The Iranian Islamic Republic made a considerable effort to explain to the Iranian people how grateful they should be to the late Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Brigadier General Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the mastermind and longtime leader of the Iranian military nuclear program. In this context, they issued some pictures of Fakhrizadeh hugging and schmoozing with the late commander of the IRGC Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani. This was intended to drive home how these two generals were responsible for the two parallel vectors of turning Iran into a hegemon superpower in the Islamic world and on the global dimension — one by exporting the Islamic revolution and the other by acquiring an arsenal of nuclear weapons.
But in its haste to lionize Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian regime made a blunder. In addition to pictures showing Fakhrizadeh in meetings with Supreme Leader Khamanei, the Iranians showed one snapshot too many. In the photo, Dr. Fakhrizadeh receives a special award from President Rouhani for his role in achieving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, concluded with the US, Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China in 2015.
The award was given to Fakhrizadeh on February 9, 2016 shortly after the JCPOA came into effect and following confirmation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran had shared with the agency necessary information about the potential military dimensions of its nuclear program. While the other members of the Iranian negotiating team were awarded a similar token of appreciation publicly a day earlier, Fakhrizadeh was paid respect in a closed-door ceremony because of the secrecy that surrounded him.
Why so thankful?
The question is why was the Iranian leadership so thankful and appreciative toward the head of the military nuclear program after he accepted a deal that allegedly was supposed to guarantee, as President Obama said, that any path Iran may use to achieve a nuclear weapon is blocked? One would expect Brigadier General Dr. Fakhrizadeh to be upset about such a deal, but instead, he seems to be extremely happy and satisfied in the picture. How come?
The answer is simple and it’s one that President-elect Joe Biden should take note of. Fakhrizadeh was the expert who told the negotiating team which issues they should insist upon in order to make sure that the deal improves Iranian capability to acquire a large nuclear arsenal. And, thanks to the American team’s poor handling of the negotiations, they got everything he wanted. He had every reason to rejoice.
First, he managed to force the Americans to accept a set of sunsets terminating after 15 years. The plan was to lift the arms embargo after five years, cancel the restrictions on research, development and use of advanced centrifuges after eight years, erase limits on the level of uranium enrichment after 10 years, and, after 15 years, permit Iran to enrich as much uranium as it wishes, at any level, including to military level, and to build heavy water reactors that can be used to produce plutonium – an easier way to produce nuclear weapons.
Moreover, Iran was allowed to keep all its nuclear facilities active, including the secret deep underground facility at Fordow that was erected only for military purposes, and none of its 19,000 centrifuges was dismantled. Six thousand were kept enriching Uranium and the rest were either disassembled and stored in underground production halls or used for other purposes than uranium enrichment. No reference was made to the development and production of delivery systems, namely missiles, and all the international sanctions on Iran were lifted immediately with a bonus of 1.7 billion US dollars in cash.
If this is not enough to justify Rouhani’s and Fakhrizadeh’s joy, they were also celebrating another great achievement – the absence of any genuine monitoring of the military nuclear program. The monitoring will be confined to declared sites only. If the IAEA wishes to inspect other sites it shall present a request to a committee and expose its source for the request. And, the icing on the cake, the inspectors will not have access to the Iranian scientists, first and foremost to Fakhrizadeh himself! Hurray!
On all of those critical issues, the starting position of the American negotiating team was quite different. They sought the dismantling of Fordow and of the non-active centrifuges, they wanted the missile issue to be addressed, they were looking for the destruction of the heavy water reactor at Arak, they were speaking of a much longer set of sunsets and of real monitoring. All of that was abandoned because some people in Washington, some of whom lately criticized the killing of Fakhrizadeh, believed that the deal would cause Iran to give up its commitment to acquiring nuclear weapons and turn it into a positive actor in the Middle East and in the family of nations.
Ha ha ha, laughed the people in the picture. Now their way to a big arsenal of nuclear weapons was paved. It will take a little bit more time but they will not have to cross any dangerous thresholds, face the economic difficulties and fear a military attack on their sensitive facilities. Oh, they had to come clean on the potential military dimensions of their program. Fakhrizadeh knew how to handle this trivial obstacle. He had a formidable history of cheating the IAEA, as documented in the Iranian nuclear archive Israel captured. He instructed the interlocuters of the IAEA on what to tell the inspectors to make sure that the late IAEA director General Amano would step aside and allow everybody to move on with the JCPOA. After all, Amano was not going to spoil the party. (Fakhrizadeh was probably aware of the rumors that there was an understanding between the US and IAEA that Amano will not cause trouble.)
What naivete! Now, in retrospect, we already know that Iran never meant to change its policy and to give up the military nuclear project. This is evident from the picture, from the way they kept the archives, from the content of the archives and from everything Iran did after the JCPOA came into effect and especially since the US decided to withdraw from the agreement. Their problem though is that now they must again face a problematic threshold that separates them from accumulating enough fissile material for 1-2 nuclear devices and suffer painful economic difficulties. And now Fakhrizadeh is no longer there to lead them to a successful result.
Against this background, the incoming US administration has to be very careful. Rejoining a flawed deal will give Khamanei, Rouhani and Fakhrizadeh’s successor something to smile about again. It’s time to admit the mistakes of the past and learn the lessons. The “Maximum Pressure” policy gives the Biden administration the leverage to force Iran to accept a much better deal that will really guarantee that the radical Islamic regime in Tehran will not have a nuclear weapon for decades to come. Biden knows it and even Tom Friedman advised him to employ it. Biden told Friedman that he wants to work together with the other partners of the JCPOA towards re-entering the agreement and improving it and that once he rejoins the deal, he may use the snapback option, the one weakness of the deal from an Iranian point of view, and the Iranians know it. That is an interesting aspect, but why enter a dangerous deal whose structure was built by Fakhrizadeh to let Iran get whatever it wants without breaching it and giving the US an excuse to snap back the sanctions.
Let’s hope the new President takes advantage of the opportunity provided by the Iranian weakness.