Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

The Never-Ending Iranian Nuclear Saga Is Nowhere Near Its Conclusion

The Never-Ending Iranian Nuclear Saga Is Nowhere Near Its Conclusion
 Bruno Tertrais
Senior Fellow - Geopolitics, International Relations and Demography

Every five years, world powers meet in New York to take stock of nuclear non-proliferation risks, progress in nuclear disarmament, and advance the peaceful uses of atomic energy. The latest “Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference” took place on 1 - 26 August 2022 after having been postponed twice due to the pandemic. It ended in disarray in late August as Russia vetoed the adoption of a draft concluding document that referred to the radiological risk stemming from the occupation of the Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia. While the conference dealt with a wide range of issues, there was an elephant in the room: the ongoing negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program, which were then – it was hoped – close to the finishing line.

There is something special about the never-ending Iranian nuclear crisis. The Islamic Republic is currently the only country that has reached the “nuclear threshold” status, implying Tehran is able to develop nuclear weapons in just a few months should it decide to do so. The country however, is also a member of the NPT and has thus voluntarily renounced nuclear weapons. And while Tehran denies it, its military intentions have over and over pointed otherwise. Since 2003, the IAEA and Western intelligence have publicly reported the existence of a number of activities that can only be explained by a weapons program. What remains unknown is how far and how fast it wants to travel down that road – and there may be different views on this in Tehran. Fortunately, sanctions and sabotage, as well of course as negotiations (and the fear of US military action in 2003) have significantly slowed down the pace of the program over the past twenty years.

In 2015, a “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) was concluded by the negotiating parties – Europe, the United States, Russia, China and Iran – and blessed by the United Nations. It limited Iranian nuclear activities and placed them under strict surveillance. The idea was not to solve the issue once and for all, but essentially to gain time, hoping that the economic benefits for Iran – most sanctions were lifted – would eventually alter its strategic calculation. The US withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 unsurprisingly led Tehran to gradually encroach upon, and ultimately violate, important provisions of the treaty starting in 2019.

Iran’s nuclear drive since 2015

Tehran has resumed activities in the metallurgy of uranium as well as the production of heavy water beyond what was allowed by the JCPOA.

Since then, the Islamic Republic has begun the mass production of modern centrifuges, the machines used to enrich uranium, and installed these beyond the limits allowed by the JCPOA. It has opened a new, massive underground facility near the main Natanz enrichment plant, which is ostensibly for centrifuge production but could have other uses. It has resumed enrichment at a level of 20% (whereas the JCPOA only allowed enrichment up to 3%, since it is the level required for most civilian uses).

Most worryingly, it began to enrich at a level of 60% without any credible rationale. Given that enrichment is practically an exponential process, this brings Tehran very close to the 90% level which is required for nuclear weapons. By May 2022 it had accumulated 3,809 kilos of enriched uranium in various forms. Most of it (3,491 kilos) was in gaseous form and would need to be converted to metal. This includes 43 kilos of uranium enriched to 60%. In addition, Tehran has resumed activities in the metallurgy of uranium as well as the production of heavy water beyond what was allowed by the JCPOA.

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) encountered increasing verification problems. Since 2018, the Agency has discovered no less than four “undeclared facilities” including three, where traces of uranium of anthropogenic origin were found, with no credible explanation given. On the contrary, by 2021 Iran had discontinued the implementation of monitoring measures (including for instance access to cameras). And in July, Tehran turned off 27 cameras installed after the 2015 deal, promising to keep them off until a deal is achieved. All this does not imply Iran is building a bomb right this second. What it does mean, however, is the following:

First, the time required to build a nuclear bomb has been dramatically reduced since 2015. To make one “significant quantity” – the minimum needed for one device – would now only take weeks according to the IAEA (if not days according to independent estimates) and neither the IAEA nor Western intelligence agencies would be certain to detect such a gesture in time. To be sure, crossing the “weaponization” line would still take time. This purely military side of the program was disrupted by international pressure, including sabotage and targeted assassinations. Even Israel believes that it would still take some 18-24 months for Iran to make a nuclear weapon should it decide to do so. But this part of the program risks being undetected. Testing nuclear-capable missiles are more visible, but Iran now has such capability. After decades of denial, Iranian officials have begun talking openly about nuclear weapons. In late 2021, the former head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency candidly admitted that the famous Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakrizadeh – assassinated in 2020 – was running a team of nuclear weapons research. More recently, several current officials have referred to Iran’s “ability” to build such weapons. These are worrying developments.

Second, a mere return to the 2015 provisions is no longer possible. There is no way Iran could agree to roll back its program to the 2018 levels. Especially since some of the so-called “sunset clauses” of the JCPOA – limitations which were provisional – will soon be irrelevant since they will start expiring in 2023.

Deal or no deal?

More recently, several current officials have referred to Iran’s “ability” to build such weapons. These are worrying developments.

EU mediators, who played a pivotal role in the negotiations, circulated a “final” proposal for salvaging the deal in early August. This new form of agreement is less ambitious in scope than the 2015 version. It is no longer seen – as was the case under the Obama administration – as the key to a new relationship with Iran.

Nevertheless, the conclusion of an agreement encountered three main problems. The first was the desire by the Islamic Republic for a formal treaty, which would make a future US withdrawal more difficult. This remains a real possibility considering the current state of US politics. The second was that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – the famed Pasdaran, perhaps the backbone of the regime – be removed from the US foreign terrorist organization blacklist. While both issues no longer seem to be deal-breakers, a third one appears much thornier to solve. Iran wants to close the books on IAEA investigations into its undisclosed activities. Yet even if this was judged acceptable by all parties involved in the negotiation, the IAEA is an independent United Nations agency and would need to be directed by its Board of Governors to do so. At this point, Tehran insists that the agency’s probe is closed ahead of “Reimplementation Day” which according to the draft agreement, would happen 120 days after signature and trigger the lifting of all remaining sanctions.

Many believed Iran desperately needed a deal given its harsh economic situation and the emerging transformation of the Middle East through the Abraham Accords, which cemented a de facto political, economic and security alliance between Israel and several of its former Arab foes. The Iranian perception is probably different. The regime has survived the re-establishment of sanctions – notably through illegal oil sales to Asian countries – and since 2015 has gained ground in the Middle East (with a stronger foothold in Syria). It may see the United States and the West as weaker and preoccupied with other issues, from Ukraine to Taiwan. The absence of widespread condemnation when Iran breached the 60% enrichment threshold may have been an encouragement. The pragmatists in Tehran have lost ground, as testified by the victory of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi in the June 2021 presidential election. Not to mention the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) announcement in September 2021, when two parties to the Iran negotiations – Washington and London – legitimized for the first time the transfer of highly enriched uranium (HEU)-run submarines to a non-nuclear country (Australia). This prompted Tehran to confirm its alleged interest in such HEU for (imaginary) submarines. Finally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a country that gave up nuclear weapons,  certainly confirmed the need for Tehran to build its own nuclear deterrent.

While the Islamic Republic of Iran is not a monolith and not every action against the West has been ordered from the top, a series of events took place over the summer of 2022 which obscured the atmosphere of the negotiations.

While the Islamic Republic of Iran is not a monolith and not every action against the West has been ordered from the top, a series of events took place over the summer of 2022 which obscured the atmosphere of the negotiations. On August 1, an assassination attempt against an Iranian opponent was thwarted in New York. Four days later, Israel struck targets in Gaza in a preemptive action against the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). On August 10, a member of the IRGC was indicted by the US Department of Justice for having prepared an assassination attempt against former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton, a nemesis of the Islamic Republic. Two days later came the attack against novelist Salman Rushdie.

And in late August, US and Iranian forces clashed in Syria. Meanwhile, and largely in reaction to Iran’s stiffening stance, Washington appears to have hardened its own positions and has signaled that is not ready for “a deal at any price”. It sanctioned Iranian companies violating the sanctions. The vigilance of hard-line Republicans in Congress who stand ready to accuse the Biden administration of weakness may also have contributed.

All this does not bode well for the successful conclusion of the negotiations. Moreover, a new agreement would not solve the Iranian nuclear question “once and for all” more than the JCPOA did. Iranian hardliners might be even more tempted to cheat than was the case in 2015, counting on the lack of attention by Western powers.

What to do in the absence of an agreement

Still, as was the case at the time – and even though the JCPOA may not have been the “best possible deal” as described by the Obama administration – it might be better overall to live with a moderately constrained Iran than with a totally unconstrained (or constrained only by IAEA obligations it has flouted for decades) Iran. There is no Plan B – or, rather, we’ve already seen what Plan B could be (the so-called “maximum pressure campaign” by the Administration) and it did not exactly work. A major crisis would probably ensue at some point, especially if a hard-line Republican president was to be elected in November 2024. The Iranian program would eventually reach a point where it would change the strategic calculus of key actors in the region. Perhaps Iran would not build operational nuclear weapons and claim only the “capability to do so immediately if need be”. But that is a risky bet: nuclear program history indicates that no country has ever stayed very long at the threshold.

The possible consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran have been analyzed for more than two decades now and, in many ways, such a scenario would be much worse than the North Korean one. Broadly speaking, four consequences are feared.

  1. The possession of nuclear weapons would embolden the Islamic Republic in its regional designs, including through the support of terrorist forces.
  2. Bilateral deterrence vis-à-vis Israel would not necessarily operate, given that Tehran does not even recognize the existence of that State.
  3. Given that, by definition, the international community would have been unable to stop Iran from acquiring the bomb, the whole international order would be shaken.
  4. In particular, the loss of confidence in the United States and the erosion of the NPT would heighten the probability of further proliferation in the Middle East and in East Asia.

In many ways, in the absence of an agreement, we would be back to the late 2000s and early 2010s, when a central question was how to avoid two bleak scenarios, “to bomb Iran or to have an Iranian bomb”. So what to do to avoid such a terrible dilemma?

First, negotiating parties and the IAEA should not let Iran off the hook regarding undeclared activities; this is key in ensuring that the international community has constant visibility of the program. They should warn Tehran that failing to satisfy the IAEA’s demands would lead to referring the matter to the UN Security Council. Second, we should make it clear that breaching the 90% enrichment threshold would be a red line holding severe consequences, including imposing back all pre-2015 sanctions. Third, without openly threatening military action – something that could play in the hardliners’ hands – we should make clear that we would be ready to stop an Iranian bomb by any available means. (Let us recall that Tehran suspended its weaponization research in 2003 for fear of a US attack). Finally, the door should always be open to limited, reciprocal measures, for instance alleviating or suspending some sanctions in return for verifiable limitations on the Iranian program

The never-ending Iranian nuclear saga is a critical issue for Europe, not only because of the geographical proximity of the Middle East, but also because we, Europeans, claim to fight for a rules-based world order.

The never-ending Iranian nuclear saga is a critical issue for Europe, not only because of the geographical proximity of the Middle East but also because we Europeans claim to fight for a rules-based world order. This explains why the EU and three of its members (France, Germany and the United Kingdom) have played, and continue to play, a central role in the negotiating process – including in the current phase where Tehran refuses to talk directly to Washington. An additional reason why we have an interest is the looming energy crisis: a successful agreement would bring back Iranian oil and gas to the international market. However, analysts guard against unwarranted expectations in this area, and this should thus not be a reason to haste the negotiations or lower our legitimate demands vis-à-vis Tehran.


Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English