Perspective 57. Leaving the Iranian Nuclear Deal: A Mistake?
As negotiations to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran flounder, the opponents of the original agreement ought to be happy. If the deal was a mistake, why revive it? But was it a mistake?
No. With all its limitations the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action presented the best opportunity to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons without resort to military action -- that is, given Iran's ability to retaliate, without a major Middle Eastern war.
In perspective, the nuclear deal took away most of the enriched uranium Iran would need to make a weapon. Weapons require uranium enriched to 90 percent. The Iranians had produced a considerable amount of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent and some to 20 percent, enough for several bombs if it were further enriched.
Under the agreement, the latter was entirely removed and the former was reduced by 97 percent, under tight international supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
This meant that Iran's "break-out time" -- the time required to produce a critical mass of weapon-grade uranium if Iran dropped all pretenses and went all-out -- was lengthened to about a year. Iran would still need a year or two to actually put a bomb together, but acquiring the critical mass is the main bottleneck and thus the focus of anti-proliferation efforts.
But the Iranians used the U.S. exit from the deal as an excuse for violating its terms. They have enriched some uranium to the 60 percent level, and some experts now estimate the break-out time as three weeks!
Iran has also curbed some IAEA inspections, so we can't even be confident that this dismal projection tells all the bad news.
Those who cheered Trump's exit from the deal have yet to explain how this move served the almost universal interest in denying nuclear weapons to Iran. Former Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon, who opposed the deal, has admitted that leaving it was even worse than the deal itself (so maybe the deal wasn't that bad after all?)
The Iranians have come to the negotiations with a number of impossible demands. This may be simply a case of Middle Eastern bargaining at its most ruthless, or it may be that the Iranian regime really doesn't understand how this pushes the other side to drastic measures.
The top U.S. commander in the Middle East has stated openly that a military option is ready. There has been speculation that the U.S. might give Israel a 30,000 pound "Bunker Buster" that would even devastate the fortified mountain where Iran's most sensitive nuclear facilities are located.
Or -- if Iran continues to make problems about going back to the original agreement -- perhaps the other six signatories (which include Russia and China) could go back to the original sanctions which, thanks to almost-universal support, brought Iranians to the table in the first place. There has been surprisingly little mention of this possible way out.
Otherwise prospects look increasingly bleak.