“Iran’s gains in nuclear knowledge are irreversible”

Iran’s nuclear progress has left U.S. with some few options: Harvard Kennedy School professor

January 18, 2022 - 22:3

TEHRAN - Writing an article in Foreign Affairs on Monday, January 17, Matthew Bunn, a professor from the Harvard Kennedy School, analyzes different options toward Iran in regard its nuclear program and concludes that restoring the 2015 nuclear deal is the best possible option.

Following is an excerpt of the article:

After President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal, Tehran began enriching uranium to higher levels and stockpiling more of it. 

Iran’s leaders and President Joe Biden’s administration both say they want to return to the 2015 deal, but the parties remain far apart on what nuclear steps or sanctions relief should come first and how far-reaching those steps would need to be. Every day that the talks drag on without resolution, Iran’s centrifuges keep spinning; in late December, European governments warned that “weeks, not months,” remained before restoring the old deal would no longer be possible.

The hard truth is that the United States now has few good options for containing Iran’s nuclear program. It can persist with the no-deal status quo. It can pursue a return to the 2015 agreement and then attempt to get Iran to agree to a “longer and stronger” pact, as the Biden team has suggested. It can try for various other deals, either more or less stringent than the 2015 agreement. Or it can attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure with a military strike, but almost certainly provoking retaliation.
Of these options, a return to the 2015 deal is the least bad. It would offer modest hope for further talks. Iran’s gains in knowledge are irreversible.

By 2015, Iran had mastered centrifuge uranium enrichment, installed thousands of first-generation centrifuges, started to test more advanced centrifuges that could enrich uranium even faster, and stockpiled substantial amounts of low-enriched uranium. 

The 2015 nuclear deal changed all that. In return for sanctions relief, Iran took down and stored more than two-thirds of its centrifuges, disposed of 98 percent of its enriched uranium and accepted a far-reaching set of verification measures.

“The current mess is the result of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign”

Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018, imposing stringent sanctions on Iran with which companies around the world were forced to comply if they didn’t want to be frozen out of the U.S. market and financial system. Remarkably, Iran continued to comply with the terms of the deal for a year after the United States withdrew. But then it began to step past the deal’s restraints, gradually exceeding the limits on enrichment until in January 2020 it finally announced that its enrichment program would no longer be constrained by the deal at all.

The latest reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency, published in November 2021, show that Iran has surged far past the limits of the 2015 accord. Iran has also blown past the 3.67 percent enrichment limit set by the 2015 deal and is now enriching uranium at up to 60 percent. Meanwhile, Iran’s stocks of enriched uranium have grown to over seven times the 2015 limit. And Iran is running more centrifuges than the 2015 deal permitted, including hundreds of advanced centrifuges, and testing still more advanced devices.

A return to the 2015 deal could roll back some of Iran’s nuclear progress

A return to the 2015 deal could roll back some of Iran’s nuclear progress, getting rid of the extra enriched uranium stocks, dialing enrichment back down to 3.67 percent, and taking the advanced centrifuges offline. But the knowledge Iran has gained can’t be erased. Day by day, Iran is gaining more insight into casting uranium metal, operating and manufacturing higher-performance centrifuges, handling highly enriched uranium without causing accidental chain reactions.

Iran’s rapid progress on the nuclear front has left the United States with few good options. Without a deal, Tehran’s nuclear program will be essentially unfettered. 

Some experts have suggested settling for a “less for less” approach—for example, getting Iran to relinquish its stocks of 60 percent enriched uranium, stop stockpiling more enriched uranium, and halt the installation of new centrifuges in return for lifting some sanctions. Such an arrangement might buy some time for talks, but it is by no means a long-term solution.

Others have urged the Biden administration to give up on reviving the 2015 deal and instead impose tougher sanctions to convince Iran to compromise, offering a “more for more” arrangement in which Tehran would accept more substantial restraints than the 2015 deal—perhaps combined with some limits on its missiles and regional activities—in return for lifting even more sanctions (and perhaps other benefits). But the current mess is the result of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, so there is little reason to think that more of the same will lead to a breakthrough. In Tehran, Trump’s exit from the deal has vindicated those who argue that Washington will never be a reliable partner.

Moreover, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s most recent budget proposal assumes that Iran’s economy will grow at eight percent in the coming budget year even without a deal, suggesting that he doesn’t feel much urgency to compromise. And historically, Iran has responded to Western efforts to build leverage by trying to build counterleverage of its own—which partly explains why Iran has deployed so many centrifuges, stockpiled so much enriched uranium.

A more plausible path to a longer and stronger deal would be to first return to the original deal and then attempt to lengthen and strengthen it in subsequent negotiations. That’s worth trying. But because a return to the 2015 deal would require lifting many of the sanctions on Tehran, Washington’s leverage for better terms down the road would be reduced.

In short, Iran’s nuclear progress has left the United States with some few options. Restoring the 2015 deal won’t buy as much time or safety as the original deal did, but doing so is the best of choices. A return to the deal technically constrains Iran’s program and creates a flow of benefits from cooperation with the West

The Biden administration is therefore right to try to find a path back to compliance with the original deal and from there to a longer and stronger follow-on accord. But with Iran’s leadership justifiably doubting American promises, there is no guarantee it will be possible to get back to the 2015 pact. Ultimately, what is needed is a different relationship between Iran, its neighbors in the Middle East, and the West. A return to the nuclear deal would be one step forward on that long and difficult road. 

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