The West has a 15-month opportunity for a new nuclear deal with Iran that precludes an Iranian Bomb

By Seyed Hossein Mousavian | June 11, 2024

Russian and Iranian foreign ministers meet in MoscowRussian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) expressed support for “the soonest possible resumption of the full implementation” of the Iran nuclear deal after meeting with Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (left) in Moscow on March 15, 2022. Credit: Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) voted last week to censure Iran for failing to cooperate fully in the inspection regime set up under the 2015 nuclear deal to make Iran’s program more transparent and to set limits that would prevent redirection of nuclear material to make weapons. But the deal has failed for many reasons, not just Iran’s interference with IAEA inspectors.

Censure resolutions by the IAEA board are not legally binding but send a strong political and diplomatic message. The representative of Iran’s mission to the United Nations stated, “The decision of the Western countries was hasty and unwise, and it will undoubtedly have a detrimental impact on the process of diplomatic engagement and constructive cooperation.” Today, Iran may be only weeks away from having material for several nuclear weapons.  The new President and cabinet of Iran will be determined within the next two months.

The United States and Europe should try to negotiate a new nuclear deal with Iran’s new administration.

At the IAEA board meeting, China, Iran, and Russia issued a joint statement blaming the US for its “unlawful and unilateral withdrawal” from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (official known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and the imposition of “unilateral and illegal sanctions” against Iran. The three countries wrote that “[s]hould the full implementation of the JCPOA be in place today, it would have alleviated the overwhelming majority of existing questions regarding Iran’s peaceful nuclear program on a mutually accepted basis. The IAEA Secretariat too would have had broader verification and monitoring means.”

The three countries confirmed their readiness to restore the agreement based on the text of a draft agreement initially circulated in August 2022 by European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and blamed the United States and the European signatories to the 2015 deal for blocking the draft for “the sake of their own political considerations”.

The nuclear crisis with Iran began in 2003 when the world became aware that Iran was building a uranium enrichment plant. But the divergence between Iran and the West on nuclear issues started after the 1979 revolution in Iran. Now, 45 years later, a last chance is still open for a positive resolution.

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During the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran was a regional ally of the United States, which supported the Shah’s interest in acquiring nuclear technology. After the 1979 revolution and that deposed the Shah and an ensuing crisis, in which US diplomats were held hostage for 444 days, however, the United States saw Iran as a threat and led the West in a ban on nuclear technology exports to Iran, a move that resulted in the cancelation of all Western nuclear agreements with Iran.

This strategy led Iran to move towards self-sufficiency in nuclear technology. After Iran acquired enrichment technology, America’s policy shifted from “zero nuclear technology” to “zero uranium enrichment,” accepting Iran’s right to access peaceful nuclear technology excluding enrichment and plutonium separation.

From 2003 to 2013, negotiations between Iran and global powers regarding Iran’s enrichment program ended in failure. Then the Obama Administration shifted U.S. policy from “zero enrichment” to “zero nuclear weapons,” leading to the conclusion of the JCPOA in 2015 between Iran and five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. The agreement was approved by UN Security Council Resolution 2231.

The JCPOA was the most comprehensive nonproliferation agreement in history, with Iran accepting and adhering to the highest level of nuclear transparency and inspections and accepting limitations in its nuclear program that went well beyond the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s requirements

In May 2018, however, even though the IAEA had certified that Iran was in  compliance with all its commitments, President Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement, restored US sanctions on Iran, and added 1,500 new ones. Europe decided to comply with US sanctions. China saw an opportunity, however, and took over the economic relationships with Iran that the West had abandoned.

After President Biden took office in 2021, he and the European Union tried to revive the JCPOA, but ultimately they imposed hundreds of new sanctions. This led Iran to impose its own form of pressure by expanding it enrichment activities to include enriching uranium to 60 percent uranium 235—a level that is near weapon-grade. The result of the standoff are dangerous: Although the JCPOA had kept Iran at least a year away from producing enough weapon-grade for a first nuclear weapon, Tehran is now estimated to be just two weeks away from producing that amount of fissile material, effectively becoming a “nuclear threshold state” like Japan.

A majority of Iranians now favor possessing nuclear weapons. Their leaders take note.

Western nuclear sanctions over the past 45 years have caused hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions, of dollars in damage to Iran’s economy. Meanwhile, the West has not achieved its primary goal—preventing Iran from attaining the capability to make a nuclear weapon quickly. The continuing pressure game in regard to Iran’s nuclear program has been a lose-lose strategy for both Iran and the West. The reality: The West is unwilling to compensate for Iran’s economic losses. Iran will not relinquish the leverage its nuclear latency provides for free.

According to Resolution 2231, the UN Security Council will close Iran’s nuclear case by October 2025. Before that time, Europe could utilize the snapback mechanism to reimpose all UN Security Council resolutions against Iran. Iran’s most likely response, however, would be a complete withdrawal from the JCPOA and suspension of its membership in the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state. If, in such a situation, Israel and/or the United States were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran could respond with nuclear weaponization. The standoff between Iran and the global powers would come to resemble the situation with North Korea.

The United States and the EU therefore have a 15-month window to choose between two options: Iran as a nuclear-armed state like North Korea, or Iran as a nuclear threshold state ala Japan.

The JCPOA has two sets of pillars. One is Iran’s permanent commitments to accepting IAEA comprehensive inspection and transparency measures, including the Additional Protocol, which allows the IAEA to inspect any suspect facility. The second set of pillars are “sunset” limitations—including prohibitions against Iran enriching uranium to above five percent uranium 235—that will mostly expire in 2030.

The global powers still have an opportunity to engage Iran in a “New Nuclear Deal”: lifting nuclear sanctions in exchange for Iran’s full and permanent commitment to implementing comprehensive transparency measures in the JCPOA, which would grant the agency full visibility into Iran’s nuclear activities. It is the best option for staving off the Iranian Bomb.

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