February 20, 2022

Breathing Life Back into the Iran Nuclear Deal Possible but not Easy

Prabir Purkayastha

THE possibility of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – or the Iran nuclear deal –being revived, though difficult, has brightened. This could have been accomplished much earlier except for the Biden administration’s attempts to extract concessions from Iran that went far beyond the original deal. The premise of Trump’s pulling out of the 2015 Iran deal, was that he could get a better deal than what Obama had negotiated. Finally, faced with the reality that Iran is not likely to give up either on its missile capabilities or pull back from its allies in the region, Biden seems to have come around to going back to the original deal.

Iran is unlikely to remove the more advanced centrifuges it is now using after the Trump administration unilaterally pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Neither is Iran likely to get an assurance that a future Trump will not abandon the deal again after the US 2024 Presidential elections. We all have to live in an era in which the US, the strongest military and economic power in the world, is no longer treaty capable: whether on global warming or on the Iran nuclear deal.

Washington was not alone in its stupidity of pulling out of an agreement that imposed the most stringent restrictions any country had accepted on its nuclear programmes. It was egged on, if not instigated by Israel, who wanted the US to do what it could not: remove the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons and also defang its missile capabilities. And as most technologies required for nuclear weapons or missiles are dual-use technologies, this would have converted Iran to a second class industrial power as well.

A set of Israeli military experts have now come out publicly that Israel asking the US to pull out of the Iran deal was a huge blunder, and the best course for Israel would be to work for reinstating the deal. According to a leading US website on international affairs, Responsible Statecraft, a report in January 2021 by Ben Armbruster says, “The head of Israel’s military intelligence agency, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva has said that the revival of the Iran nuclear agreement would be better for Israel than if it were to be allowed to collapse entirely”.

If Iran had succumbed to the US and Israel, it would have then given the western powers complete military control over West Asia, including its oil. This is in line with what President Carter had declared in 1980 – known as the Carter doctrine – that the Persian Gulf region was of vital interests to the United States of America, and it would brook no interference in this region of any outside power. It was similar to the neocolonial Monroe doctrine of 1823 that declared that no foreign power could have any military presence in the Americas, the US backyard.

Trump’s reimposing of 1,000 sanctions on Iran after walking out of the deal was a heavy economic blow. This was complemented by covert attacks on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure: sabotage of facilities and assassination of nuclear scientists in Iran. It also saw the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force and Iraq’s General Mohandis in a US drone strike in Baghdad. Iran’s response has been equally forceful: it struck against the US bases in the region using its missiles, it continued to support Hezbollah and Syrian government forces, and its influence over Iraq still continues. After giving a prior warning to avoid casualties, its strikes on the US bases showed that the US so-called anti-missile batteries are toothless against Iran’s latest missiles. Iran was careful not to cause deaths, nor did it hit the US navy ships in order not to start a war with the US. But its asymmetric war capabilities showed that the US’s strategic assets in the region and Israel was now under Iran’s missile range, and anti-missile batteries could not protect these assets.

We have dealt earlier with Iran’s development of asymmetrical warfare capabilities and its ability to use missiles, drones, and smaller naval boats to strike its opponents. It is supplying Hezbollah with this technology and also Ansarullah – or Houthis – in Yemen has helped them vis-a-vis Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have shown that they may suffer heavy losses against the militarily superior forces of the Saudis and also the Emiratis (UAE), but they have missile capabilities to strike back. With Yemen, the argument of Houthi attack hitting civilians ring hollow, as the Saudis and Emiratis have inflicted the most savage attacks on civilians we have seen for a very long time. Yemen’s infrastructure has been destroyed, it is facing a cholera epidemic, it has no safe drinking water, and its schools, colleges and health facilities have been destroyed by sustained Saudi and Emirati bombings. Yemen’s only recourse has been to hit back at Saudi and UAE facilities: refineries and airports, hoping thereby to force them to peace talks and settle the Yemen war.

On the Iran nuclear agreement, Trump and the Israeli leadership had assumed that the economic reverses of the sanctions would drive Iran to surrender its independent strategic role. Iran initially refrained from breaching the JCPOA agreement and asked the other signatories to the agreement, Germany, France, the UK, Russia, and China, to continue their trade with Iran. Apart from China and Russia, while the European countries gave lip service to continuing JCPOA, their trade with Iran reduced to a trickle. With the dollar as the international currency, none of the other European countries was willing to buck the US sanctions in any serious way.

This is where Iran started to ratchet up its nuclear enrichment, both in terms of quantity and quality: how much uranium-235 it would enrich and to what degree of purity. The Iran nuclear deal had the following key features:

  • Active centrifuges had come down to about 5,000 from 19,000
  • Uranium enrichment was capped at 300 kg at 3.67 per cent purity
  • No advanced centrifuges would be used beyond IR-1 and dismantling/mothballing of more advanced centrifuges
  • Modify the Arak heavy reactor that could produce weapons-grade plutonium and convert it to use for peaceful purposes

At the time of the agreement, Iran had stockpiled about 200 kg of 20 per cent enriched uranium gas (200 kg of uranium gas converted to solid uranium would be 133 kg) which is shipped out to Russia.

In weapon development terms, converting uranium to 20 per cent purity is 90 per cent of the work required to reach weapons-grade uranium of 90 per cent purity. Most of the work involved is reaching 20 per cent purity. In centrifuges, uranium gas is spun to separate U-238, the heavier isotope of Uranium from U-235, which is lighter and the fissile isotope used for weapons. The separation is done by using a cascade of centrifuges and repeating the process again and again. It is time and energy consuming and requires a high degree of automation. In Natanz, the Stuxnet malware and a cyberweapon developed by the US and Israel was used to destroy an estimated 10 per cent of Iran’s centrifuges by attacking its Siemens controllers. This was the first use of a cyber weapon in the world. 

Iran’s atomic agency in November last year said that its stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium had reached over 210 kg, and 60 per cent enriched uranium to 25 kg. It also has put in a new generation of more advanced centrifuges and efficient IR-2m, IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges. This is why the argument that Iran has reached breakout capacity as it has enough fissile material for a bomb and is more advanced in its bomb-making capability. They are more advanced today than they were when the original JCPOA was reached, the consequence of Trump’s folly.

The problem that the US and its allies have is putting the nuclear genie it unleashed by walking away from the JCPOA back into the bottle. Iran is willing to accept most of the terms of the old deal, but it is unlikely to mothball its advanced centrifuges again as it had done earlier. It also knows that the US is just one election away from reneging on the deal, so its stake in the deal is only temporary. So how much is it willing to sacrifice for sanctions relief – that too halting and piecemeal as Obama showed – for getting back to the Iran nuclear deal? For the sake of the world, we hope they will, and Biden will live up to the US side of the bargain, at least for the few years he has as president.