clauses referred to above, versus items not included in the deal that many are pressing Biden to include – primarily missile development and Iranian meddling in other countries in the region – but also the far more remote possibility of including human rights issues.
Jarrett Blanc, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace and former head of the State Department coordinator for the Iran nuclear deal, focuses on the performances and limitations of the various actors, three primarily: Iran, the U.S. and the outliers, Russia and China. From his analysis, it has already been established that both Russia and China have little room to manoeuvre when America imposes sanctions. What is surprising is the little attention Blanc pays to Israel or Saudi Arabia as key actors in the Iran nuclear deal even though he clearly recognizes the importance of each.
Given the very short time frame and the various complexities, it is very unlikely that a renewed or especially a revised deal can be in place. Could some momentum be created? Possibly since both sides want to make progress in the face of complications not impossibilities. After all, Iran could be back in compliance in a few weeks and the U.S. even faster. But do not keep your hopes up.