The Iranian presidential election unsurprisingly resulted in victory for Ebrahim Raisi, reportedly the favorite of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Raisi’s election could clear a domestic Iranian political obstacle to concluding an agreement that would bring the United States and Iran back into the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran deal. Yet serious disagreements over core nuclear issues continue to plague the negotiations, creating some residual uncertainty whether these could be resolved prior to Raisi’s August 3 swearing in. The most important disagreement revolves around the desire to retain the JCPOA as a diplomatic framework that keeps Iran a fair distance from a nuclear breakout capacity.

Since U.S. President Joe Biden assumed office in January, the nominal goal of all the negotiating parties—the United States, Iran, China, the EU, France, Russia, and the UK—has been to find a formula that allows all sides to reassume their original commitments under the JCPOA. After a series of U.S. concessions, the sequence of the respective steps everyone must take is no longer an issue. Similarly, Iran has reluctantly come to accept that not all sanctions imposed on Iran by former president Donald Trump’s administration can be waived. What still stands in the way of an agreement is profound divergence on what countries’ respective obligations would be under the revived deal. The gravest challenge is rooted in the nuclear progress Iran has been able to make in response to the Trump administration’s unilateral abrogation of the agreement. Iran has used the period since 2018 to develop, test, and deploy over one thousand advanced centrifuges that dramatically shorten the time it would need to reach a bomb’s worth of fissile material, and is now enriching uranium to levels that have no plausible peaceful use. Conceivably, Iran could produce a weapon’s worth of nuclear material in a few months, much less than the one-year “breakout” standard (the time estimated for Iran to enrich enough uranium for one nuclear weapon) that the JCPOA was designed to achieve.

Ariel (Eli) Levite
Levite was the principal deputy director general for policy at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission from 2002 to 2007.
More >

The knowledge and experience Iran has gained in its nuclear program cannot be erased. Even if negotiators succeed in getting all parties to reaffirm their commitments the JCPOA, the deal’s original value has been significantly degraded by Iran’s increased proximity to a nuclear weapons capability. Thus, negotiators must find ways to restore the deal’s value by giving the international community confidence that it can still deter Iran from moving illicitly toward bomb-making, and that if Iran did try to do so, those most concerned with this development would have enough warning to muster an effective response (ideally of a non-military nature). This is an indispensable requirement to lend credibility to the goal that all parties to the agreement with Iran seem at least nominally committed to, namely denying Iran nuclear weapons.

Marking Iran’s Progress

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Raphael Grossi highlighted the growing challenge in Iran. “A country enriching at 60 percent is a very serious thing — only countries making bombs are reaching this level,” Grossi noted. “Sixty per cent is almost weapons grade, [while] commercial enrichment is 2, 3 [per cent].” Although he acknowledged that it was Iran’s “sovereign right” to develop its nuclear energy program, he added that “the degree of ambition, sophistication that Iran has” in its nuclear program is at “a degree that requires a vigilant eye.” Iran also has resumed conversion of uranium into metal, which is a key step for producing cores for nuclear weapons, and has no credible civilian purpose.

Additionally, the most recent formal IAEA report to its Board of Governors details a long and consistent pattern of Iranian failures to live up to its IAEA safeguards obligations (a series of technical measures through which the IAEA checks that countries are honoring their legal obligations to use nuclear power only for peaceful purposes). These include repeatedly failing to declare to the IAEA nuclear material and related activities, denying and delaying IAEA inspectors’ access to sites that contain these materials, attempting (though failing) to effectively cleanse facilities before the arrival of inspectors to cover up activities, and providing repeatedly false responses to IAEA enquiries. Furthermore, in clear violation of its legal obligations under IAEA safeguards, Iran failed to inform the agency in a timely manner of the construction of nuclear facilities (required under Code 3.1). All these instances of Iranian misbehavior breach Iran’s long-standing obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (many of these obligations were reaffirmed by the JCPOA). They can hardly be justified as a response to the U.S. pullout of the JCPOA. Hence it is clear the challenges of keeping the Iranian nuclear program in check extend well beyond the JCPOA. They relate to Iran’s willingness to restrain its nuclear weapons ambitions, and to comply faithfully and transparently with all its nuclear commitments under international law to show that its nuclear program is now entirely peaceful.

Iran’s dubious nuclear track record, its recent nuclear progress, and its apparent disregard for its commitments to the IAEA make clear that Tehran poses a far greater proliferation challenge today than it did when the original JCPOA was signed in 2015. Thus, a technical return to the letter of the JCPOA will no longer yield anywhere near the level of confidence provided by the original accord. Moreover, failure to adequately redress these challenges would have far-reaching implications for the broader nonproliferation system.

Revisiting “Breakout Time”

The shorthand measure of the JCPOA’s value was that Iran agreed to verifiable measures that would give the world at least one year’s warning (so-called breakout time) if Iran sought to break out and make a nuclear weapon, for the period of a decade. The agreement stipulated that these measures remain in place until 2026, and to a lesser degree until 2031 (when temporal JCPOA limitations are due to expire). The underlying logic for this requirement was the conviction that Iran’s documented active pursuit of nuclear weapons (at least before 2003), coupled with the various nuclear assets it has maintained and even advanced, necessitated special vigilance.

To achieve this effect, a cap was placed on Iran’s uranium enrichment and plutonium production level and capacity. Its stockpile of fissile material was reduced. A comprehensive verification regime was designed to ascertain that Iran indeed complied with its obligations, and, if Iran did not, to provide timely warning for the international community to respond.

Two subsidiary provisions, a prohibition on nuclear weapons research and development (JCPOA Section T) and a ban on development of dual-capable missiles (anchored in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231), were intended to complement the fissile material and transparency requirements in the JCPOA and block the weapons and delivery side of the Iranian program. Moreover, Iran was to implement an expanded IAEA safeguards regime (known as the Additional Protocol) and seek an IAEA “Broader Conclusion” that Iran’s nuclear program is (and will remain) of a peaceful nature.

However, four developments have combined to undermine this carefully designed setup.

  1. Fissile material

Iran has made dramatic progress since 2018 in its enrichment capacity by reactivating its nuclear enrichment at the underground facility in Fordow and introducing advanced centrifuges (so-called IR2M, IR4, IR6, and IR8 machines). As documented by the IAEA, Iran has already mastered the expertise, built the infrastructure, and successfully deployed over one thousand centrifuges of these types, conservatively assessed to be able to effectively enrich uranium three-to-five times faster than before. Thus, Iran’s breakout time has shrunk to approximately three months as of February 2021, with the time growing shorter since and edging toward a mere few weeks, as recently noted by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

  1. Nuclear weapons' design and production

The JCPOA contained under Section T a forward-looking proscription on Iran’s weaponization activity. This was partly to address the inability to get Iran to admit its past nuclear weapons effort, and to cooperate with the IAEA to resolve the “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear program before 2003. If benchmarking Iran’s past nuclear weapons effort remained impossible, the future was supposed to be more reassuring if Iran adhered to now-explicit commitments under the JCPOA to eschew nuclear weapons work. Yet Section T has never been implemented. The criticality of monitoring and probing Iran’s weaponization potential became more apparent when Israeli agents stole the “nuclear archive” from Iran in 2018. Its documents revealed an Iranian leadership decision and Iranian plan to acquire multiple nuclear weapons, and an elaborate program to do this in clear violation of its NPT and IAEA obligations. This was despite repeated assurances that its nuclear program was purely peaceful, and that the supreme Iranian leader’s religious convictions prevent them from pursuing nuclear weapons.

The archive, which dates back to 2003, also revealed how far along Iran actually was already on the path to designing, testing, developing, and setting up the infrastructure to build nuclear weapons. The results of these activities are estimated to have brought Iran to within eighteen to twenty-four months of actually fielding a nuclear arsenal, assuming availability of fissile material for the nuclear cores. The archive also contained a document recording a high-level Iranian policy decision to initially produce five nuclear weapons, a plan that apparently was only truncated by the exposure of secret nuclear activities and the resulting political-military pressure it experienced beginning in 2003. Iran’s careful retention of the archive in Tehran since 2003 also provided ample evidence, for anyone needing more proof, that its interest in nuclear weapons (again, in clear violation of its NPT obligations and notwithstanding its repeated denials of such interest) never truly waned.

  1. Iran has rejected and fails to comply with United Nations resolutions about missile development

Iran has not only rejected, but also never complied with, the dual-capable missile development prohibitions embedded in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (and preceding Security Council resolutions). This leaves it with a ready capability to deliver nuclear weapons at a range of 2,000 kilometers (and growing).

  1. Iran has not complied with IAEA safeguards obligations

A series of recent IAEA reports document years of multiple Iranian failures to live up to its safeguards obligations, notwithstanding sustained IAEA efforts to resolve these matters amicably with Iran.

Iran Edges Toward a Nuclear Threshold

Taken together, four developments present a stark reality. First, Iran’s nuclear weapon capabilities have advanced to the point that it is now alarmingly close to the nuclear threshold, having mastered the entire indigenous base to develop and produce nuclear weapons and their means of delivery in short order. Second, Iran’s past activities as well as its more recent conduct cast a serious doubt about Iran’s entirely peaceful nuclear intentions. Third, the breakout time to Iran’s attainment of sufficient nuclear material for the first nuclear weapon is now three months or so, and shrinking by the day, with the capacity to produce sufficient material for many more warheads in short order thereafter. Fourth, Iran’s documented nuclear weapon design knowledge and infrastructure positions it to attain a nuclear arsenal (integrating the fissile materials into warheads and delivery vehicles) in no more than two years, conceivably significantly less.

Critically, while a breakout time of one year would have provided an adequate opportunity for the international community to respond diplomatically to a breakout, diplomacy is much less likely to succeed given a three-month window before Iran could acquire material for a nuclear weapon. Recall that states threatened by Iran will assume in this case that Iran has a clandestine weapons design and production capability, which inspections under the NPT and the JCPOA were inadequate to locate. With considerably less time for diplomacy and remedial action, Iran’s leaders might consider their goal of achieving nuclear weapons before others intervene to be perfectly viable and may freely exercise the leverage that comes from possessing such a credible option.

Can a Credible Breakout Time Be Restored?

The developments and implications enumerated above frame the chief technical hurdle confronted by the ongoing diplomacy to resurrect the JCPOA. Even if Iran returned to the JCPOA and agreed to resuspend its current enrichment efforts (including capping the enrichment level and stockpile of uranium at JCPOA levels), the knowledge, experience, industrial base, equipment, and facilities Iran has acquired since 2018 would keep its breakout time well below the original JCPOA standard of one year.

To restore anywhere near this standard and the international stability that it could provide, Iran will need to accept additional measures of transparency and restraint. If implemented effectively and verifiably, the following approach could help rebuild confidence that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons.

First, prohibit any further Iranian activity on uranium metal and remove Iran’s advanced centrifuge enrichment program (centrifuges, components, and production equipment) from quick reach by storing it safely in a third country until Iran is permitted to resume such activity under the original JCPOA, that is, in 2031.

Second, insist that Iran disable or convert its advanced centrifuge enrichment facilities. It is worth recalling that the JCPOA requirement that Iran reconfigure fissile material production facilities in Arak and Fordow was only poorly and partially implemented, leaving Iran with the capacity to restart the Fordow enrichment operation quickly and at will, as well as to scale up the level of enrichment across its facilities, as it has done since 2019.

Third, a monitoring regime must be implemented for the original JCPOA Section T ban on weaponization activity. Implementing monitoring of Section T rules (a step that only requires a stamp of approval of the JCPOA’s Joint Commission) would provide the international community not only with a deterrence against such an undertaking, but also with more than a year of warning time. Such monitoring would also establish a basis under which a breach would legitimately trigger the full weight of diplomatic tools to stop any possible Iranian race to a bomb. The importance of weaponization monitoring was underscored by IAEA Director General Raphael Grossi’s astute observation that “you cannot put the genie back into the bottle — once you know how to do stuff, you know, and the only way to check this is through verification.” He added that “the Iranian program has grown, become more sophisticated, so the linear return to 2015 is no longer possible.”

In practical terms, systematic implementation of Section T would require not only careful monitoring of the known Iranian facilities associated with its weaponization activity, but also ad hoc inspections of suspected weaponization activities in both known and suspected locations. Even more profoundly, it would necessitate full and consistent Iranian collaboration with the IAEA to clear any doubt about the intentions behind dual-use activities that Iran continues to undertake that could advance its nuclear weapons design and production. Concretely, the IAEA would need to complete the benchmarking of Iran’s weaponization activity undertaken originally in the context of the IAEA’s Possible Military Dimension inquiry in 2014, and now informed by the archive of Iranian nuclear documents stolen by Israeli intelligence. Prospectively, the results of this investigation should guide the establishment and sustained implementation of a comprehensive monitoring and inspection regime on the Iranian sites, materials, equipment, and personnel that were (and could again be) involved in Tehran’s attempts to build a nuclear weapon. 

This recommendation also points toward a deeper conclusion that has profound implications for nonproliferation standards. For nuclear programs as advanced as Iran’s, which have a dubious track record of safeguards implementation, a verification regime that comprises the active monitoring of weaponization activities is an indispensable complement to the traditional IAEA focus on fissile material. Advancing such a verification regime would require issuing the IAEA an ad hoc mandate for such activity (which in the Iranian case was provided by United Nations Security Council resolutions, and in 2015 by the JCPOA, anchored in a Security Council resolution). Additionally, its effective implementation cannot take place without reinforcing the IAEA procedures, resources, and toolkit to undertake such missions, all affirmed and resourced by its Board of Governors.

Fourth, Iran must agree to the full, faithful, and expedient implementation of all elements of its IAEA comprehensive safeguards agreement. This comprises not only the full Additional Protocol, but also Tehran’s collaboration with the IAEA toward achieving a “Broader Conclusion,” as stipulated by the JCPOA.

Looking Ahead

These recommendations reflect the reality that some of the fundamental assumptions that drove JCPOA negotiations during 2011–2015 have been considerably, and in some cases irrevocably, altered. This realization should trigger a rethink of how to implement the JCPOA, and specifically where to add necessary emphasis to monitoring arrangements, to regain some level of confidence about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

Unless credibility can be rebuilt by comprehensively capping Iran’s fast enrichment capacity and systematically monitoring all activities pertinent to the acquisition of a nuclear weapon, Iran may have a choice of either sustaining its present march toward the nuclear threshold, or further running down the clock until the JCPOA nuclear constraints phase out, at which time it can “legitimately” advance closer to the nuclear threshold. It is easy to foresee how all this could yield a stark choice down the road: either accepting a nuclear-armed Iran or risking conflict through the application of highly coercive instruments to stop Tehran from crossing the nuclear threshold.

This brings us back to the wise advice offered by Grossi on how to endow any agreement with Iran with enough credibility to avoid future crisis: “It’s obvious that with a program with the degree of ambition, sophistication that Iran has, you need a very robust, very strong verification system . . . otherwise it becomes very fragile.” For a return to the JCPOA in 2021 to yield anywhere near its original benefits, arrangements must reflect sobering new realities that threaten to seriously undermine the deal’s utility. All the more so because the prospects of reaching a “longer and stronger” follow-up deal seem so questionable.