Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi
The Atlantic, Jan. 21, 2021
“Why, then, aren’t Israelis and Arabs—those with the most to lose from Iranian nuclearization—also demanding a return to the JCPOA?”
Proponents of the Iran nuclear agreement are sounding the alarm. In 2018, the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and since then, Iran has increased the quality and quantity of its uranium enrichment well beyond what the deal allows. Recently, it has even begun enriching uranium to 20 percent, a short distance away from weapons-grade. Iran, JCPOA advocates say, is closer today to producing a bomb than it was in 2015, when the deal was concluded. Only the deal’s renewal, they insist, can prevent the nightmare of a nuclear Iran.
“Five years ago, American-led diplomacy produced a deal that ensured it would take Iran at least a year to produce enough fissile material for one bomb,” Joe Biden wrote in September. “Now—because Trump let Iran off the hook from its obligations under the nuclear deal—Tehran’s ‘breakout time’ is down to just a few months.” More recently, he warned that if Iran gets the bomb, then Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt will follow.
Why, then, aren’t Israelis and Arabs—those with the most to lose from Iranian nuclearization—also demanding a return to the JCPOA? Why aren’t they panicking over its dissolution? The answer is simple: The JCPOA didn’t diminish the Iranian nuclear threat; it magnified it.
Iran needs to acquire three components in order to become a military nuclear power: highly enriched uranium, a functional warhead, and a missile capable of delivering it. The JCPOA addresses only the first of these efforts in any detail, and even then, offers merely partial and temporary solutions. The deal largely ignores the second effort, and actually advances the third.
But the JCPOA allowed Iran to retain its massive nuclear infrastructure, unnecessary for a civilian energy program but essential for a military nuclear program. The agreement did not shut down a single nuclear facility or destroy a single centrifuge. The ease and speed with which Iran has resumed producing large amounts of more highly enriched uranium—doing so at a time of its own choosing—illustrates the danger of leaving the regime with these capabilities. In fact, the JCPOA blocks nothing.
The deal, then, allows Iran to eventually possess the first component for a bomb: a stockpile of highly enriched uranium. Next it needs a warhead. Despite Iran’s insistence that it has never tried to build a bomb, Western intelligence officials have long determined that it did, but believed that the regime suspended its efforts in 2003. The weapons program was directed by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear scientist and general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, who was assassinated in November. In a recording obtained by Israel and shared with the United States in 2008, Fakhrizadeh explained that the secret efforts in fact continued and that Iran intended to initially produce five nuclear warheads.
The possibility that Iran might still be trying to build a bomb did not, however, preoccupy the framers of the JCPOA. Of the deal’s 159 pages, only half of one page addresses Iranian weaponization, and it contains no mandate for international action. Although there are provisions for inspecting enrichment-related facilities, none exist for inspecting potential bomb-making sites or punishing Iran should any be discovered. Instead, there is merely an Iranian declaration that it will not try to make a bomb—a promise that Iran, which has systematically lied about its nuclear program for decades, has repeatedly broken in the past.
The recklessness of this omission became even more glaring three years ago, after Israel exposed Iran’s secret nuclear archive. Among its many thousands of pages were documents detailing undeclared nuclear sites and radioactive materials, as well as blueprints for a missile-borne bomb. More damning, the archive confirmed that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program did not stop in 2003 but was merely split into overt and covert channels, some of them embedded in prestigious universities, and both aspects of the program were headed by Fakhrizadeh. The goal, he states in the documents, was to maintain “special activities … under the title of Scientific Development” that “leave no identifiable traces.”
These revelations underlined the fatal flaws of the JCPOA. The very existence of a secret archive was a flagrant violation of Iran’s obligation to come clean about its previous weaponization work. And it was exposed not by international inspectors, but by Israel’s Mossad. Advocates of the deal are hard-pressed to explain why Iran would keep, conceal, and repeatedly relocate designs for a nuclear weapon unless it wanted to preserve the option of someday making one.
With its nuclear infrastructure intact, its work on advanced centrifuges proceeding, and restrictions on enrichment ending with the sunset clauses, Iran’s future nuclear stockpile of enriched uranium is ensured. And with its weaponization-related efforts unimpeded, the regime needs only a system for delivering a bomb. The regime already possesses Shahab-3 missiles, based on the North Korean No-dong, capable of hitting any country in the Middle East and even nations as far away as Romania. The archive contains detailed plans for fitting a nuclear warhead on the Shahab-3. Iran aims to expand its threat to Western Europe and the United States by developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. Intelligence sources agree that the rockets Iran has already developed for its space program can easily be converted to ICBMs. Iran’s missile development violates a UN ban on its missile program—a prohibition the international community has failed to enforce. In 2023, however, the JCPOA will lift that ban entirely.
The JCPOA was supposed to provide Iran with the time and the incentive to moderate; instead, it gave Iran the means and the legitimacy to intensify its aggression now, while enabling it to go nuclear later. Much of the American public, meanwhile, exhausted by two Middle Eastern wars, feared becoming embroiled in another overseas conflict. Many Americans believed Obama when he insisted that “all options are on the table,” and that the only alternative to the deal was war.
Still, Iran can be stopped.
Although every new administration seeks to distinguish itself from its predecessor—and this incoming administration all the more so—President Joe Biden should not squander the leverage he has inherited. The reimposition and intensification of American sanctions has placed enormous pressure on the Iranian regime. After waiting out the old administration in the hope that 2021 would bring a new one, the regime is now trying to intimidate Biden into renewing the JCPOA. It is hardly a coincidence that the regime waited two years before approaching 20 percent enrichment—which it could have done at any time—but is doing so only now, with the onset of the new administration. The regime responds to pressure and acts defiantly when it senses hesitation. Biden must not give in to this nuclear blackmail.
The JCPOA allowed Iran to both maintain its nuclear program and revitalize its economy. Biden must make clear to Tehran that it can have one or the other, but not both. Tragically, spokespeople for the new administration are proposing to return to the JCPOA and lift sanctions, and only afterward negotiate a longer, stronger deal. Such a course has no chance of success. Even a partial lifting of sanctions would forfeit any leverage that could compel the regime to negotiate a deal that genuinely removes the danger of a nuclear Iran. At best, the regime will agree to cosmetic changes—for example, extending the sunset clauses—but not to dismantling its nuclear infrastructure. A fatally flawed deal would remain essentially intact.
The Biden administration must resist pressure from members of Congress and others who are urging an unconditional return to the JCPOA. Even the deal’s fervent supporters need to recognize that its fundamental assumptions—that Iran had abandoned its quest for a military nuclear option and would moderate its behavior—have been thoroughly disproved.
At the same time, America must consult its Middle East allies about what they think a better deal would look like. Such a deal would verifiably and permanently remove Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. This means not merely mothballing the nuclear infrastructure, but eliminating it. It means empowering international inspectors with unlimited and immediate access to any suspect enrichment or weaponization site. It means maintaining economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime until it truly comes clean about its undeclared nuclear activities and ceases to develop missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. A better deal will deny Iran the ability to commit the violations it is now committing with impunity.
YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where, together with Imam Abdullah Antepli and Maital Friedman, he co-directs the Muslim Leadership Initiative. He is chairman of “Open House,” an Arab-Jewish coexistence center in the Israeli town of Ramle.He is author of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.
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