The International Atomic Energy Agency recently presented its quarterly report on the Iranian regime’s nuclear activities, and it is now clearer than ever that the international community must adopt a new strategy for confronting Tehran’s provocations and halting its progress toward a nuclear weapon.
Reacting to the IAEA report, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Wednesday that time was running out for Iran to return to the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). “I’m not going to put a date on it but we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance with the JCPOA does not reproduce the benefits that that agreement achieved,” Blinken told reporters in Germany.
Yet, the US and the European signatories of the deal have refused to change the weak attitude toward the regime despite Tehran’s provocative actions. In absence of such a change, the current trends in Iran will continue and will most likely accelerate under the leadership of the regime’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi. Already, the regime has attained greater levels of nuclear enrichment than it had prior to the implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Unless forced to reverse those trends, the regime may soon be close to “breaking out” to nuclear weapons capability.
At the time of its negotiation, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was supposed to be a means of preventing this outcome. The regime’s apologists claimed the JCPOA could at least succeeded in moving the regime back several steps from its ultimate goal.
Yet, the regime’s rapid steps in violating the deal and enriching weapon’s grade uranium proved this argument was false and the JCPOA had indeed many loopholes allowing the regime to secretly continue its nuclear program. In other words, the US withdrawal from the JCPOA was not the cause of the regime’s systematic violations of the JCPOA.
By early 2020, Tehran had halted compliance with all the agreement’s provisions and had begun enriching uranium to higher levels than ever before, as well as producing uranium metal, which has no purpose other than to be a key component in the core of a nuclear weapon. The latest IAEA report indicates that Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium has grown from 62.8 kg to 84.3 kg over the past three months. It also notes that the regime has at least 10 kg of uranium enriched to 60 percent, a level far beyond what is required for power generation and medical research, and just a short technical step away from weapons grade.
This fact was boastfully highlighted by the regime’s former President Hassan Rouhani before leaving office in August. “Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation can enrich uranium by 20 percent and 60 percent and if one day our reactors need it, it can enrich uranium to 90 percent purity,” he said in a July cabinet meeting.
Rouhani’s remarks reflect a longstanding strategy that Tehran has utilized in order to openly threaten the international community while also maintaining plausible deniability about those threats. A more obvious example of that strategy was provided by then-Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi in February when he repeated the claim that the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has banned the pursuit of nuclear weapons, then immediately undermined that claim by acknowledging that the regime might obtain them anyway.
“[Khamenei’s] fatwa forbids the production of nuclear weapons, but if [foreign powers] push Iran in those directions, it is not Iran’s fault,” he said. “Those who pushed Iran in that direction will be to blame.” The true meaning of such statements is not very well hidden. They point squarely to the regime’s intention to continue advancing its military nuclear program under the guise of civilian activities, on the expectation that the United States and Europe will offer concessions in order to assure that the program does not actually yield a nuclear program.
It is important to remember that no such assurance is attainable under present circumstances or even in the wake of the JCPOA being restored to its full strength. As each IAEA report has detailed additional mullahs’ provocations, it has become increasingly clear that the 2015 agreement never extended Iran’s nuclear breakout time to the extent that was promised. Even before the US withdrawal, it was already clear that the regime felt no more obligation to cooperate with the international community or provide enough information for genuine, comprehensive monitoring of its progress toward nuclear weapons capability.
It was not long after the JCPOA’s implementation that the IAEA confirmed the presence of nuclear material at three sites which the regime had not previously disclosed. The latest IAEA report emphasizes that even now, the regime has provided no explanations of what went on at those sites or at a fourth where prior nuclear activities are also suspected but have not yet been confirmed.
Tehran’s approach to the nuclear issue remains as deceptive today as it was before its negotiations with seven world powers even began. The regime’s strategy was intact even while that agreement was still being promoted by all its signatories as a historic diplomatic breakthrough.
The truth is that it was nothing of the sort and that nothing of the sort can even be expected from Tehran. The rationale for the US withdrawal was correct. The JCPOA was inherently flawed from the start. It placed a great deal of unearned trust in a regime that has been concealing its true nuclear ambitions behind a civilian façade since the first key details of its military program were revealed by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran in 2002.
Those revelations forced the regime to reorganize, reorient, relocate, and then continue its weapons program in a more concealed, camouflaged, and dispersed way, leveraging dual-use technologies and programs to avoid detection. This strategy cannot be effectively confronted by mere negotiations, least of all negotiations undertaken in response to Iran’s explicit threats of further illicit expansion to its nuclear activities.
This is precisely the situation that the international community faces now, as negotiations over the JCPOA’s restoration remain stalled in Geneva, while the regime’s new presidential administration insists that it will only resume discussions in absence of Western pressure. This is to say, it will only resume negotiations as long as it is clear that there will be no consequences for the provocative advancements the regime has already made. But such negotiations would have even less value than those which resulted in the JCPOA, and the latest developments show their value to have been very slight indeed.
Far from removing pressure, the JCPOA’s Western signatories should be prepared to apply far more, even if it means that Tehran walks away from the agreement once and for all. Once it does, the stage will be set for the international community to start over from scratch, utilizing economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure to compel Iran’s acceptance of the sort of agreement that should have been created in 2015: one that revokes the regime’s presumed “right to enrich” nuclear material, provides the IAEA with access to all suspect sites at any time without notice and deals with Iran’s nuclear threats as what they are, a comprehensive regime strategy and behavior aimed at imposing its intolerant and totalitarian ideology and rule anywhere it can.