This past week, the Iranian regime announced that it was beginning work on the enrichment of uranium to 60 percent fissile purity. In service of that goal, said Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, “Another 1,000 centrifuges with 50 percent more capacity will be added to the existing machines in Natanz.” The announcement underscores that Tehran is at least continuing and more likely accelerating its violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action at the very same time its European negotiating partners are doing everything feasible to reestablish that 2015 nuclear deal.
The threat of 60 percent enrichment is just the latest confirmation that Iran has not been taking negotiations seriously. Ever since the prospect of a US return to the JCPOA emerged, Iranian officials have been insisting that US sanctions must be lifted immediately and in their entirety, without regard for the status of Tehran’s comprehensive violations of the agreement.
The US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, said during her confirmation hearing, “The facts on the ground have changed, the geopolitics of the region has changed, and the way forward must similarly change.” Such commentary is made more remarkable by the fact that Sherman led the American negotiating team when the JCPOA was taking shape under the Obama administration. If she recognizes the need for change, then Tehran cannot possibly hope to convince the world that there is greater value in the status quo. And yet, that is exactly what it has been trying to do, for the simple reason that the Iranian regime has no alternative.
Of course, it would have plenty of opportunities if it had ever been willing to negotiate in good faith. But the regime’s unwillingness to even take a small, lateral step away from its established position is a testament to the fact that the provisions of the JCPOA were the absolute maximum that Tehran would ever have been willing to accept. This is cause for alarm, considering that the US withdrawal from that agreement in May 2018 was supported by large swaths of commentators and policymakers, both inside the US and among its allies, particularly in the Middle East.
Famously, some of the most prominent of those critics insisted that the JCPOA as written would not block the path to an Iranian nuclear weapon but would pave it. That sentiment was based in part on concerns over what the agreement had left out and in part on an understanding of how the Iranian regime was likely to behave in the face of weak enforcement of its provisions and limited consequences for violating them. The worry was that if international inspections focused only on declared sites and activities, then Tehran would continue to advance secret elements of its nuclear program, then resume public measures once the JCPOA’s sunset clauses kicked in.
This was a well-founded concern, considering that secrecy had always been a top-line feature of the Iranian nuclear program. The very existence of its military dimensions was unknown to the world until the Fordo and Arak nuclear facilities were revealed in 2002 by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Since then, the Iranian regime and the Western world have been engaged in a game of tug-of-war, with Tehran repeatedly pretending to loosen its grip in order to catch its adversaries off guard when it moves to elevate the public profile of its nuclear activities once again.
This strategy was described by none other than the Iranian regime’s outgoing President Hassan Rouhani in a speech he delivered earlier in his career after serving as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. Rouhani boasted that by maintaining a “calm environment,” the regime was able to extend the timeframe of discussions and earn itself a degree of freedom from international scrutiny, thereby allowing the nuclear program to make further advances before publicly agreeing to certain restrictions.
The history of this deception should have prompted Western powers to take a harder line ahead of the JCPOA’s signing, or at least to be more responsive to signs that Iran was flouting the spirit of the agreement. But this proved not to be the case with any of the Western signatories until the US pulled out. And even then, the Europeans remained equally if not more willing to overlook Iran’s provocative behaviors in the interest of preserving the agreement.
The latest developments represent a significant challenge to that posture, insofar as they demonstrate not only that Tehran remains committed to advancing its nuclear development but also that it is doing so with the end-goal of nuclear weapons capability in mind. Nuclear experts generally agree that the 20 percent enrichment already being performed at Iranian nuclear facilities is quite enough to satisfy the peaceful objectives that Tehran has always insisted are behind its nuclear program. There is virtually no practical benefit to be gained from the costly process of further escalation, other than using it in an effort to intimidate the West into providing further concessions.
The same can be said of the regime’s previous announcement that it would be producing uranium metal, a key component in the core of a nuclear warhead. Some Western policymakers are no doubt eager to downplay the significance of such measures and to dismiss them as having been brought on by the previous US administration’s prior withdrawal. But those policymakers cannot in good faith ignore the fact that uranium metal and 60 percent enrichment only make sense as retaliation if they are undertaken in service of the goal of nuclear weapons capability.
The reality of that goal was confirmed in February by Iran’s Intelligence Minister, Mahmoud Alavi. In remarks carried by state media, he called attention to the fatwa from the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which supposedly proves Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful in nature, but then he promptly undercut that longstanding talking point by declaring, “If they [the West] push Iran in those directions, it is not Iran’s fault. Those who pushed Iran in that direction will be to blame.”
This statement has received far too little attention in the midst of renewed nuclear negotiations, and it is not at all clear whether more attention will be offered now that Iran is threatening to take a major intermediary step toward manufacturing a nuclear warhead. If it isn’t, then Western powers will be sending a clear message that they are more committed to preserving the nuclear deal as written than they are to actually prevent Iran from obtaining weapons of mass destruction over the long term.
What the US and Europe ought to do instead is further intensify pressure on the Iranian regime and thereby demonstrate that negotiations aside, the more Iran pushes in provocative directions, the more consequences it will face for its actions. This should have been the Western position when Rouhani was deceiving the world with a “calm environment,” and it should have remained the Western position when Iran’s major opponents were insisting upon something stronger than the JCPOA. Now, the international community has an unprecedented opportunity to make up for past mistakes. If it does not act appropriately, the regime will use the resources released from sanction relief to enhance its nuclear program. Then the prospect of a nuclear Iran may become virtually inevitable.