Up to this point, European policymakers have ignored virtually all well-founded criticism of their approach to the Iran nuclear issue. They did so throughout the negotiating process that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015. They did so after that deal was implemented and it became apparent that the Iranian regime’s behavior was not about to change in the ways the JCPOA’s staunchest advocates envisioned. They did so after the previous US administration declared Iran to be out of compliance and pulled the US out of that agreement. And they did so even after Iran proved non-compliance by retaliating against the US withdrawal and revealing nuclear advancements that should not have been possible if Iran had actually been adhering to the deal’s terms.
When Iran began systematically violating the terms of the JCPOA in early 2019, it took no time at all for the country’s level of uranium enrichment to edge upward from the allowed 3.67 percent fissile purity to 4.5 percent. By the time the regime formally declared that it would no longer be abiding by any of the restrictions, it had already returned to its 2015 high point of 20 percent enrichment. Now, the Natanz nuclear plant has reached at least 63 percent uranium enrichment, using cascades of centrifuges far more advanced than those which Iran was permitted to keep running while the JCPOA was in effect.
When the country’s enrichment program was maxed out at 20 percent, Iran was already described as being just a short technical step away from pushing that enrichment to 90 percent and having the material necessary for at least one nuclear weapon. Its current level makes that step even shorter and raises serious questions about what Iran’s “breakout period” for a nuclear weapon really is. Those questions will not be resolved by a simple return to the status quo as it existed before the US withdrawal and the retaliatory Iranian provocations. Yet that continues to be the sole, short-sighted goal of European negotiators who are continuing to hold direct talks with Iranian counterparts in Vienna.
Although commitment to this goal has seemingly remained immune to criticism, it has also faced ever-greater challenges, the latest of which came from an unlikely source.
Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been one of the key figures in keeping the JCPOA on life support during this period of American absence and Iranian non-compliance. He has personally overseen two agreements that saw the IAEA’s mission diminished rather than halted in Iran, thereby giving the European Union more time to save the 2015 deal from the brink of total collapse. However, last week Grossi said that a return to the JCPOA is “not possible” and that what is needed now is “an agreement within an agreement, or an implementation roadmap” that addresses the latest advancements in the regime’s nuclear program, as well as the regime’s longstanding refusal to cooperate.
Recent violations aside, that non-cooperation has been on display practically since the start of JCPOA implementation, when suspicion fell upon a military site for hosting undisclosed work in the nuclear field. Two other sites were later identified as well, and the IAEA was ultimately able to confirm the presence of nuclear material at all three of them. However, this happened only after Iranian authorities denied inspectors access for months at a time while systematically destroying buildings and sanitizing the sites as a whole, in an apparent effort to destroy evidence that would cast doubt upon Tehran’s denial that it had ever sought to acquire nuclear weapons.
Grossi cautioned policymakers against “banalizing” this Iranian obstructionism and writing off the undisclosed sites as being not relevant now that they are no longer in operation. “We have to get to the bottom of this,” he said, “not for any academic obsession of the director-general but because it is non-proliferation relevant. We know that something happened here. There is no way round it. We have found this. There was material here. When was this? What has happened with this equipment? Where is the material? They have to answer.”
It is safe to assume that Iran will continue to have no answer to these questions as long as the Vienna negotiators – and European policymakers more generally – are not actively demanding those answers. And as long as the regime feels emboldened to continue hiding the details of its past work, it is equally safe to assume that it will continue to downplay the significance of its most recent work.
Fortunately, Gross is unwilling to go along with this, as well. “Iran has accumulated knowledge, has accumulated centrifuges, and has accumulated material,” he said before adding that the international community has options for how to address that accumulation, but must make its expectations an explicit part of any agreement that emerges from Vienna. “They have many options. They can dismantle, they can destroy, they can put in a cupboard. What we need to be able to do is to verify in a credible and timely manner.”
Though he cannot be expected to question the work conducted by his own institution, these latter remarks seem to imply that Grossi is less than confident in the verification efforts the IAEA was able to undertake under the initial terms of the JCPOA. If the Europeans responsible for preserving that agreement were to ask him about this directly, perhaps he would be more candid. But if he plainly states that the 2015 agreement fell short of preventing Iran from secretly advancing aspects of its nuclear program, would those policymakers change their approach and begin taking colleagues’ criticisms more seriously?
Unfortunately, there is no way of truly knowing the answer to this question. European responses to the Iranian regime’s conduct up to this point do not inspire confidence. At the beginning of this year, Iran’s Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi explicitly threatened that Iran might move to acquire nuclear weapons if “pushed” by its Western adversaries. The remark was the closest thing yet to public acknowledgment of the military nature of the Iranian nuclear program and it had no apparent impact on the Vienna talks. The shared goal of British, French, and German delegates remained to convince Tehran that it would benefit by returning to basic compliance, rather than to convince it that there would be consequences for doing otherwise.
From this point forward the European approach to talks in Vienna should not be to persuade Iran with new concessions but rather to compel it to accept new demands, especially demands which satisfy Grossi’s concerns about the disturbing current state of the nuclear program.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)