Approaching the endgame on the Iran nuclear issue
20 Apr 2020|

As policymakers globally are preoccupied with managing the devasting impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, a perfect storm of events appears to be coalescing around the Iran nuclear issue. Although both the US and Iran stepped back from the precipice of direct military conflict in early 2020, following the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Soleimani, a number of developments since then—including Covid-19 itself—have arguably increased the prospect of Washington launching a strike against Iranian targets at some point before the US presidential election in November.

Over the first quarter of 2020, Tehran has taken several decisive steps that perceivably move it further away from full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on its nuclear program, potentially providing Washington with the justification it is seeking for action against Iran.

Tehran has continued to expand its stockpile of low-enriched uranium—up from 373 kilograms in November 2019 to around 1,050 kilograms by March 2020. This is significantly more than what is allowed under the JCPOA and, if enriched to weapons grade, would be sufficient for a nuclear weapon. Tehran has also increased the number of advanced centrifuges in operation in test environments and has increased its enrichment capacity by around 20% since November 2019.

In early 2020, Tehran not only failed to respond to requests from the International Atomic Energy Agency for information on three undeclared facilities, but also denied requests from the IAEA, under the additional protocol to the JCPOA, for complementary inspections of two of these facilities.

And in early April 2020, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation noted that work had commenced on two new nuclear reactors in Bushehr and claimed that ‘[Iran’s] nuclear activities, as well as research and development on the nuclear fuel cycle, uranium conversion, and enrichment (including production and storage), are being carried out without any restrictions.’

Many of these developments are likely designed to be provocative and to pressure the remaining parties to the JCPOA to resolve ongoing sanctions. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif noted in early 2020, ‘Everything we are doing is reversible. We have always said we are not interested in building nuclear weapons.’ Zarif also indicated that ‘Tehran would be willing to move back to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal if Europe provides “meaningful” economic benefits’.

The unfolding tragedy for Iran is that this strategy may ultimately backfire because it plays into the White House’s narrative that Iran cannot be trusted on the question of its nuclear ambitions.

Tehran’s trustworthiness has also taken a battering from new revelations about Iran’s pre-2004 nuclear weapons research contained in the Iranian nuclear archives stolen by Israeli intelligence agents in 2018.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) and affiliated researchers have published a series of reports drawing on this archive, including two reports in February and April 2020 on production facilities designed for manufacturing uranium metal components for nuclear weapons. They concluded that not only does the new information confirm that Iran deceived the IAEA and JCPOA parties on critical details of its pre-2004 nuclear weapons research, it also ‘reinforces the view that Iran is capable of building nuclear weapons more quickly than previously thought’.

While these revelations need to be placed firmly in their historical context—they relate to activities undertaken (and likely discontinued) by Iran prior to 2004—ISIS’s concern about their impact on current calculations on timelines for Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability is justified. Critically, the revelations also further undermine the prospect of a US return to the JCPOA by feeding the White House’s scepticism about Iran’s ultimate nuclear intentions.

ISIS’s conclusions—when considered in the context of Tehran’s rapid improvements in its uranium enrichment capabilities and its growing stockpile of low-enriched uranium—are also giving a new sense of urgency to the Iran nuclear question. As noted by ISIS President David Albright in response to the March 2020 IAEA report on Iran, ‘We didn’t expect Iran to be at the 1,000-kilogram mark. I think people are a little surprised at the magnitude of the number. I’m sure it sent a shiver through the international community.’

Another problem for Iran is that there’s a narrative developing in Washington that is assessing recent developments in Iranian politics and its nuclear program through a lens coloured by the impact of Covid-19. A recent opinion piece on the influential website The Hill contended that Covid-19 is weakening the Iranian regime and that a diplomatic approach to the Iran nuclear issue will only strengthen the regime’s hand at a time of internal crisis. Other analysts have argued that Tehran will seek to exploit the pandemic to pursue clandestine nuclear activities. And the head of the US Central Command observed in mid-March that Covid-19 ‘probably makes [Iran]—in terms of decision-making—more dangerous, rather than less dangerous’. If anything, the pandemic has strengthened the grip of the hardliners in the Iranian government who had already been effectively empowered by the White House’s self-defeating ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, and who are now likely opposed to negotiating a new nuclear agreement with the US.

Finally, there’s likely to be a sense of urgency on the part of Iran hawks within the current US establishment to definitively deal with the Iran nuclear issue before the election in November, given that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is closely associated with the JCPOA and likely to take steps to revive it if elected.

When considered collectively, these issues increase the likelihood that the White House will move decisively against Iran at some point before November.

And, of further concern to Tehran, it’s possible that the Covid-19 pandemic may also influence how this issue plays out in Washington. President Donald Trump’s prospects for re-election have been significantly weakened by his disastrously inept handling of the US’s Covid-19 crisis. In this context, come election time, Trump will clearly be looking for an external distraction and a way to demonstrate his credentials to lead the US for another term. Iran will surely look like an irresistible target.