Tehran Goes All-In

Vladimir Sazhin,

Professor, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences (Russia),

Member of the International Advisory Council of the Luxembourg Forum

Iran's fifth step in reducing its commitments under the JCPOA will eliminate all restrictions on uranium enrichment

The nuclear issue of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) has long been a “disturbing” factor for the international community. Tehran’s covert and illegal nuclear activity conducted over decades beyond control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has generated confidence among experts from different countries that Iran is actively working to create nuclear weapons.

Iran keeps on stubbornly refuting these speculations. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently called the statements of some countries that Tehran is trying to get nuclear weapons “a repeated nonsense”.

Iran’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Majid Takht-Ravanchi said, in connection with the yet another step to gradually withdraw Iran from the nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that Iran, despite the processes associated with the JCPOA, is not going to create nuclear weapon. Moreover, he recalled that the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, once issued a fatwa (Islamic law), which stated that nuclear weapons should be banned.

However, few people believe good words. On 6 January, the President of the United States Donald Trump promised that Iran would never have nuclear weapons, implying, of course, that Iran was striving for it. The President of the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe Viatcheslav Kantor said in Geneva, “It is very problematic to keep the Iran nuclear deal from falling apart after the withdrawal of the US, which is imposing sanctions against states that continue cooperation with the Islamic Republic following the conclusion of this important deal. Iran has already enriched uranium beyond the key limit envisaged by the JCPOA. Unless this pressing issue is resolved, Iran will eventually build nuclear weapons, which it sees as the crucial factor for reinforcing its status as a regional leader and strengthening its fight against Israel”.

On 23 January, Vice President of the United States Mike Pence called at the Fifth World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem to unite against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country that denies the Holocaust.

In order to predict whether Iran will have nuclear weapons or not, it is necessary to analyse, at least briefly, the current state of its nuclear sphere.

Before the JCPOA was adopted in July 2015, Iran’s nuclear potential was significant. The Iranians formed a scientific and production base that allowed them to create a nuclear infrastructure to ensure a complete nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium ore development to nuclear waste storage.

An important stage of the nuclear fuel cycle is the process of uranium enrichment. In 2000–2011, Iran created two major centres for these purposes: in Natanz and in Fordo. One should not think that Iran did it to ensure supply to nuclear power plants. Russia, the developer of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, supplies the operating unit at the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant as well as the one under construction with the nuclear fuel. It is a global practice: the developer of the nuclear power plant supplies the fuel and then takes the waste away.

In 2004, Iran developed the IR-40 heavy-water reactor with a capacity of about 10 kg of weapon-grade plutonium per year (enough for two plutonium charges) in the vicinity of Arak. As it is known, plutonium is used in nuclear charges, as well as highly enriched uranium.

The implementation of the Iranian nuclear programme was ensured by focused, well-organised research work. Dozens of large research institutes and centres, laboratories and experimental plants, including private ones, were established in the country.

In 2015, the amount of accumulated low-enriched uranium would be enough to produce five nuclear charges, if it was further enriched in cascades of centrifuges and turned into highly-enriched uranium. Although it should be clarified that even up to 90% enriched uranium is not yet an explosive device. And experts doubt that Iran has high technology and chemically pure substances to carry out the process of converting highly enriched gaseous uranium accumulated in centrifuges to the metallic state necessary to create nuclear weapons.

Iran, of course, has the potential to create nuclear weapons, but the timing of this process is controversial. Despite everything, the JCPOA played a role in impeding the development of Iran’s nuclear potential.

The JCPOA significantly limited and reduced the Iranian nuclear programme, controlled the reserves and quality of nuclear materials, as well as prohibited potentially military activities.

However, in 2018, President Donald Trump hit the JCPOA, withdrawing the United States from the agreement and imposing tough sanctions against Iran. In the long run, this could turn into disastrous consequences.

The United Kingdom, France and Germany, as participants and co-authors of the JCPOA, opposed Trump's anti-Iranian policy. With the approval of the Russia and China, they were able to develop, officially register, and launch the Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges with Iran – INSTEX.

However, the European Union barely could, can, and will be able to resist the strict anti-Iranian sanctions imposed by the US that could lead to a collapse of the Iranian economy. European statesmen, politicians, diplomats would like to keep the JCPOA in one form or another and maintain normal trade and economic relations with Iran, but they cannot force their countries' businesses to work in Iran under severe American sanctions, fraught with serious consequences for them.

Iran seeks a way out of a most difficult situation, up to ignoring the JCPOA. In May 2019, Tehran developed a step-by-step (by 60-day periods) plan for suspension of some JCPOA obligations and called on other parties to the deal to get back to its full implementation (i.e., counteract the United States and skirt their sanctions).

On 6 January 2020, the fourth step was complete. By that time, Iran had greatly succeeded in rebuilding its nuclear infrastructure.

The fifth step seems to be more dramatic. Tehran declared it the last step and the last chance to save the JCPOA. The official statement by the Iranian government says, “The Islamic Republic of Iran discards the last key component of its operational limitations in the JCPOA, which is the limit on the number of centrifuges. As such, the Islamic Republic of Iran's nuclear programme no longer faces any operational restrictions, including enrichment capacity, percentage of enrichment, amount of enriched material, and research and development”.

It must be emphasized that Iran’s colleagues in the JCPOA (except for the United States, of course) strongly advised Tehran not to expand the scope of its non-compliance with the nuclear deal. The fifth step actually means Iran’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, which may lead to undesirable consequences.

However, Tehran went all-in.

Further events began to develop at tremendous speed. On 17 January, London, Paris and Berlin launched a dispute settlement mechanism under Articles 36 and 37 of the JCPOA. It is quite complex and the procedure will take at least two months to review the issue in various commissions. You can forget about a consensus. It means that finally, after 30 days the issue will most likely be submitted to the UN Security Council, where with a high degree of probability a resolution on maintaining the regime of lifting sanctions against Iran for another 30 days will not be adopted. This means that the Security Council will again enforce all seven past resolutions, including sanctions against Iran.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that under these conditions, the European Union will join the United States and impose its portion of sanctions against Iran. For Iran, such developments are a disaster, both economic and political, capable of affecting the viability of the current regime.

Tehran understands this well, is afraid of it and trying to do everything to avoid such prospects. Iranians make efforts to threaten and dictate terms to their opponents.

Chairman of Iranian Majles Ali Larijani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke out for possible withdrawal of Iran from IAEA and the NPT, whereby Iran would open up a clear path for uncontrolled and fully-fledged development of its nuclear programme, including the military component.

Indeed, Iran will not create nuclear weapons overnight. It will take months to rebuild the nuclear infrastructure, which existed prior to the JCPOA. And then ... Even without political, economic and cyber confrontation from opponents, it will take Iran years to create nuclear weapons.

The timeline for creating nuclear weapons by Iran (12 to 24 months) appearing in statements by Western and Israeli politicians is based on a purely mathematical approach without taking into account the variety of external and internal factors. As a reminder, it took Pakistan about a decade to go from the first underground test of a nuclear device to creation of a nuclear warhead for a missile. The actual time to create a nuclear explosive device in Iran by the time JCPOA came into force was estimated as four to six years (without creation of nuclear delivery vehicles).

However, this is not the main thing. The main thing will be the reaction of Israel and the United States to uncontrolled development of Iran’s nuclear capacity. If Iranians bring their nuclear efforts to the level close to creating a nuclear charge, there is no doubt that the probability of a strike by Israel and/or the United States on Iran’s nuclear facilities is 100%.

And this is war. One can, of course, argue how missile and bomb strikes (there can be no other strikes) will cause sufficient damage to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and slow down the nuclear development, but this will be the beginning of a serious conflict in the region.

Do not think that the conflict will escalate into a world war. It will not happen. But there is no doubt that it will blow up smouldering and sometimes burning Middle East.

What is to be done?

An unbiased analysis of the situation shows that Iran has the only way out – negotiations. Of course, negotiations with the United States due to the events, which took place in late December and early January, are impossible. But they are more than necessary with other authors of the JCPOA.

It is clear that the nuclear deal with Iran may not be restored in its original form, but there are chances to revive version 2.0 of the deal. “Building the bridge” to the new JCPOA requires retaining as many elements of the current contractual framework as possible, which will serve as the basis for negotiating a future agreement.

It should be noted that the United States will certainly exert their influence on any contacts with Iran. The US presidential election will be an important, and possibly fundamental, factor. In this regard, it should be kept in mind that if the Democrats win, the agreements with Iran will resume, although not immediately and not in the previous form. If the current Republican president wins the November election, the situation will be less optimistic.

Whatever forecast for the presidential election in the United States, it would be most pragmatic for the warring parties, Iran and the three European powers, to reduce the intensity of mutual claims.

Source: Expert.ru