March 30, 2022 | Policy Brief

Administration’s Iran Nuclear Deal Claims Do Not Stand Up to Reality

March 30, 2022 | Policy Brief

Administration’s Iran Nuclear Deal Claims Do Not Stand Up to Reality

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said during a press briefing last week that President Joe Biden seeks to put Iran’s atomic program “back in the box after President Trump let it out of the box when he left the deal in 2018.” However, the reported provisions of the deal that Biden’s team is negotiating in Vienna would hardly box in Tehran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program.

First of all, the U.S. withdrawal from the previous nuclear deal in 2018 did not let Iran’s nuclear program out of the box. Under the original deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), Iran never had to submit to intrusive inspections of sensitive military sites and sought to conceal a nuclear archive that Israel’s Mossad later exfiltrated.

Next, Sullivan is wrong to attribute the rapid advance of Iran’s nuclear program to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. Until Biden’s election in November 2020, Tehran undertook only incremental violations in response to the U.S. withdrawal. Iran’s major advances, such as enriching uranium to 60 percent purity and manufacturing uranium metal, occurred after Biden was elected in November 2020 on a platform of reviving the JCPOA and lifting sanctions on Iran.

In defense of the new deal being negotiated in Vienna, administration officials have pointed out that it would restore a 300 kilogram cap on the amount of enriched uranium Iran can stockpile, as well as limit the enrichment of uranium to no more than 3.67 percent purity. While true, this misses the more important point that under the prospective deal, Tehran’s so-called breakout time — the amount of time required to produce one atomic bomb’s worth of fissile material — would never exceed seven months and would then drop almost to zero over the duration of the updated JCPOA.

While the Obama administration said the original JCPOA increased Iran’s breakout time to 12 months, an independent assessment put the number closer to seven. The reported provisions of the revised JCPOA would place even fewer restraints on Iran’s breakout time than the original deal. Israel reportedly estimates that Tehran’s breakout time under a new deal would initially reach just four to six months. This limits the response time available to the United States and its allies in the event Tehran attempts to cross the nuclear threshold.

The new deal’s insufficient breakout time reflects the reported decision by U.S. negotiators to permit the clerical regime to keep in storage more than 2,000 advanced centrifuges that can quickly enrich uranium to weapons-grade purity. This loophole is significant: If the regime diverted just 650 of its fastest centrifuges to a clandestine enrichment plant, it could break out to nuclear weapons on short order.

Moreover, Iran’s inventory of advanced centrifuges will only continue to grow. As part of a side accord to the original JCPOA that is expected to remain as part of the new deal, Iran is allowed to manufacture up to 400 additional advanced centrifuges per year starting in 2024, more than doubling its existing capacity by 2029. At that point, all limits on production of advanced centrifuges would terminate. Thus, Iran’s breakout time would be down to a matter of weeks by January 2031, when the deal ends.

Despite all the above provisions that clear the way for Iran to expand its nuclear program, administration officials have claimed that the JCPOA would render Tehran “permanently and verifiably prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” In fact, even if the Islamic Republic complied with every provision of the deal being negotiated in Vienna, it would emerge in less than a decade with an industrial-sized nuclear enrichment program and minimal breakout time.

In exchange for these temporary and deficient restrictions on its nuclear program, Iran will receive extensive sanctions relief under a revised JCPOA, including immediate access to tens of billions of dollars of foreign assets now beyond its reach. The administration owes the American people — and Washington’s regional partners — factual answers about how this accord meets their interests.

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s Iran Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Andrea, the Iran Program, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_Iran and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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