Updated: Jan 28
Reviving The JCPOA Will Either Ensure The Emergence Of A Nuclear Iran Or A Desperate War To Stop It
January 21, 2021
About the authors: Michael Oren was Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013 and, from 2015 to 2019, a member of Knesset and deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where, together with Imam Abdullah Antepli and Maital Friedman, he co-directs the Muslim Leadership Initiative. He is chairman of “Open House,” an Arab-Jewish coexistence center in the Israeli town of Ramle. He is author of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.
Proponents of the Iran nuclear agreement are sounding the alarm. In 2018, the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and since then, Iran has increased the quality and quantity of its uranium enrichment well beyond what the deal allows. Recently, it has even begun enriching uranium to 20 percent, a short distance away from weapons-grade. Iran, JCPOA advocates say, is closer today to producing a bomb than it was in 2015, when the deal was concluded. Only the deal’s renewal, they insist, can prevent the nightmare of a nuclear Iran.
“Five years ago, American-led diplomacy produced a deal that ensured it would take Iran at least a year to produce enough fissile material for one bomb,” Joe Biden wrote in September. “Now—because Trump let Iran off the hook from its obligations under the nuclear deal—Tehran’s ‘breakout time’ is down to just a few months.” More recently, he warned that if Iran gets the bomb, then Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt will follow.
Why, then, aren’t Israelis and Arabs—those with the most to lose from Iranian nuclearization—also demanding a return to the JCPOA? Why aren’t they panicking over its dissolution? The answer is simple: The JCPOA didn’t diminish the Iranian nuclear threat; it magnified it.
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.
The deal, then, allows Iran to eventually possess the first component for a bomb: a stockpile of highly enriched uranium.
Next it needs a warhead. Despite Iran’s insistence that it has never tried to build a bomb, Western intelligence officials have long determined that it did, but believed that the regime suspended its efforts in 2003. The weapons program was directed by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear scientist and general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, who was assassinated in November. In a recording obtained by Israel and shared with the United States in 2008, Fakhrizadeh explained that the secret efforts in fact continued and that Iran intended to initially produce five nuclear warheads.
The possibility that Iran might still be trying to build a bomb did not, however, preoccupy the framers of the JCPOA. Of the deal’s 159 pages, only half of one page addresses Iranian weaponization, and it contains no mandate for international action. Although there are provisions for inspecting enrichment-related facilities, none exist for inspecting potential bomb-making sites or punishing Iran should any be discovered. Instead, there is merely an Iranian declaration that it will not try to make a bomb—a promise that Iran, which has systematically lied about its nuclear program for decades, has repeatedly broken in the past.
The recklessness of this omission became even more glaring three years ago, after Israel exposed Iran’s secret nuclear archive. Among its many thousands of pages were documents detailing undeclared nuclear sites and radioactive materials, as well as blueprints for a missile-borne bomb. More damning, the archive confirmed that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program did not stop in 2003 but was merely split into overt and covert channels, some of them embedded in prestigious universities, and both aspects of the program were headed by Fakhrizadeh. The goal, he states in the documents, was to maintain “special activities … under the title of Scientific Development” that “leave no identifiable traces.”
These revelations underlined the fatal flaws of the JCPOA. The very existence of a secret archive was a flagrant violation of Iran’s obligation to come clean about its previous weaponization work. And it was exposed not by international inspectors, but by Israel’s Mossad. Advocates of the deal are hard-pressed to explain why Iran would keep, conceal, and repeatedly relocate designs for a nuclear weapon unless it wanted to preserve the option of someday making one.
With its nuclear infrastructure intact, its work on advanced centrifuges proceeding, and restrictions on enrichment ending with the sunset clauses, Iran’s future nuclear stockpile of enriched uranium is ensured. And with its weaponization-related efforts unimpeded, the regime needs only a system for delivering a bomb. The regime already possesses Shahab-3 missiles, based on the North Korean No-dong, capable of hitting any country in the Middle East and even nations as far away as Romania. The archive contains detailed plans for fitting a nuclear warhead on the Shahab-3. Iran aims to expand its threat to Western Europe and the United States by developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. Intelligence sources agree that the rockets Iran has already developed for its space program can easily be converted to ICBMs. Iran’s missile development violates a UN ban on its missile program—a prohibition the international community has failed to enforce. In 2023, however, the JCPOA will lift that ban entirely.
The JCPOA, then, has not substantially blocked any of Iran’s efforts. The violations that Iran has committed since America’s withdrawal from the deal, and more intensively in recent months, will pale compared with the industrial-scale enrichment program the JCPOA ultimately permits. Combined with its weaponization-related work and its missile development, this will position Iran to become a global nuclear power.
In return for merely postponing that outcome, the deal rewards Iran extravagantly. The JCPOA infused the Iranian economy with tens of billions of dollars in immediate sanctions relief and trade deals and promised to provide hundreds of billions more. Yet rather than invest in its decaying infrastructure, the regime used portions of this windfall to expand its international terror network, enhance the offensive capabilities of Hamas and Hezbollah, and further assist the Syrian regime in massacring and uprooting its own people. In addition to extending its dominance of Lebanon, Iran has consolidated its influence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Gaza. Rather than buying Iran’s moderation, the JCPOA helped fund its quest for regional hegemony.
Exporting terror and instability, massacring and expelling Syrian Sunnis, and trying to kill Israelis—all of these Iranian activities were blandly subsumed by the JCPOA’s framers under the term malign activity. The deal was intended to serve as a precedent for international cooperation in addressing these crimes, but in practice, little has happened. Instead, desperate to preserve the agreement, signatories have ignored the regime’s aggression. The failure to address this “malign activity” reflects a near-total unwillingness to confront Iran and signals that the regime generally has little to fear from international interference.
The sermons and military processions accompanied by chants of “Death to Israel”; Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, calling for the elimination of the Israeli “cancer”; even a recent bill proposed in the Iranian parliament that would commit the government to “eliminate” Israel by 2041—all of these outrages and more are taken for granted by the international community. Yet no other country today so publicly and repeatedly declares its intentions to annihilate a fellow UN member state, linking its national purpose to that goal. At the same time, Iran has committed enormous resources and paid a staggering economic and diplomatic price to develop the means to fulfill its genocidal vision. The weaknesses of the JCPOA only deepen Israel’s fear that the international community is taking the inevitability of Iran’s nuclear-weapons capability for granted, too.
Israel has vowed to prevent the regime from going nuclear, so the Iranians are investing in massive deterrence. In the Middle Eastern countries under its domination, Iran has deployed tens of thousands of missiles, a growing number of them highly accurate and capable of hitting anywhere in Israel. Though some observers now claim that Iran’s missiles, rather than its nuclear program, most endanger the region, they have it backwards. The missiles are a tactical means to a strategic nuclear end. They are intended to deter Israeli efforts to stop Iran from moving toward breakout. Even so, Israel can handle the conventional missile threat, however costly, but the nuclear threat could be existential.
The flaws with the JCPOA are painfully obvious to both Arab and Israeli leaders. Why, then, did the international community ever agree to such a deal? For Europe, in particular, financial interests were involved. For America, though, the impetus was more complex. The Obama administration seemed to genuinely believe that Iran was capable of change. If it were treated respectfully and reintegrated into the international community, Obama maintained, Iran would lose interest in a nuclear bomb long before the deal expired, choosing instead to become “a successful regional power.” The regime would finally begin addressing the needs of its restive citizens and cease supporting terror. From the very beginning of his presidency, Obama pursued reconciliation with Iran, along with Palestinian-Israeli peace, as the centerpiece of his Middle East policy.
The JCPOA was supposed to provide Iran with the time and the incentive to moderate; instead, it gave Iran the means and the legitimacy to intensify its aggression now, while enabling it to go nuclear later. Much of the American public, meanwhile, exhausted by two Middle Eastern wars, feared becoming embroiled in another overseas conflict. Many Americans believed Obama when he insisted that “all options are on the table,” and that the only alternative to the deal was war.
In fact, the alternative to the president’s approach was tougher diplomacy, aimed at producing a better deal. But that would have required pressing Iran with even harsher sanctions and posing a credible threat of military action, neither of which the administration was willing to do. The “punishing sanctions” for which the administration took credit, and which brought Iran to the negotiating table, originated in Congress and were approved over the administration’s objections.
Rather than forcing Iran’s hand, the administration made far-reaching concessions at the very outset of the secret talks in 2012. American negotiators effectively recognized the regime’s “right to enrich,” overriding UN resolutions denying it that right, and even dropped their previous demand for a temporary freeze of enrichment. This essentially reduced the rest of the negotiations to wrangling over the details.
From the outset, the Obama administration was so wary of antagonizing Iran that it consistently overlooked the regime’s outrages—including a 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi and Israeli ambassadors in Washington (the Israeli ambassador at the time was Michael Oren, a co-author of this essay) and the routine harassment of U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf. No reckoning was sought for Iran’s complicity in the Syrian civil war, which has left some 500,000 civilians dead and 11 million homeless. Obama’s refusal to uphold his own red line regarding the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in 2013 was viewed by Israel and by Arab governments—and no doubt by Iran—as a further sign of his determination to placate Tehran.
And yet, even if America had the will, denying nuclear weapons to Iran was always fraught with risk. For religious and nationalist reasons, the regime sees itself as the Middle East’s rightful ruler, as well as a global force. More than anything else, though, Iran’s nuclear program is about the regime’s survival. Its leaders saw how the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi terminated their nuclear-weapons programs, and were later toppled and executed. They see how North Korea’s deliverable bombs have won Kim Jong Un power and immunity. They know which example to emulate.
Still, Iran can be stopped.
Although every new administration seeks to distinguish itself from its predecessor—and this incoming administration all the more so—President Joe Biden should not squander the leverage he has inherited. The reimposition and intensification of American sanctions has placed enormous pressure on the Iranian regime. After waiting out the old administration in the hope that 2021 would bring a new one, the regime is now trying to intimidate Biden into renewing the JCPOA. It is hardly a coincidence that the regime waited two years before approaching 20 percent enrichment—which it could have done at any time—but is doing so only now, with the onset of the new administration. The regime responds to pressure and acts defiantly when it senses hesitation.
Biden must not give in to this nuclear blackmail.
The JCPOA allowed Iran to both maintain its nuclear program and revitalize its economy.
Biden must make clear to Tehran that it can have one or the other, but not both.
Tragically, spokespeople for the new administration are proposing to return to the JCPOA and lift sanctions, and only afterward negotiate a longer, stronger deal. Such a course has no chance of success. Even a partial lifting of sanctions would forfeit any leverage that could compel the regime to negotiate a deal that genuinely removes the danger of a nuclear Iran. At best, the regime will agree to cosmetic changes—for example, extending the sunset clauses—but not to dismantling its nuclear infrastructure. A fatally flawed deal would remain essentially intact.
The Biden administration must resist pressure from members of Congress and others who are urging an unconditional return to the JCPOA. Even the deal’s fervent supporters need to recognize that its fundamental assumptions—that Iran had abandoned its quest for a military nuclear option and would moderate its behavior—have been thoroughly disproved.
At the same time, America must consult its Middle East allies about what they think a better deal would look like. Such a deal would verifiably and permanently remove Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. This means not merely mothballing the nuclear infrastructure, but eliminating it. It means empowering international inspectors with unlimited and immediate access to any suspect enrichment or weaponization site. It means maintaining economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime until it truly comes clean about its undeclared nuclear activities and ceases to develop missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. A better deal will deny Iran the ability to commit the violations it is now committing with impunity.
Achieving these objectives will require close and candid cooperation among the United States, Israel, and concerned Arab states. Such cooperation was not possible in the negotiations leading up to the JCPOA, which America initially conducted behind the backs of its Middle Eastern partners. In the final stages, U.S. officials misled their Israeli and Arab counterparts about America’s negotiating positions. This displayed not only bad faith, but a patronizing presumption of knowing the vital security interests of the countries most threatened by Iran better than they knew those interests themselves.
The incoming administration has declared its determination to restore the trust of America’s allies, along with promoting peace and human rights. But those objectives are incompatible with renewing a deal that betrayed America’s allies, strengthened one of the world’s most repressive regimes, and empowered the Middle Eastern state most opposed to peace.
The JCPOA is also incompatible with President Biden’s long-standing commitment to Israel’s security.
At a 2015 gathering celebrating Israel’s independence, then–Vice President Biden said: “Israel is absolutely essential—absolutely essential—[for the] security of Jews around the world … Imagine what it would say about humanity and the future of the 21st century if Israel were not sustained, vibrant and free.”
Reviving the JCPOA will endanger that vision, ensuring the emergence of a nuclear Iran or a desperate war to stop it. Biden is a proven friend who has shared Israel’s hopes and fears. He must prevent that nightmare.