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It’s Not Easy To Get Back To The JCPOA

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Between April and June of this year, Iran’s talks with the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany with the EU as well) progressed to a point where an agreement on reinstating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, Iran nuclear deal) was in sight. Then Iran had an election and had to reorganize under a new government. Last week that government came back to the talks.

Participants in the talks have been admirably restrained in their comments on the Iranian proposals, and no specifics are available, but reports are that Iran’s proposals retained all the concessions made by other parties while eliminating all concessions made by Iran. Agreement among the P5+1 has been remarkable that Iran overplayed its hand. Talks restarted yesterday (December 9) with a perhaps more restrained Iran.

The US delegation’s reaction of frustration and even anger to Iran’s overreach can be seen in this press conference transcript. The unidentified senior State Department official is likely Robert Malley, the head of the delegation.

Since Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the JCPOA, in favor of “maximum pressure,” expressed in additional financial sanctions and occasional hot tweets, Iran has been gradually ramping up its nuclear work beyond what it agreed to in the JCPOA. These steps are (mostly) reversible and are a basis for negotiating back to full compliance.

American rhetoric has ramped up in response to Iran’s overreach last week, with implicit threats of war. The US is discussing possible military exercises with Israel that reinforce those threats. Israel is not a direct party to the talks, but they have supplied their own line of military threats going back to the original JCPOA talks in 2014 and 2015, along with leaks of material supposedly showing that Iran’s nuclear program is much more malign than other intelligence services find it to be. Benjamin Netanyahu pressed Trump to get out of the agreement. Now former Israeli officials are recognizing what reasonable people recognized all along – the JCPOA was the best way to keep Iran from a nuclear weapon. Good job, all.

Since those early days, a certain faction of American think tanks have campaigned against the JCPOA, first against negotiations and then for US abrogation. They want war with Iran. They want Iran removed from the face of the earth. They lie a lot. The Foundation for the Defense of democracies (FDD), far too often quoted in the New York Times, is one of them.

Over the last week, a discussion has opened up that is particularly misleading. A leaked document (probably by Israeli sources) claims that Iran is ramping up its uranium enrichment even higher. It is too high now, one of the steps that Iran has taken in response to Trump’s rejection of the JCPOA. As it goes higher, it approaches the 90% necessary for a practical nuclear weapon. Additionally, jumps in that percent become easier as it goes higher, so there is real concern about what Iran is doing.

However, the public discussion is inflamed by terminology that those enemies of the JCPOA originated.

“Breakout time” is the time Iran would need, given its enrichment capacity, to produce enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. Negotiators need specific figures of merit to work with. But those two words are misleading. Producing enough uranium is not the same as producing a weapon. That requires a number of further steps, probably taking a year or so. Being able to deliver a weapon to a target requires more. But “breakout” seems to imply a ready nuclear weapon. When the term was adopted, back around 2015, I was one of those warning that the term was misleading. And here we are again.

It’s not hard to do the calculations to figure out “breakout time.” It’s predictably been going down since Trump pulled out of the JCPOA. And now we are at the point where people are screeching about “within the margin of error.” This is particularly useful for Israel to berate the United States with.

There is no doubt that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon. Their nuclear engineers and physicists are capable, and they have the industrial know-how. They had a nuclear weapons program that they ended in 2003. They have investigated technologies like fast detonators and shaped explosive charges that are useful in designing and building nuclear weapons. Obtaining plans for a nuclear weapon is not hard.

As the heavy breathing rises about the impending “breakout” that isn’t one, we need to ask what one bomb’s worth of uranium, or even one bomb, would mean. It would be a pretext for Israel to attack Iran. It would raise questions about Iran’s participation in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Those who have interests in undermining the NPT could use it to attack the NPT.

But let’s look at it from Iran’s point of view. What does one bomb get them? Would it be credible to the rest of the world? If not, they would have to do a test, which would eliminate that single bomb (device, in the jargon of bombmakers for something without a delivery mechanism). It identifies them as a target for Israel. If Israel attacked and they were able to deliver the bomb, then what? Israel has many more nuclear weapons. Presumably the Iranian authorities have thought out what one bomb would and wouldn’t get them, probably many times since 2003 and before.

Now let us contemplate an attack on Iran “to prevent their getting a nuclear weapon,” as the excuse goes. We probably don’t know the location of all of Iran’s nuclear sites. Some are underground. There are tens of sites, some in cities. If an attack destroyed all those sites, does anyone think that Iran would not retaliate? They have conventional missiles that can reach Israel and Iraq. It would be a regional war, far worse than the 2003 Iraq war. A US government study showed that the most an attack would do would be slow down their progress toward a bomb, and it would prove to them how much they need one.

There’s no evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear weapon. But their posturing is troubling. The threats coming from the US right now – “US President Joe Biden orders ‘preparations’ in case Iran nuclear diplomacy fails, the White House says” – are probably intended to indicate to Iran that they have overreached in the negotiations. The trouble is that this kind of rhetorical escalation can lead to other kinds of escalation. After an initial meeting, Malley sounds firm but less frustrated.

Jeffrey Lewis considers a war versus Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in this thread.

Ali Vaez is following the negotiations closely.

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner

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