Concerns over the Iranian regime’s potential nuclear weapons capability have naturally intensified following the regime’s announcement that it had expanded uranium enrichment to 60 percent. For some policymakers in the countries that signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, those concerns increase the urgency of restoring the landmark nuclear agreement to full force. But this is exactly the wrong conclusion to derive from the regime’s provocations. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the European Union should instead respond by increasing pressure on the mullahs’ regime.
Tehran has openly admitted that the 60 percent enrichment is intended as a show of force. The regime’s latest nuclear advance is supposed to give the impression that Tehran has the technical capability to overcome obstacles, but if it succeeds in this goal then it should clarify to European policymakers that more obstacles are needed – not fewer – in order to conclusively prevent the regime from rushing to nuclear weapons capability at some point in the future.
The stated purpose of the JCPOA had always been to lengthen Tehran’s “breakout period,” or the length of time it would take for the regime to construct a nuclear weapon if it decided to suddenly halt compliance with all international restrictions. The agreement’s restrictions on uranium enrichment, stockpiles of nuclear material, and other such activities supposedly extended that period to over a year, but the pace of the regime’s violations over the past year shows how flawed the assessment was in the first place.
After Tehran announced at the beginning of 2020 that it no longer considered itself bound by any of the JCPOA’s provisions, nuclear facilities began reinstalling advanced enrichment centrifuges so quickly that it seemed almost as if they had never even been taken offline. Indeed, some of the agreement’s detractors had publicly worried that this would be the case since Tehran was permitted to switch off and dismantle certain devices without actually removing them from the country or accepting any other serious impediments to their reinstallation. This situation may help to explain why the regime was able to resume 20 percent enrichment more quickly than had been predicted, then raise that level to 60 percent practically overnight when a show of force was deemed necessary.
But an even more substantial explanation can be found in statements that regime officials have made through the regime’s state media. All the way back in November 2019, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, boasted in an interview about having established “a countermeasure” to prevent facilities like Natanz from being “trapped in the enrichment deadlock.” Though he declined to elaborate on the nature of the deception, Salehi described this arrangement as allowing the regime to continue its enrichment activities while giving Western powers the impression that they “won the negotiation.”
The remarks should have been familiar to anyone who has observed Iran’s strategy for international relations – both in the nuclear sphere and in other matters – over the long term. The current regime’s president, Hassan Rouhani, once made similar remarks in a speech to fellow officials wherein he reflected on his previous role as the regime’s chief nuclear negotiator. “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan,” he said in the 2004 speech. “In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan. Today, we can convert yellowcake.”
Tehran’s efforts to exploit negotiations in this way were not even confined to uranium enrichment. Several months before making the aforementioned remarks, Salehi confessed to state media that the regime had also kept open the potential plutonium pathway to nuclear weapons capability. Under the terms of the JCPOA, the Arak heavy water facility was to be converted into a light-water facility, but as Salehi explained, authorities only feigned pouring concrete into its core, and international monitors were only too willing to take the regime’s compliance for granted.
Some Western policymakers seemingly retain this willingness now, even in the face of Iran’s escalating provocations and admitted efforts to intimidate foreign adversaries. The European Union’s head of foreign policy, Josep Borrell, recently said reaffirmed his commitment to salvaging the nuclear deal by saying, “The U.S. rejoining the JCPOA and a return to the full implementation of the deal would make the world much safer.”
This sentiment is reflected in well-founded concerns about how close the regime has come to nuclear weapons capability since ceasing compliance with the JCPOA. But it also relies upon a faulty understanding of how close the regime was to that same goal even while the agreement was still in full force. While policymakers like Borrell are keen to assume that the regime catapulted to higher-than-ever levels of uranium enrichment in response to re-imposed, it is far more reasonable to conclude – based partly on regime officials’ own statements – that Tehran’s nuclear breakout period was never as long as its negotiating partners chose to believe.
With the advent of 60 percent enrichment, Western policymakers have an unprecedented opportunity and an unprecedented responsibility to break free of their groundless optimism regarding the regime’s compliance, and to begin demanding much more comprehensive proof of that compliance, in the form of any time/anywhere inspections, complete removal of advanced enrichment centrifuges, and so on.
Above all else, Western policymakers must be more willing to explicitly reject the regime’s narrative of a peaceful civilian nuclear program and to acknowledge that the regime has always aspired to nuclear weapons capability and is still working toward that goal. That should be impossible to deny now that the clerical regime has publicly lauded its 60 percent enrichment and is the production of uranium metal. Nuclear experts have repeatedly made it clear that such developments serve no real purpose other than as stepping stones along the way to building a nuclear warhead.