Iran nuclear deal: The 3 years versus 3 months dilemma

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 Iran’s satellite launch of the Zoljanah last week had nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with the US.

And that will also be how the test and the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missiles program ripple through the nuclear negotiations and in its future actions.

Along with that test, in recent media interviews by US President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a press briefing by IDF Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Tamir Heyman, multiple statements from Iranian officials and The Jerusalem Post’s consultation with Israeli defense sources – there is wide confirmation that the great divide on Iran between the US (and the EU-3) and Israel comes down to: the three years versus the three months dilemma.

The Islamic Republic may be three months away from threatening Israel with enough enriched material for a nuclear bomb, but is probably three years away from threatening the US, and a good deal more than three months from threatening the EU-3 (Germany, France and the UK).

Top arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis has recently estimated, both on Twitter and to the Post, that Tehran may be three years away from developing intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with a nuclear warhead which would have a long enough range to strike the US.

In contrast, a wide array of experts says that the ayatollahs may be as little as three months from having sufficient enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, and they have had medium-range missiles that could reach Israel for decades.

Many experts said that Iran’s message from the timing of last week’s launch – as it engages in a public campaign vis-à-vis the US about resolving the nuclear standoff – was to show it would not stop its ballistic missile development program.

This was undoubtedly one goal. But a far more important message to the US may have been: if you do not rejoin the nuclear deal, and soon – say, before the June Iranian elections – we will push forward with long-range ICBM development which could threaten you, not just Israel and the Saudis.

Something that Israel and the Saudis must watch out for going forward is a partial deal between Washington and Tehran on ballistic missile development which protects the US and Western Europe, but not Jerusalem or Riyadh.

Currently, Iran’s Shahab-3, Emad-1 and Sejjil at best are estimated to be able to reach up to 2,000 kilometers (other missiles may have similar ranges but are less proven).

This means they can easily strike Israel, the Saudis and much of Eastern Europe.

What if Iran is allowed to continue to test ballistic missiles at the range that it has already developed, but with limits on expanding that range? This is something that could help it get better at accurately firing a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead at Israel or the Saudis. But if the Islamic Republic agrees not to develop ballistic missiles which travel farther, the US, England, France and Germany remain safe.

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In fact, this could be the central message from the recent launch, and the US response and other Iranian responses this week could set the tone for nuclear negotiations going forward.

In January 2019, Iran floated this exact long-range versus short-range missile formula for lowering the temperature in the nuclear standoff.

While Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami was quoted by Tasnim news agency as saying that the ballistic missile program was nonnegotiable, Iran National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani also said Iran was willing to zone in on improving the missiles’ accuracy without increasing their range.

“Iran has no scientific or operational restriction for increasing the range of its military missiles, but based on its defensive doctrine, it is continuously working on increasing the precision of the missiles, and has no intention to increase their range,” he said according to state broadcaster IRIB.

The offer of let us continue our existing ballistic missile program in exchange for not increasing its range was clear.

The Post has been warned in the past by Israeli experts that this could be an offer that Tehran could use to try to inject a wedge between the US-EU3 and Israel and the Saudis.

Reports are rampant about debates within the Biden administration about whether it should try to make a move to rejoin the nuclear deal before the Islamic Republic’s June elections or only after.

The message of Iran is that if the Biden administration draws out the negotiation, it will carry a cost.

There are signs that the ayatollahs have gotten the Biden administration’s attention.

Israel was very briefly excited this week when Biden said in an interview that he would not remove sanctions and rejoin the Iran nuclear deal unless it stopped enriching uranium.

This would have been a radically improved deal from Israel’s point of view.

But the White House quickly clarified that Biden had misspoken, and he had meant to say the Islamic Republic must return to the 2015 deal uranium enrichment limits for the US to remove sanctions.

That rushed clarification spoke volumes about the mentality of the Biden administration not wanting to press the ayatollahs too hard.

There has also been a rush of Biden administration meetings on Iran, and the US president has had calls with all key European partners to the Iran issue.

To the extent that Biden or Blinken sometimes are sending mixed messages of playing hard to get, these do not seem targeted at achieving major changes Israel wants to the deal before removing sanctions.

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Rather, they seem directed at smaller goals, like avoiding paying Iran compensation and ensuring that Tehran comes back into compliance with the nuclear restrictions under some kind of reciprocal timetable for sanctions removal.

But despite many interviews and statements about Iran policy, it seems that the Biden administration has not set clear goals: about filling loopholes in the 2015 deal, how quickly after it rejoins the deal it will demand the loopholes are plugged, and how far it would go snapping back sanctions if the ayatollahs balked.

To understand a major piece of why the Biden administration might feel more urgency than Jerusalem to progress with Iran toward rejoining the 2015 deal, we need to look more in depth at the importance of the three years (US) versus three months (Israel) threat dilemma.

Where do the numbers come from?

The three months is a number that has been widely cited by top Israeli, US and nuclear expert officials.

What about the three years number for the US?

Lewis estimated missile range, capabilities and the three years based on applying an extremely detailed mathematical analysis by Steve Fetter, a former arms control expert in the Pentagon and the Obama administration, to space launchers, as well as using additional models for confirmation.

Modifying the payload and orbit that Iran used for the Zoljanah satellite launched last week, Lewis said that a two-stage ballistic missile version could potentially jump its range to 4,000-5,000 kilometers.

A modified Sarir might be able to carry 1,000 kilograms for 7,000-9,000 kilometers, he wrote.

Next, he said that to reach the US, Iran would need a missile with a range of around 10,000 kilometers, including flying against the rotation of the earth, which takes more energy.

Playing with the above options and numbers, Lewis wrote, “This is a big step for Iran. Making large solid-propellant motors is hard. Thiokol’s [Nuclear Development Center of the Thiokol Chemical Corporation] experience in the late 1950s… led to the development of solid-propellant ICBMs in about three years,” qualifying that “maybe Iran isn’t in a hurry.”

Michael Elleman, director of nonproliferation and nuclear policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former UN weapons inspector, also addressed the same issues.

While he details difficulties for Iran to do so, he also explains that it has multiple potential options and includes a two- to three-year potential estimate which coincides with Lewis’s estimate.

In a US Institute for Peace report, he wrote, “An ICBM based on Simorgh [satellite] technology would be very large and cumbersome to deploy as a military system. If Iran opted to transform its Simorgh into an ICBM, it… would not likely become operational before 2023 or 2024.”

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Elleman drew attention to many of the problems with modifying the Simorgh, but when he writes that “Iran should not be able to reliably strike Western Europe before 2022 or the United States before 2025—at the earliest,” he is also implying that if the ayatollahs moved in that direction, these timelines for Iran to be able to hit the EU-3 and the US would be realistic.

Also, he addresses the idea that the Sajjil-2, with an all solid-fuel carrier rocket, “could be more easily transformed into a long-range ballistic missile.”

Elleman adds, “The missile, which is unlikely to become operational before 2022, is the most likely nuclear delivery vehicle – if Iran decides to develop an atomic bomb,” again qualifying there would be challenges.

Summing up what Lewis and Elleman have put out there, the US has good reason to be worried that if a deal is not struck with Iran, it could fall within its missile range in the future.

This is part of why the US may feel greater pressure to reach a deal, even with holes, than Israel, which is much closer to the danger and wants to roll back the Islamic Republic to cure the existing danger.

This past week, Heyman tried to put a different spin on the timeline of being threatened by Iran.

Shifting from IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi’s January discussion of imminent danger and Israeli attack plans, Heyman’s estimate of two years until an Iranian nuclear threat appears designed to calm the US from any need to rush into a weaker deal before June.

Suddenly, Israeli officials want to emphasize that, however grave, the Islamic Republic’s threat is not so close that removing sanctions need to be rushed.

As the Iran nuclear standoff evolves, the three-month versus three-year missile dilemma facing Israel and the US, respectively, may be decisive in how each side determines what mix of force, diplomacy and sanctions are needed.

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