Newly appointed officials in the Biden administration continue to voice their support for reentering the controversial 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Given the deal’s many flaws, it is no surprise that Israel and its new Gulf allies, along with many Republicans and even some Democrats, are voicing concerns. A new, better deal may be achievable. But returning to the JCPOA is mission impossible.
There’s no use rehashing old debates about the benefits and drawbacks of the JCPOA or of former US president Donald Trump’s withdrawal from it. This often leads to a blame-game, which won’t fix the current challenge. The regime’s nuclear advancements since the deal’s signing, coupled with Tehran’s refusal to fully account for its pre-JCPOA nuclear activity, make this challenge formidable – and ultimately preclude a return to the JCPOA.
Iran’s technological advances in uranium enrichment are the first major impediment to a “back to the future” approach to the JCPOA. Iran has acquired new, advanced centrifuges. The regime is quickly moving toward industrial-scale production capabilities, including second-generation (IR-2m and IR-4) and third-generation (IR-6, IR-8 and even IR-9) centrifuges.
Iran’s second-generation centrifuges are past the R&D stage. The regime can produce them quickly and in large numbers. These centrifuges are installed in Iran’s Natanz underground facility, allowing the Iranians to dramatically accelerate enrichment through “cascades” of thousands of centrifuges rather than plodding along with standalone machines, thus violating a crucial pillar of the JCPOA.
Since signing the 2015 deal, regime scientists have learned to operate cascade configurations. With this technology, the regime can enrich uranium three times faster than it did with older models, and to all levels of enrichment.
Tehran’s third-generation centrifuges have likewise made significant progress in recent years. According to Iranian reports, the regime is installing these advanced centrifuges – IR-6s and perhaps other, more advanced models as well – at Iran’s underground Fordow facility. These centrifuges can enrich uranium six to 10 times faster than older models.
Iran has thus mastered the enrichment technology it needs for a nuclear weapon. That know-how is there, no matter what’s written in any nuclear accord. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said Iran could be mere weeks away from having enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.
Long gone are the days when “breakout” would take Iran as much as a year. If Washington returns to the JCPOA as currently written, Iran will be able to continue installing advanced enrichment infrastructure in undisclosed facilities and to clandestinely accumulate the enriched uranium it needs for a bomb.
To make matters worse, Iran has made other technological advances that require attention. Tehran is now reopening its plutonium pathway to a bomb. After pouring cement into its old Arak nuclear reactor, the Iranians are now taking steps to make it operational again. While this may just be a way of strengthening Iran’s negotiating leverage, it must be monitored closely.
In the meantime, new information about Iran’s previous nuclear activities continues to prompt concern. Revelations from the secret nuclear archive that Israel’s Mossad spirited out of Iran in 2018 have made clear that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) 2015 decision to close its investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program was a big mistake.
THE ARCHIVE demonstrated that the Iranians are much closer to weaponization than previously assessed. The IAEA’s failure to see this, and the agency’s subsequent failures to monitor Iran’s nuclear progress (as noted in JCPOA, Section T), underscores the flaws of the JCPOA.
Indeed, the IAEA’s failures underscore how the JCPOA is untenable in its current form. The watchdog’s strict inspections were touted as the JCPOA’s most effective tool. Yet the agency proved reluctant to address violations and unable to secure site-visit permits and submit reports in a timely manner.
Even when the IAEA did challenge Iran for violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the nuclear safeguards agreement, and the JCPOA itself, Tehran didn’t provide sufficient answers. The lack of recourse, along with the total collapse of the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism, show that the IAEA lacked authority altogether.
Iran’s breakout time is also much shorter than previously anticipated. Iran is able to quickly reconstitute nuclear facilities and infrastructure dismantled under the JCPOA. For example, the time it took Iran to reestablish enrichment facilities was much faster than calculated by the JCPOA negotiators.
The regime’s advances in metal uranium processing are another area to watch. Tehran is developing facilities that will allow it in the future to produce weapons-grade metal uranium, as well as facilities designed to handle depleted or natural uranium – all of which can be leveraged to build a nuclear weapon. Indeed, the regime is exploiting a loophole: The JCPOA forbids working on metal uranium but does not restrict building the infrastructure to do so.
In the end, the JCPOA failed and cannot accomplish what its original architects intended. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for diplomacy. Israel and its regional allies aren’t opposed to a new agreement. Washington and its European negotiating partners must look past the 2015 nuclear deal.
The next deal must fully prevent Iran from maintaining a “civilian nuclear program” in underground facilities. It must also address all three elements of Iran’s illicit nuclear program: fissile materials, weaponization, and means of delivery.
Rushing back into the JCPOA, building on changing it in the future would be wrong. The Iranians will have no incentive to return to the negotiating table, once they have resecured their biggest achievement, the faulty JCPOA.
Israel and its new Gulf allies must convince their American and European partners of this. It’s not going to be easy, but any nuclear agreement with Iran must reflect the current reality. Whether the JCPOA’s sequel can achieve what the original intended remains to be seen.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace faculty. He previously served as acting national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and as head of the National Security Council.