by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update
In a much-hailed agreement in 2015, the major world powers surrendered their best leverage—stiff economic sanctions on Iran—in exchange for concessions from Tehran that supposedly would prevent the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons. Just four years later, Iran managed to undo two of the most important concessions in that agreement while threatening to undo a third—all in a matter of months. What’s more, new evidence has come to light that Iran wasn’t being honest when signing the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Instead of nuclear peace, Iran’s lies and the world powers’ concessions may have merely delayed the threat of nuclear war.
To develop a nuclear weapons program, a nation needs three components, explained Dr. Emily Landau, senior research fellow and head of the Arms Control and Regional Security program at The Institute for National Security Studies in Israel. Those components are: nuclear fuel—either highly-enriched uranium or plutonium; a warhead capable of setting off the nuclear explosion; and a means for delivering that weapon, which today is done via ballistic missile. Landau acknowledges that most estimates put Iran one to two years away from developing nuclear weapons, if they choose to take that path. At the same time, she believes that estimating how close Iran is to a bomb is not nearly as important as tracking its steps to developing one. She said multiple factors can impact the timeline, noting that Iran was thought to be close to a bomb 20 years ago, but opposition hindered that plan.
However, Landau believes Iran’s current road to nuclear weapons is deeply troubling, especially given the deception around the program. For example, as part of the JCPOA, Iran’s heavy water plant in Arak was meant to be rendered inoperable by pouring cement into the reactor. Instead, the world powers conceded and allowed Iran to pour cement only into the facility’s piping. According to Landau, this compromise rendered the effort to shut down the facility—which could be capable of developing the nuclear fuel plutonium—a “sham.”
Iran’s lies also made things worse. “They failed to mention that they had already bought additional piping before the deal was concluded,” said Landau. “[T]hat means that they can take out the piping with the cement that was poured into it and put in the new piping and have Arak up and running. [T]his exposes the deal…as grossly, grossly inadequate.”
Tehran hammered this point home when it threatened to restart Arak over the summer, as the Iranians tried to pressure the Europeans into providing economic benefits that would counter American sanctions.
Landau also pointed to Iran’s failure to reconfigure its underground fortified nuclear fuel enrichment facility at Fordow. Citing research by David Albright at the Institute for Science and International Security, Landau said that centrifuges in the facility could be made operational for enriching uranium again. She noted that the secret Iranian nuclear archive Israel exposed in 2018 showed that the Fordow facility was meant to make enough highly-enriched uranium for one to two nuclear weapons per year. The archive also shows that Iran’s overall nuclear program was “much more advanced” in 2003 than the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) realized. Moreover, some of the questions raised by the archive “could lead to the conclusion” that nuclear weapons-related activities are still underway, which demands further investigation.
Last but not least, an Axios report cited Israeli officials stating that the IAEA found that a nuclear warehouse exposed by Israel has secret radioactive material. The IAEA took samples from the site and, despite Iranian efforts to clean up the location, still found evidence of undisclosed radioactive materials. The IAEA’s final visit to the site occurred in March, which is years after the JCPOA was signed. “Iran’s only record in the nuclear realm is as a state who has cheated, deceived, lied to the international community, to the IAEA, for decades…and they continue with that record,” said Landau.
Iran’s lies only amplified the failures of the Iran nuclear deal. Landau noted that the deal made a critical error in allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium by supposedly capping the level of enrichment to lower civilian levels and the amount of enriched uranium they could keep. Just by allowing Iran to enrich uranium to any level, the JCPOA “legitimized” Iran’s nuclear program, the same program that the United Nations had sanctioned, Landau said. She contrasted the JCPOA with a 2009 nuclear deal between the US and the United Arab Emirates for civilian nuclear cooperation that forbade uranium enrichment.
This past summer Iran leveraged its enrichment capabilities by telling Europe that it would refrain from exceeding the limits of the JCPOA in exchange for economic benefits. However, Tehran then exceeded the JCPOA limits in both the amount and quality of enriched nuclear fuel, narrowly bumping it up while shrewdly keeping it in the “civilian” range rather than the 90% enrichment levels needed for nuclear weapons. According to Landau, “Iran would not be able to make these threats…if the deal hadn’t legitimized its uranium enrichment program.”
That the facility at Fordow was allowed to remain open is another failure of the JCPOA, as is permitting Iran to continue research and development of centrifuges for nuclear fuel creation, which would enable Tehran to advance its enrichment capabilities to develop the material needed for a bomb even faster.
Landau’s solution for fixing this situation includes utilizing the new leverage achieved under renewed American sanctions to develop a new, tougher nuclear deal. This deal should prohibit any nuclear enrichment and exclude the infamous “sunset” clauses that allow certain factors of the JCPOA to expire without at least imposing benchmarks Iran would have to meet first. How could such a deal be reached? According to Landau, “The only thing that has had any impact on Iran’s decision-making in the nuclear realm has been pressure. Empirically speaking, that’s the only thing that has worked. Appeasing Iran does not work. Iran views that as weakness, as well it should, because it is a sign of weakness. So it’s only pressure.”
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