Will the death of the JCPOA lead to a nuclear-armed Iran?
17 Jan 2020|

The announcement by France, Germany and the UK that they have triggered the formal dispute-resolution mechanism of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program effectively spells the death of the agreement.

The JPCOA has effectively been in palliative care since the US withdrew from it in early 2018. The European decision, which was linked to Iran’s 5 January announcement that it was abandoning the last remaining limits on enrichment, has been assessed as a risky attempt to save the deal. But if anything is to be read into UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s comments, the announcement also signals that France, Germany and the UK are now stepping in line with the US position.

It’s also significant that the European decision closely follows events that have dramatically changed the tenor of hostilities between Tehran and Washington—namely, the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Soleimani and the retaliatory Iranian missile strikes on US airbases in Iraq.

A key question arising from Europe’s announcement and the escalating hostilities between the US and Iran is whether they have affected Tehran’s security calculus. Particularly pertinent is the thorny question of the potential value of a strategic nuclear deterrent given Iran is facing escalating economic sanctions and military threats from the US, whose political leadership appears to be seeking regime change in Tehran.

Since May 2019, Tehran has pursued a staged nuclear escalation strategy that has seen it withdraw from a number of the JCPOA’s specific obligations, including limits on stockpiles of low enriched uranium and heavy water, restriction of uranium enrichment to 3.67%, prohibitions on research and development of new centrifuge designs, and a ban on uranium enrichment at the Fordow nuclear facility.

Tehran took these steps to signal its increasing impatience with the US and the international community on sanctions relief, not because it always intended to act in bad faith or because it held malign ambitions for its nuclear activities. It’s also noteworthy that Tehran has continued to give inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency largely unfettered access to its facilities as part of the ‘world’s most robust nuclear verification regime’, providing a significant level of visibility of Iran’s nuclear activities.

Tehran’s 5 January announcement followed Soleimani’s assassination but was based on a decision taken before this event, and so wasn’t part of Tehran’s response to US action. Nevertheless, the timing of the announcement was likely intended to be provocative, given it places the question of Iran’s nuclear ambitions at the forefront of what happens next.

And this is a question to which policymakers in Washington and elsewhere still don’t have a clear answer. While it’s indisputable that Iran has developed many of the technologies and delivery systems required for nuclear weapons, there still doesn’t appear to be robust evidence that it has pursued a specific nuclear weapons program past 2004 or that it intends to do so. But Washington’s actions and threats in recent weeks have clearly raised the stakes for Tehran to the point that it may now be viewing a strategic nuclear weapons capability as necessary for regime survival.

Iran has already indicated that, should it be subject to chapter 7 action by the UN, it would ‘revise [its] nuclear policy and doctrine’. It’s not a significant leap to conclude that Tehran may be reviewing its nuclear posture in the context of recent hostilities, if it has decided that the US represents an existential threat that can be countered only with the possession of a strategic nuclear deterrent.

It would be a bold, if not foolhardy, commentator that made any confident predictions on how this will play out. But there are a suite of options available to Tehran that stop short of a formal nuclear weapons program but that would rapidly rebuild the fissile material stockpile, including at highly enriched levels, required for a nuclear weapon.

Iran may continue its staged withdrawal from the JCPOA, leading to a return to the pre-deal ambiguity about the nature and direction of its nuclear activities. In that scenario, Iran could continue to rebuild its enrichment capabilities—including by rolling out new-generation centrifuges—and the enriched uranium stockpiles that it surrendered under the JCPOA. It may also start enriching beyond 5% to up to 20%, significantly reducing its breakout timeline.

Tehran may also dust off the key elements of its previous nuclear research with possible military dimensions that attracted so much attention prior to the implementation of the JCPOA in 2015. Iran retains significant nuclear expertise and still has the results of the ‘Project Amad’ nuclear weapons research it conducted between 1999 and 2003. This historic research would provide Tehran with a significant head start, should it decide that a strategic nuclear weapons capability is in its national security interests.

Iran could start placing restrictions on the IAEA’s monitoring and verification activities, limiting critical visibility of its nuclear activities. However, that would likely raise red flags and prompt an immediate response from the international community.

Tehran will likely interpret recent events through the prism of North Korea, which has used its nuclear capability to ensure regime survival. And Iran has likely learned from the experiences of Libya and Ukraine that disarmament doesn’t necessarily pay. But it will also have learned lessons from Israel’s 2007 strike on Syria’s Al Kibar nuclear reactor and assassination program targeting Iran’s nuclear scientists, and will understand that missteps or exposure of covert nuclear activity will attract a punishing response.

But all of this speculation could be avoided and the current crisis defused if Washington simply responded to Iran’s demand that the US return to compliance with its side of the JCPOA by removing sanctions. The reality of the current situation is that Washington’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy is failing dismally.

The US approach may ultimately prove tragically counterproductive: in failing to force Iran back to the negotiating table, it may force Tehran to conclude that it needs the bomb to survive.