Since it resumed construction of its underground nuclear complex and turned off surveillance cameras at its nuclear sites, Iran has been accused of violating the terms of its nuclear deal. But an important question is whether Iran is already—or close to being—effectively a “nuclear-capable” state. The short answer is no. The long one: it’s complicated.
On June 9, Iran disconnected 27 surveillance cameras that were monitoring its nuclear sites. At a press conference in Vienna, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General, Rafael Mariano Grossi, warned that as long as the cameras remain off, it will be impossible to track the whereabouts of nuclear materials across Iran. On CNN, Grossi dwelt on the idea that Iran’s move constitutes in itself a “fatal blow” to the tattered 2015 nuclear deal, better known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, a deal largely made to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Tehran’s decision came after the IAEA issued a resolution on June 8 that condemned Iran for not explaining traces of uranium in at least three undeclared locations. The resolution—sponsored in a joint statement by the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—sent “an unambiguous message to Iran that it must meet its safeguards obligations.” It passed with an overwhelming majority vote with only three abstentions—those of India, Pakistan, and Libya. Russia and China, which have veto power at the UN Security Council, opposed the resolution.
A week after, Israeli and US intelligence officials claimed that the construction of a vast tunnel complex network on a mountainside just south of the Natanz nuclear production site was “Tehran’s biggest effort yet to construct new nuclear facilities.” In response, Tehran denounced the IAEA’s concerns as “baseless” reiterating that “Iran’s nuclear activities remain peaceful under the Agency’s full-scope safeguards.”
Breakout but no capability (yet). The Islamic Republic of Iran has long and repeatedly insisted that it does not seek a nuclear weapon. Although US intelligence reported that the Islamic Republic had a primitive nuclear weapon design and weaponization program in the past, Iran abandoned it in the fall of 2003. Technically, Iran still is not a nuclear-possessing country, but it has already achieved a nuclear breakout time of zero. And, more than ever, Iran is closer to creating a full-fledged nuclear weapons program with a proper delivery system, if Tehran wishes to.
The term “breakout time” is frequently used in discussions about Iran’s nuclear program, but its various definitions often lead to misconceptions. In general, the term refers to the time required to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear bomb, whereas “nuclear weapons capability” is used to refer to a country the moment it has gathered enough fissile material to make one nuclear device. Iran’s chosen route to the bomb has been to enrich uranium with centrifuges to more than 90 percent of its fissile isotope uranium 235. But the country did not go as far as building a nuclear weapon device. Iran’s current breakout time must be distinguished from its present nuclear weapons capability.
According to a May 2022 report by the IAEA’s Board of Governors, Iran has stockpiled more than 18 times the amount of enriched uranium allowed under the 2015 nuclear deal—as of May 15, 2022, 3,809.3 kilograms of uranium enriched to levels higher than the 3.67 percent limit against the 202.8 kilograms under the JCPOA limit. The report was followed by assessments of open source experts indicating that Iran’s breakout timeline is now at zero. This report also revealed two important developments in Iran’s nuclear program.
For one, Tehran “has enough 60 percent enriched uranium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) to be assured it could fashion a nuclear explosive.” Second, perhaps even more alarming, “if Iran wanted to further enrich its 60 percent HEU up to weapons-grade HEU, or 90 percent, it could do so within a few weeks with only a few of its advanced centrifuge cascades.” Sources quoted in a New York Times article confirmed that Iran has successfully pushed ahead with its enrichment of uranium, bringing its nuclear breakout time closer to zero within weeks.
Even assuming Iran already has a breakout time of zero by having enough weapons-grade uranium to fuel a nuclear bomb, it will still require to assemble such a bomb and marry it to a delivery system such as a ballistic missile, a capability Iran does not currently possess. But it is not far from it.
According to estimates, if Iran accelerates its nuclear program toward weaponization it could test a nuclear explosive or deploy a crude nuclear warhead within six months and deploy nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles in a year or two. Were Iran to carry out a nuclear test or deploy a nuclear-capable warhead, it would break its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which it ratified in 1970, and create a precedent. India, Israel, and Pakistan never joined the NPT, and North Korea withdrew from it in 2003.
Given Iran’s recent developments in its nuclear program, one can wonder whether the 2015 nuclear deal is effectively dead. One paramount aspect of the JCPOA was that it intended to prevent Iran’s ability to quickly produce sufficient weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon. To that aim, the deal included measures such as limiting uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent so that Iran’s breakout time would increase from less than three months to more than a year. But that threshold has already been passed by allowing Tehran to enrich uranium to up to 60 percent. A second issue is related to international inspections. Under the 2015 nuclear deal, UN inspectors had access to Iran’s entire nuclear fuel cycle—including enrichment facilities as well as uranium mines, plants manufacturing centrifuge machinery, and storage facilities. But, Tehran has reportedly blocked or made it harder for inspectors to access the country’s nuclear facilities.
When EU “carrots” used to work. The European Union’s lifting of sanctions was instrumental to the early success of the deal. Under the JCPOA, the EU lifted its ban on oil and gas imports from Iran as well as on transactions between European and Iranian banks and short-term export credits, guarantees, and insurance. Many entities that had been sanctioned by the EU Council were also “unlisted” by the EU on January 16, 2016, also known as Implementation Day. Because Tehran could see economic benefits from it, the EU’s sanctions lifting made Iran accept the JCPOA’s constraints on its nuclear program.
Historical ties between Europe and Iran, evident during the negotiations that led to the JCPOA, may have contributed to the deal’s early success too. The EU demonstrated a nonproliferation policy toward Iran, which was coherent and consistent among its members. Yet, that success was arguably achieved due to other elements of the EU’s soft power. Member countries developed an EU-wide diplomatic influence characterized by innovative leadership and diplomatic methods, such as the “E3/EU+3” diplomatic format specifically designed for the negotiation and implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. (The E3/EU+3 included the EU, as well as another subgroup made of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom as “E3” and China, Russia, and the United States as “+3.”) The EU also exerted influence through its extensive trade relations and economic interdependencies with Iran, such as by increasing oil imports, exports of EU products, and European investments. These economic and trade relations were used as bargaining power in Iran to make EU sanctions work and force Tehran to accept nuclear norms. The EU’s soft power also helped promote peace in the Middle East by preventing the spread of fissile materials and nuclear weapons—and the strengthening of the NPT regime as an important diplomatic milestone.
Notwithstanding, on May 8, 2018, everything changed. Under President Donald Trump’s presidency, the United States announced its withdrawal from the 2015 Iran deal, while re-imposing extraterritorial sanctions (also known as secondary sanctions) against Iran. This unilateral decision by President Trump marked a critical turning point in the nuclear agreement. The United States stopped being a formal member of the E3/EU+3 diplomatic format.
Unsuccessful EU diplomatic efforts. In response to the US withdrawal, the EU and its JCPOA partners recognized that the lifting of sanctions constituted an essential part of the earlier successful implementation of the nuclear deal. Even now, Brussels still considers the agreement a key element of the global nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation architecture and is crucial for the security of the Middle East.
Recalling its 2019 European Council conclusions, the EU expressed its resolute commitment to and continued support for the Iran deal by updating the Annex to the Blocking Statute to include the US extraterritorial sanctions that were either lifted or waived by Washington under the nuclear deal and which had been re-imposed. In addition, France, Germany, and Britain (then the E3 group) created a new instrument, called a “special purpose vehicle,” to help European economic operators engage in legitimate trade with Iran and potentially avoid US sanctions. But that vehicle crashed.
Another important critical juncture came when Iran announced in May 2019 that it would cease meeting some of its commitments under the nuclear deal. This announcement was followed by reports that Iran had restarted uranium enrichment activities at its Fordow facility. Since then, EU members have been extremely concerned about the possible military purpose of the Iranian nuclear program and the survival of the nuclear deal. For Europeans, Iran has no legal grounds to cease implementing the provisions of the agreement. On January 14, 2020, the E3 group triggered the dispute resolution mechanism as set out in the JCPOA.
The same month, the EU mandated its high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, to carry out a diplomatic effort with all parties to help secure a de-escalation of tensions in the region and preserve the nuclear deal. More recently, the 2022 EU’s Strategic Compass guided renewed efforts by the Europeans to return to the full implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. Earlier this year, at least on two occasions, one in March and another in June, Borrell announced that talks between the US and Iran on reviving the 2015 nuclear pact would resume soon and expressed hope that a deal was within days. However, the EU-mediated indirect talks between US and Iranian officials in Doha, Qatar ended without any progress. The EU’s top diplomat is recognized for knowing the JCPOA file quite well and is in close contact with both sides of the agreement, but his efforts have yet to produce success. Perhaps Borrell is being too optimistic and impatient to see the nuclear deal back on a positive track.
Despite the EU’s diplomatic efforts, the Iran policy of the Biden administration, which includes secondary sanctions against Iran, resulted in a decrease in EU trade and business deals with Iran, a disengagement of European major companies from Iran, and a de facto EU ban on Iranian oil imports. In turn, US sanctions arguably led to Tehran’s resolve to enrich uranium beyond the JCPOA limits and threat to leave the agreement altogether.
Outlook. The war in Ukraine and its dividing line of the “West versus Russia/China” is weakening the EU/E3+3 diplomatic format to achieve compromises with the parties about Iran’s nuclear program. This division was recently recognized by NATO’s new Strategic Concept, which identifies Russia as “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area,” whereas “[China’s] stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge [NATO members’] interests, security and values.” In addition, Biden’s decision to keep Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (a branch of the Iranian Armed Forces) on the list of terrorist organizations is stalling the revival of the Iran nuclear deal. These two impediments are mortally undermining the EU’s diplomatic effort to preserve and revive the Iran deal.
Although no direct evidence exists that Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon, its nuclear program has progressed to such an extent that the country could quickly become a nuclear threshold state if it decided to do so. If Iran was to become effectively a “nuclear-capable” state, it would demonstrate the incapacity of the EU’s diplomacy alone to maintain alive the Iran nuclear deal. As Putin visits Teheran this week, he may seize the opportunity to fill the vacuum left by Western countries.
Were the Iran nuclear deal to become effectively dead, the EU would undoubtedly lose diplomatic credibility for not fully complying with its JCPOA commitments. A dead deal would also have disastrous consequences on an already destabilized nuclear order.
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