Dennis Ross: There’s a deal to be had between the U.S. and Iran
Iran needs to acquire three components in order to become a military nuclear power: highly enriched uranium, a functional warhead, and a missile capable of delivering it. The JCPOA addresses only the first of these efforts in any detail, and even then, offers merely partial and temporary solutions. The deal largely ignores the second effort, and actually advances the third.
The JCPOA did limit Iran’s immediate ability to enrich enough uranium for a bomb. It reduced the regime’s uranium stockpile by 97 percent, mothballed two-thirds of its centrifuges, and re-designated two of its major nuclear facilities as civilian research centers. Uranium enrichment was capped at 3.7 percent, far short of weapons-grade. These concessions were intended to extend the time Iran needed to enrich enough uranium for a single bomb from approximately three months to a year. Should Iran attempt to break out and go nuclear, advocates explained, the international community would have enough time to intervene. The JCPOA, they asserted, blocked all of Iran’s paths to a bomb.
But the JCPOA allowed Iran to retain its massive nuclear infrastructure, unnecessary for a civilian energy program but essential for a military nuclear program. The agreement did not shut down a single nuclear facility or destroy a single centrifuge. The ease and speed with which Iran has resumed producing large amounts of more highly enriched uranium—doing so at a time of its own choosing—illustrates the danger of leaving the regime with these capabilities. In fact, the JCPOA blocks nothing.
If the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment were inadequate, they were also designed to be short-lived, some sunsetting as early as 2024. Meanwhile, the deal allowed the regime to develop advanced centrifuges capable of spinning out more highly enriched uranium in far less time. Less than a decade from now, Iran will be legally able to produce and stockpile enough fissile material for dozens of bombs. The 97 percent reduction of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile achieved by the JCPOA would be swiftly undone. Breakout time would no longer be a year, or even three months, but a matter of weeks.
This isn’t just the assessment of the deal’s opponents, but also that of its principal architect. “If in year 13, 14, 15 [after making the deal], they have advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium fairly rapidly, the breakout time would have shrunk almost down to zero,” President Barack Obama acknowledged in an April 2015 interview with NPR.
Realizing that the JCPOA guaranteed Iran’s future ability to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey accelerated their search for nuclear options as soon as the deal was signed. The JCPOA’s opponents never feared that Iran would violate the deal, but rather, they feared that the regime would keep it—waiting out the sunset clauses and emerging with the ability to produce enough uranium for a nuclear arsenal.