The year was 2015, and Iran’s economic status was struggling due to billions of dollars worth of sanctions. In an effort to alleviate itself and stop further plunging into recession, the country and several world powers (namely China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States plus Germany, the European Union, and some Middle Eastern powers) entered a nuclear agreement that would relieve Tehran in exchange for dismantling most of its nuclear program. Formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), July 2015 agreement also include subjecting Iran to opening its facilities to more extensive international inspection to ensure that it is slowing, if not ceasing, its nuclear development efforts.
Proponents of the agreement believe that preventing Iran from accelerating its nuclear weapons program will reduce tensions between the country and its neighbors, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. All was going according to plan until 2018, when then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal. The departure of Washington, coupled with several more reasons, has pushed Tehran to resume part of its nuclear activities, such as the uranium enrichment in 2020 in the wake of the assassination of its top official. The deal just went downhill after that.
#Iran starts enriching uranium to 60% purity at its Fordow nuclear plant and plans a vast expansion of its enrichment capacity, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said, detailing the latest acceleration of Iran's atomic program over Western objections pic.twitter.com/YhW6KOj3Yl
— DD News (@DDNewslive) November 23, 2022
Hope for the revival of the JCPOA hangs on a thin thread even after incumbent US President Joe Biden took over office last year and said that the country “would return to the deal if Iran came back into compliance.” But the space for negotiations kept narrowing. With Tehran’s not-so-subtle military support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including the illegal transfer of drones, most diplomats in the US and Europe are now veering away, putting pressure on the Biden administration to refrain from further talks with the Raisi government.
Nonetheless, negotiations on restoring the deal pressed on painstakingly and had made promising progress until Iran decided to derail from reaching an agreement “with its unacceptable and unrealistic demands,” casting doubt on whether the country is truly committed to reviving the JCPOA.
Earlier this month, the Arms Control Association (ACA) published an article explaining how the “bleak prospects for JCPOA restoration [can] significantly increase both the threat of Iranian proliferation” as well as increase the risk that would, at some point, push the US (or more likely Israel) to resort to “kinetic action to try and set back Iran’s nuclear advances in the short term.”
Instead of coming up with an alternative deal—which is more time-consuming, not to mention sorting through tons of differences—the agency suggested that it would be more feasible to “focus on reciprocal, confidence-building steps” from both parties and design an approach that would “prevent further escalation, reduce the risk of proliferation, and decrease the chances of miscalculation,” a.k.a the Plan B.
In terms of the nuclear program, the ACA suggested that continuing to monitor Tehran’s nuclear activities would be a good approach as an ideal starting point for stabilization, which already exists in the initial agreement signed in 2015 and assigned under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). At this point, transparency on the program would be preferable to nothing. At least the international community could monitor and track Iran’s development of its nuclear weapons and technologies, which could help detect and plan deterrence in potential attacks. However, the Plan B approach does not downplay nor suggest abandoning total support for the still murky revival of the JCPOA. Rather, it would allow the deal’s proponents “to preserve space for future diplomacy to restore the nuclear deal or to negotiate a new nuclear agreement.”
“Preventing further nuclear escalation would also benefit US national security by reducing the likelihood of a nuclear-armed Iran or a military conflict to try to prevent it,” ACA explained.
It also highlighted short- and long-term escalation risks if Iran resumes advancing its nuclear program, which could all lead to regional destabilization.
Currently, Iran can reportedly produce a nuclear bomb quipped with uranium in less than a week, but some experts assessed that the country could potentially advance the production more quickly as it advances along with its program if left unmonitored. Tehran can manufacture weapons underground, making detection and disruption more difficult. Thus, the emphasis on transparency is paramount.
“Ideally, additional monitoring mechanisms should be aimed at two objectives: 1) providing greater assurance that any attempt by Iran to breakout will be detected more quickly and 2) providing greater assurance that Iran is not diverting materials from sites that are no longer subject to inspections or surveillance.”
The IAEA reported in September that Iran “could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for three bombs in about a month,” and even without expanding its uranium enrichment, ACA stressed that Tehran could drop this one-month timeframe with its current stockpile.
Iran starts enriching uranium to 60% purity pic.twitter.com/oSaQJF8r1v
— Highlights (@highlightsnews1) November 23, 2022
Even with the proposed Plan B, reviving the 2015 nuclear deal remains the best course for both parties. But, with the impractical demands of Iran and its military support with Russia, any progress on restoring the JCPOA remains uncertain. With the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine and tensions with China, the attention of the US is more divided than ever. Nonetheless, it should remain focused on creating “a comprehensive diplomatic solution to roll-back Iran’s dual-use nuclear activities” before it is too late.
You can read more on ACA’s A “Plan B” to Address Iran’s Accelerating Nuclear Program article here.