Any power the JCPOA had to curb Iranian nukes is long gone
As the talks regarding the renewal of the Iran nuclear agreement intensify, Israel and the region as a whole will face a growing and more complex challenge with respect to Iran. With Israel’s Minister of Defense urgently heading to Washington, it is vital to bear in mind several factors.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015 did not dismantle the Iranian nuclear program but rather limited Iranian nuclear activities for a period of 10 to 15 years. The JCPOA recognized that Iran could with certain limitations maintain the infrastructure to enrich uranium, research and develop advanced centrifuges and retain the underground enrichment facility in Fordow. The JCPOA was based on the assumption that it would take Iran at least a year to “breakout” of the agreement to produce enough uranium for one nuclear device. The agreement was limited in time with the original restrictions on levels and amounts of enriched uranium and the development of advanced centrifuges ending by 2030.
Since President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018, Iran has exceeded the above limitations both in terms of the level of enrichment to 20% and even 60%, and the quantities of permitted nuclear material. Iran has also installed and operated a range of new advanced centrifuges that can dramatically lessen the time needed to produce nuclear material. The “breakout” time in the original JCPOA has been reduced considerably by several months. It should also be remembered that since 2015 Iran did not curtail or limit its destabilizing regional activities and the proliferation of missiles and drones to its proxies in the area. If anything, Iran escalated them.
The renewal of the JCPOA at this time raises key questions. While it is possible to decommission centrifuges and machines it is impossible to erase the knowledge and expertise that the Iranians have gained in recent years. The logic underlying the original “breakout” is no longer valid and it remains to be seen whether Teheran will agree to the removal of the uranium already enriched to 20% and 60% from Iranian soil.
In recent months, it has been clear that any renewed JCPOA will not be “longer and stronger” and will not decisively prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state over time or engaging in weaponization activities to develop a nuclear device, particularly after 2030. We should not forget that Iran has severely limited the inspections and safeguard activities of the nuclear watchdog the IAEA in Vienna, and has yet to provide satisfactory clarifications to three outstanding investigations by the IAEA regarding undeclared nuclear materials in Iran.
It is possible that the original JCPOA even with its shortcomings in 2015 could have been an imperfect partial solution to a major Iranian threat to regional and international security. Diplomacy very rarely produces perfect solutions. It may have delayed and limited the Iranian nuclear program for a certain amount of time perhaps several years, but the situation has now changed dramatically.
While the United States, Great Britain, Germany and France (the EU3) remain committed to a renewed JCPOA it still remains to be seen whether Iran will agree to its resumption and even comply with its limitations thereafter. Given Iran’s track record, no one should harbor any illusions about Iranian moderation regarding its nuclear aspirations, its regional destabilization and the nature of the present regime under Khamenei and Raisi.
A broader strategic vision
Israel must continue in its efforts to engage the US and the EU3 and outline the dangers and shortcomings inherent in a return to the JCPOA. Coordination with America should remain a high priority but Israel’s determination to define and defend its own national security must remain clear. While it is not up to Israel if this deal will be reached or not, it is also crucial to emphasize the need to back up any new deal with Iran by a robust American determination to deter Iran from approaching or crossing the nuclear threshold. There are tools in diplomacy and national security that can be effective and are not dependent on Iranian consent.
This should also be a time for intense behind the scenes consultations with our Arab peace treaty and Abraham Accord partners regarding the Iranian threat in order to harness and share our diplomatic efforts where they are best served. In that context, forging a broader regional understanding could also help in demonstrating how this new constellation in the Middle East could support other shared strategic interests not least of which should be a renewed search for an effective political horizon between Israel and the Palestinians.
In the final analysis a renewed JCPOA will be a limited agreement in time and substance regarding the nuclear threat. Ultimately, Israel and the other states in the region must contend with an Iran that has become more aggressive in recent years on many different levels and will not abandon its nuclear aspirations in the foreseeable future. This is the time for a broader strategic vision for the region to meet this central challenge.