The Clock Is Ticking on the Next Iran Nuclear Crisis
In early June, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released two reports on the Iranian nuclear program. They make for worrisome reading. A year into its decision to start breaching the constraints imposed by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran has begun crossing some important thresholds that dangerously reduce its breakout time for developing a nuclear weapon. As it does so, the specter of a possible military strike to destroy Iran’s nuclear project will inevitably reemerge.
In May 2019, exactly one year after President Donald Trump's decision to abandon the JCPOA and reimpose crippling U.S. sanctions, President Hassan Rouhani announced Iran’s intention to stop observing some of its JCPOA commitments. Rouhani described the gambit as an effort to force the deal’s European participants (Germany, France, and Britain) to take steps to ensure that Iran would reap its economic benefits—either by convincing the Trump administration to relax its maximum pressure campaign or by circumventing U.S. sanctions and continuing to do business with Iran themselves.
Neither happened. In response, Iran has been good to its word. It has proceeded to violate incrementally one after another of the JCPOA’s restrictions—exceeding limits on its uranium stockpile, enriching beyond 3.67 percent to 4.5 percent, conducting research and development on additional advanced centrifuges, and resuming enrichment at the underground Fordow nuclear facility. At the same time, Iran insists that it has not withdrawn from the JCPOA and is prepared to reverse its violations once the U.S. comes back into compliance by unwinding sanctions. Importantly, the IAEA has thus far been allowed to continue its extensive inspections regime authorized by the JCPOA.
But those inspections paint an increasingly alarming picture. For the first time since the JCPOA went into effect, Iran earlier this year amassed enough low enriched uranium (LEU) to produce a single nuclear weapon. This key threshold significantly reduces its estimated breakout time—i.e., the time it would take to produce enough highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for one atomic bomb. The fact that the majority of Iran’s LEU stockpile is also now enriched up to 4.5 percent further reduces its breakout time by as much as 15 to 20 percent, according to the highly-respected Institute for Science and International Security. Based on the IAEA’s most recent report on the JCPOA, the Institute now calculates that in a credible worst-case scenario, Iran’s breakout time could be as low as 3.1 months and as high as 3.9 months. As Iran’s step-by-step breaches of the nuclear deal persist, the trajectory over the coming months is likely downward still toward even shorter timelines.
As a point of comparison, just before the JCPOA’s restrictions went into effect in January 2016, Iran’s breakout time was commonly assessed at around two months. Before an interim nuclear deal in November 2013 that neutralized Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, it had been closer to one month. With implementation of the JCPOA’s limits, the administration of President Barack Obama claimed that the timeline had been extended to over 12 months. For its part, the Institute for Science and International Security estimated that the breakout time under the JCPOA was actually closer to eight months--based on the reasonable assumption that in any breakout scenario Iran would not just bring back thousands of older, less efficient IR-1 centrifuges that had been put in storage, but also the 1,000 next-generation IR-2 centrifuges that were mothballed under the deal.
It’s important to note that breakout estimates do not include the additional time that Iran would need to convert weapons-grade HEU into an actual bomb, much less develop a reliable warhead that could be delivered on a ballistic missile. That said, there’s a high likelihood that this work would be conducted at difficult-to-detect secret sites, perhaps in parallel with a ramp up in Iran’s enrichment program rather than sequentially. Indeed, as reflected in the so-called nuclear archive that Israel secreted out of Iran in 2018, many relevant activities related to weapons work may have been going on for years--possibly even up to the present.
It’s in that context that the second IAEA report issued this month regarding Iran’s compliance with its safeguards obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is especially troubling. The Agency noted “with serious concern” that for four months, Iran has been denying inspectors access to two undeclared sites and has refused for almost a year to clarify questions “related to possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear activities."
According to the Institute for Science and International Security, the IAEA was led to seek access to the two sites (both of which have been effectively razed) at least in part on the basis of environmental sampling it did at an open-air warehouse in Tehran in January 2019 that revealed the existence of manmade uranium particles. The warehouse had never been declared by Iran and was only revealed to the IAEA by Israel in the summer of 2018, another revelation of the nuclear archive. Though Iran rapidly destroyed the warehouse and attempted to sanitize the area, the uranium particles were found, raising the concern that Iran could be hiding undeclared nuclear material today. The fact that the two sites targeted for inspection are both suspected of having connections to the Amad program--Iran’s crash effort in the early 2000s to develop up to five nuclear weapons—dramatically raises the stakes.
The concerns are obvious. Where is the undeclared nuclear material today? What happened to the equipment that was present at these sites before they were razed? And do the activities related to nuclear weapons development that were taking place there in the past continue today at other secret locations? It should be clear that these are not purely issues of historical curiosity, but urgent matters of current concern, raising as they do the distinct possibility that Iran might presently be conducting activities related to nuclear weapons.
To sum up: on the one hand, in its declared nuclear program, while by no means racing toward a bomb, Iran is systematically reducing its breakout time; on the other hand, there are growing concerns that Iran may be concealing both undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities. Put them together, and it's an especially troubling combination that inevitability raises the uncomfortable question: What happens if the situation continues to worsen?
The IAEA Board of Governors passed a resolution on June 19, calling on Iran to provide prompt access to the two sites. If Iran's obstinance continues, the IAEA board could find Iran in violation of its NPT obligations and refer its file to the United National Security Council for possible action. That would almost certainly strengthen the Trump administration’s contingency plan to “snapback” all Security Council sanctions unilaterally for Iran’s violations of the JCPOA—which, importantly, incorporates its pledge to adhere to the NPT’s Additional Protocol.
Of course, the hope is that significant increments of additional economic pressure will stay Iran’s nuclear advancement, if not convince it to at last change course, and take up Trump’s offer to negotiate a better deal. But given the reality that more than 19 months of devastating sanctions have so far failed to induce any positive changes in Iranian behavior, serious consideration needs to be given to the possibility—perhaps even the likelihood--that ratcheting up the economic pain even further will fare no better in convincing Iran to halt its nuclear escalation.
So what then? For Democrats and their likely nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, should they enter office next January the answer seems straightforward: Try to stabilize the deteriorating situation through a rapid return to the JCPOA, trading some form of sanctions relief for a reversal of Iran’s nuclear violations. That, of course, is anathema to the Trump administration, a complete repudiation of its historic decision to abandon Obama’s nuclear deal in the first place and a dagger through the heart of its maximum pressure campaign.
This invariably leads back to the possibility of a military strike to stop Iran’s nuclear advancement should it proceed apace. Two years ago, when Trump announced his withdrawal from the JCPOA and his intent to reimpose sanctions, he seemed to hint as much, warning that “If the regime continues its nuclear aspirations, it will have bigger problems than it has ever had before.” The next day, he amplified the threat: “I would advise Iran not to start their nuclear program. I would advise them very strongly. If they do, there will be very severe consequences.”
At the time, I wrote that “Surely, the president and his advisors understand that one likely consequence of killing the deal and reimposing sanctions is that Iran might begin expanding its nuclear program again.” After posing the question of what Trump would do if Iran called his bluff before sanctions have their intended effect, I concluded that “It goes without saying that absent a rock-solid commitment to move militarily against Iran’s nuclear program in short order should it prove necessary, the president’s decision to crater the Iran deal prematurely really would constitute not just a major gamble, but extreme diplomatic malpractice.”
Well, here we are. Iran had responded to Trump's maximum pressure by expanding its nuclear program and significantly reducing its breakout time, bringing it much closer to the 2-month timeline that existed before the deal than to the 8 to 12-month one that existed at the time Trump left the JCPOA. But there’s no indication whatsoever, at least not yet, that the administration is starting to contemplate actions other than further sanctions to reign in Iran’s nuclear expansion. Given how incremental Iran’s violations have been to date, that’s likely to remain the case at least until the U.S. elections in four months. Barring any dramatic new breaches by Iran, Trump is probably safe waiting until then before taking up any possible military options. If he wins, he can deal with it in a second term. If he loses, it will be Biden’s problem.
It’s worth noting that Israel’s calculation could be different. Waiting until the U.S. elections pose real risks in terms of Israel's own military option against the Iranian nuclear program. While not unthinkable in the event of a Biden victory and America’s return to the JCPOA, it would be infinitely more difficult in the face of strong opposition from a newly-elected president. By contrast, while clearly leery himself about getting the United States into another military conflict in the Middle East, Trump would likely be sympathetic to Israel taking matters into its own hands. In John Bolton’s recent book about his tenure as Trump’s national security advisor, he reports that in 2017, before he joined the administration, Trump urged him to “tell Bibi [Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister] that if he uses force [against Iran’s nuclear program], I will back him.”
In addition to assured U.S. support, an Israeli strike before the U.S. elections would also occur at a time of especially high Iranian vulnerability. Iran’s economy is already on its knees. It’s been further ravaged by one of the world's worst outbreaks of COVID-19. Its population is deeply disgruntled and restless. It’s most elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force, has yet to regain its footing after the targeted killing of its longtime commander, Qassem Soleimani, in a U.S. drone strike. And its most powerful proxy is that Hezbollah is still licking its wounds after its costly involvement in Syria’s civil war and preoccupied with the catastrophic implosion of Lebanon's economy, but possibly the entire state. While the attendant risks of any military action against the Iranian nuclear program will be formidable under any circumstances, from Israel's standpoint, they may be far more manageable today in light of the unprecedented stresses that the Iranian regime is experiencing.
That said, between an exclusive reliance on additional sanctions and a dangerous military strike, there may still be room for coercive diplomacy to play an important role. Specifically, the United States, Israel, or preferably both could communicate to Iran a set of red lines regarding its current nuclear expansion that, if crossed, would dramatically increase the likelihood of a forceful response. They might include starting to enrich uranium to 20 percent again, ending or seriously curtailing the IAEA inspection regime, or abandoning its obligations under the NPT.
Notably, in a speech at the United Nations in 2012, Netanyahu famously held up a cartoon bomb, drew a red line (literally) at the point on the diagram when Iran would accumulate enough 20 percent uranium for one nuclear weapon, and made clear that Israel would act to stop Iran should it reach that point. While Netanyahu was widely mocked for the stunt, it’s well worth remembering that, afterward, Iran went out of its way to make sure its stockpile of 20 percent uranium never approached his redline. Deterrence worked.
The IAEA’s recent reports should serve as a wake up call. While the world’s attention has been focused elsewhere, the Iran nuclear clock has begun ticking again. Slowly, deliberately, a new crisis is brewing. Even as the Trump administration continues to hope that its current strategy of maximum economic pressure will work fast enough to avert it, the administration urgently needs to be developing an answer to the question: What if Plan A doesn’t work?
John Hannah, senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, served as national security advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney.