The Iran Nuclear Deal Is Working as Written—Just a Decade Faster

Better to deal with the resultant crisis now than later

Uranium conversion facility outside Isfahan, Iran / Getty Images
September 6, 2019

Iran has officially abandoned all of its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal concerning research and development. The country's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Thursday informed Federica Mogherini, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs, of the decision in a letter.

While Tehran has not detailed what specific steps it will take, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is expected to provide a more substantive announcement on Friday or Saturday.

Still, it is already clear Iran will ramp up its development of advanced centrifuges, which enrich uranium much faster than the older models Iran currently uses, in violation of the nuclear deal. "We will witness research and development on different kinds of centrifuges and new centrifuges, and also whatever is needed for enriching uranium in an accelerated way," Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday.

The nuclear accord temporarily restricts Iran's ability to build and operate advanced centrifuges, which would allow Tehran to produce more enriched uranium with fewer machines—a fact that, experts have warned, could make it easier for the regime to hide illicit nuclear activity.

Iran's latest violation of the deal came after the regime said it breached two other key provisions. The nuclear agreement, which President Trump withdrew from last year, allowed Iran to store 300 kilograms of uranium. Iran confirmed in July it exceeded that limit. Also in July, Tehran said it began to enrich its stored uranium beyond the low concentration of 3.67 percent, the maximum level permitted under the deal.

Despite what Western media are reporting, however, these three breaches are not Iran's only violations of the deal. Even before July, Iran operated more advanced centrifuges than are permitted by the accord. Moreover, the regime refused to grant international inspections of nuclear research and military facilities; exceeded the limits of heavy water, which is used in nuclear reactors to help produce plutonium; attempted to buy illicit nuclear and missile technology, according to German intelligence; and never dismantled the Arak nuclear facility in central Iran to the point of being inoperable. But, most important, Israel exposed how Iran kept troves of secret files concerning its nuclear program, some of which showed the regime planned to build nuclear bombs. That Iranian leaders kept and hid such information suggests they were planning to use it later. This would violate one of the deal's first sentences: "Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons." Why would someone with no intention of building nuclear weapons preserve and hide plans to build nuclear weapons?

No one should get excited at the prospect of Iran nearing the threshold of obtaining nuclear weapons, or at the thought of the United States and Israel considering military strikes to thwart Iran's progress. But the harsh—and somewhat ironic—reality is that, even if Trump never scrapped the deal and Iran abided by it, the same situation would result as is unfolding today. Indeed, the nuclear deal is not collapsing. In a strange way, it is working as written—just a decade faster.

Under the deal, key restrictions on Iran's nuclear program expire over the next 12 years—the so-called sunset clauses. Beginning in 2026, Tehran is free to enrich uranium using advanced centrifuges and to install and operate more of its older models. In 2031, restrictions on the amount and level of enriched uranium that Iran can stockpile disappear. So, after these two dates, Iran will be able to build as large of a nuclear program as it wants—while enjoying relief from sanctions, if the United States were in the deal.

In other words, Iran is doing now in violation of the deal what it will soon be able to do with the international community's blessing. Either way, the result is the same.

Only, if the deal were allowed to hold with America's participation and Iran's compliance, then Tehran would be more powerful and the United States and its allies would have fewer options with which to respond. Consider several of the nuclear deal's other expiration dates. In 2025, for example, the "snapback" provision, under which sanctions by the United Nations would be reimposed should Iran violate the deal, will end. New sanctions would require the U.N. Security Council to pass another resolution, which China or Russia would likely veto. Today, France, Britain, and other countries still in the deal could invoke this provision to punish Iran for its violations. None of them will, of course, but it's good to have the option. The expirations do not end there. In 2023, Iran will have an easier time acquiring components and technology for its ballistic-missile program, the key for Tehran delivering nuclear bombs, with the lifting of a U.N. ban on assisting Iran's missile program. The U.N. ban on Iranian arms imports and exports is set to expire in 2020 under the deal.

When the deal effectively ends in about a decade, the president's only real option to stop or delay an Iranian nuclear bomb would be military strikes—against a stronger Iran more capable of defending itself.

Critics may counter that anything could happen in the next 10 or 12 years—maybe the regime falls or moderates, or perhaps Iran and its negotiating partners extend the sunset clauses—to achieve a different outcome and make it worth preserving the deal. The argument sounds good on the surface, but dig a little deeper and it crumbles. American leaders cannot base their policy toward Iran on a gamble that the regime may fall. Historically, the United States has been remarkably bad at predicting revolutions and other internal convulsions abroad—the CIA, after all, assessed Iran was "not in a revolutionary or even a 'prerevolutionary' situation" one year before the Iranian revolution.

The notion that, through international engagement and economic interdependence, the regime will moderate has always been popular in the West. It was essentially the Obama administration's view and remains the view of western European leaders. It is also deeply misguided, based on a naïve worldview rather than empirical evidence. Everyone in the regime, from technocratic pragmatists like Rouhani to the conservative hard-liners in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, shares the same objectives: to ensure the Islamic Republic's survival and to bring about its preeminence in the Middle East. Disagreements within the regime are merely tactical squabbles about how to achieve a shared vision.

The problem with extending the sunset clauses is simple: What incentive would Iran have to renegotiate if the United States is in the deal and the accord continues? Tehran could wait a few years and be able to enrich uranium and operate advanced centrifuges at alarming rates without consequence. There would be no reason for Iran to extend the sunset clauses; its nuclear program would be legitimate and massive when they end, allowing the regime to threaten to build a weapon or, if it wants, offer to negotiate and accept a completely one-sided deal in its favor.

At this point, the only realistic way to renegotiate the nuclear deal—and thus to prevent further escalation and possible conflict—is to force Iran back to negotiations through maximum pressure. That means crippling sanctions; the credible threat, and willingness to use, military force if need be to counter Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions; and supporting the Iranian people, who suffer every day under the regime's boot.

Many people will decry exerting maximum pressure as too provocative, a path to conflict. But these same voices are decrying the current situation, worried that Iran's breaches of the nuclear deal could lead to war unless the United States rejoins the accord. The problem is that these exact dynamics will exist if the deal survives, just under worse conditions for Washington. A nuclear crisis is coming with Iran. The outcome may be another negotiated agreement, or perhaps violence. No one knows. But is it not better to face that day now than later? Unfortunately, that is the situation we face—not because Trump withdrew from the deal, but because Iran's murderous regime has operated an illegal nuclear program for decades.