Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed he would never renegotiate another nuclear deal after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 accord last year. His regime, with encouragement from the Europeans, Russia, and China, believed that it could outlast mounting U.S. sanctions, holding out hope for a new president after the 2020 elections. But it is slowly dawning on the Iranian leaders that they may not be able to outlast Trump as sanctions continue to weaken the regime.
Under pressure, the Iranian regime is now attempting to engage in nuclear blackmail. The Islamic Republic announced it will enrich more low-enriched uranium, threatening to cross the lines to which it agreed in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The International Atomic Energy Agency has issued statements of concern, while a war of words has erupted between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Right now, the West has two options. It can rely on the old-fashioned non-proliferation methods, founded on IAEA monitoring and verification regimes such as the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, the Additional Protocol, and other related agreements. Or it could point to specific violations of the JCPOA.
Of course, the latter is no simple matter. Washington has already walked away from the deal. Even with clear evidence of Iranian violations of the JCPOA, the United States will have a hard time convincing the Europeans that the Iranian side failed to uphold the deal.
All eyes are now on the IAEA. This agency is charged with monitoring and verifying Iran’s nuclear activities, regardless of the JCPOA. The agency’s responsibility is to investigate all suspected nuclear sites, activities, and potential violators. If Iran is developing, or even previously developed, an illicit nuclear program, the board of governors of the IAEA must provide the facts of the case.
The atomic archive documents that Israel spirited out of Iran last year should provide the IAEA with some of those facts. These documents already led to some new U.S. sanctions. But the documents revealed potentially severe violations in terms of monitoring and verifying Iran’s nuclear activities. Admittedly, the violations happened in the past, but they were still violations. The challenge now is to focus on the materials used for conducting past tests, and to locate them. Indeed, the Iranian regime never declared them.
The IAEA must now do what the JCPOA could not: identify clear violations. This was one of the greatest problems of the nuclear deal. It was an ambiguous agreement that granted Iran tremendous leeway. Israeli officials tried to warn the P5+1 during the negotiation period, but the United States in particular was unmoved. The result was an agreement in which the signatories turned a blind eye to violations.
When Israelis took possession of Iran’s nuclear archive, they were able to prove that the regime in Iran had plans for full weaponization before signing the 2015 accord. Even after agreeing to the deal, the regime maintained plans to re-initiate the program in the future. The Europeans were unmoved by this, once again underscoring the inherent flaws of the JCPOA.
But the IAEA adheres to different standards. If even one gram of undeclared uranium or plutonium is discovered, even if it is evidence of a nuclear test from long ago, it is the responsibility of the IAEA to declare Iran in violation. Given the authority the IAEA holds, the Europeans cannot discount these findings.
Until now, the IAEA has been slow to point to alleged Iranian violations. The agency has been hindered by the inherent ambiguity of the language in the JCPOA. But on their “bread and butter” responsibilities — monitoring and verification — there is less ambiguity. The archive documents, with enough cajoling from Israel and the United States, could finally lead the nuclear watchdog to declare Iran in violation. This, along with continued U.S. sanctions and diplomatic pressure, could lead the regime in Iran to beg for another round of talks, particularly if the Europeans cease defending them.
If the pressure succeeds, the goal will be a new and improved agreement. Such an agreement will need to address the core weaknesses of the JCPOA. The goal must be to establish clear, new terms so that the current vagueness surrounding violations does not persist. A new deal should include all three elements of a nuclear program: fissile materials, weaponization, and means of delivery. Weaponization is very difficult to define and monitor, so it requires a catch-all plan that focuses on the regime’s past activities. The means of delivery, namely ballistic missiles, requires more than vaguely worded UN Security Council resolutions. And fissile materials should be completely banned and monitored by the IAEA in ways the agency is fit to handle.
In short, a new deal can only be achieved after the regime comes clean about its past, admits to previous violations, and declares its past inventory. Even then, it will not be enough. The JCPOA included dangerous sunset clauses, which expired over the course of a decade. Those must be addressed. Plus, the regime must commit to halting its regional aggression and terrorism, as articulated by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his “twelve points” last year.
Some might say Pompeo’s twelve points are tantamount to regime change. Of course, the Trump administration denies that this is the goal. Nonetheless, the Iranian regime is groaning under the weight of American policy, presenting new opportunities for a new agreement that would finally allow for the IAEA to do its job.
Brigadier General (Res.) Professor Jacob Nagel is a visiting professor at the Technion and a visiting fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). He previously served as the head of Israel’s National Security Council and as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor (acting). The views expressed are the author’s own.