The Iranian regime is boasting that it has broken through the uranium enrichment level stipulated in the Obama administration’s disastrous nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). A New York Times article on Monday referenced a claim by a spokesman for Iran’s atomic energy agency “that the country had surpassed a limit of 3.67 percent uranium enrichment and was prepared to go further.” ISNA, an Iranian news outlet, quoted the same spokesman as saying that Iran had already exceeded 4.5 percent and that “increasing number of centrifuges and enriching uranium to 20 percent are options for Iran’s third step in reducing its commitments to the nuclear deal.” It is only a short technical step from the 20 percent level to the nuclear weapons-grade level of 90 percent, according to nuclear nonproliferation experts. The speed with which Iran is moving to reverse its uranium enrichment commitments exposes the fatal flaw of the sunset clauses in the JCPOA. All that the JCPOA did was to kick the enrichment can down the road for a few years until the sunset clauses kick in, while Iran remained free to continue developing more advanced centrifuges, ballistic missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads, and explosive devices.
The Iranian regime says that its breaches of the uranium stockpiling limits and enrichment levels are in response to the crippling economic sanctions that the Trump administration has imposed on Iran following President Trump’s decision last year to withdraw the United States from the JCPOA. Iran is trying to apply pressure on the parties remaining in the JCPOA – particularly the United Kingdom, France and Germany – to find effective ways around the U.S. sanctions. The Europeans have tried to set up an end-run around the U.S. sanctions based on a bartering mechanism, but have made little progress. This has prompted Iran to set deadlines by which the Europeans must satisfy Iran’s demands or face Iran’s further incremental violations of the JCPOA. So far, the European nations are taking a wait-and-see attitude, holding back for now from re-imposing their previously lifted sanctions through the “snapback” provisions of the JCPOA.
The Trump administration shows no signs of relenting on its “maximum pressure” policy. Nor should it. Depriving Iran’s rulers of revenue, particularly through the sanctions imposed on its oil exports, means much less money they have available to conduct research and development into more advanced centrifuges, missile development and testing, explosive devices, and integration of nuclear warheads with missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons, not to mention its funding of terrorists.
Iran has been playing a shell game with its nuclear weapons program for years. Before Hassan Rouhani became Iran’s president, he had served as its chief nuclear negotiator with several European countries. He boasted in 2004 how Iran had managed to lull the Europeans with whom he was negotiating into a sense of calm while Iran significantly increased its centrifuge production capacity. “When we wanted to negotiate with the Europeans last year, we had something like 150 centrifuges,” Rouhani said back then, “but today we have about 500 centrifuges that are ready and operational. We could increase that number to 1,000. We would not have any problems, should we decide to do so. We have made good progress in this area.”
Now, having mastered centrifuge production and the uranium enrichment process, there is little doubt, based on its past history, that Iran has been playing its shell game once again. While lulling the international community with the JCPOA’s seemingly peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue, Iran is able to move forward with its development and testing of a nuclear explosive device and of technology enabling the integration of a nuclear warhead into a missile delivery vehicle capable of safe re-entry.
We know from the final assessment report of past nuclear-related activities conducted by Iran, released by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on December 2, 2015, that Iran had in the past worked on the development of a nuclear explosive device, including modeling and calculations related to nuclear explosive configurations. Iran refused to divulge any information regarding its modeling activities, claiming that it was none of the IAEA’s business. The IAEA also reported that some work had occurred producing components and mock up parts for engineering of a Shahab-3 (Iran’s medium-range ballistic missile) re-entry vehicle for a nuclear warhead.
The IAEA had to rely on information provided by Iran, which is like relying on an arsonist for an honest account of how the fire he set began. The IAEA's inspection of a location within the Parchin military complex, where high explosive testing related to the development of nuclear weapons had reportedly taken place, was considered crucial. Yet IAEA inspectors were limited to one building. Samplings for testing were conducted by Iranian technicians. The site itself appears to have been compromised by actions that Iran had previously taken to cover its tracks. The IAEA Director General and Deputy Director General for Safeguards observed during their visit to the site “recent signs of internal refurbishment, a floor with an unusual cross-section and a ventilation system which appeared incomplete,” according to the IAEA’s final assessment report.
Despite significant reasons to be concerned that Iran had not come completely clean about the nuclear-related work it had done, the IAEA board decided on December 15, 2015 to close its investigation into Iran's past weaponization activities, allowing the JCPOA’s provisions for up-front sanctions relief to be implemented. The board stated that it would henceforth be focused on monitoring and verifying Iran’s JCPOA compliance. Iran played along, reportedly making sure that its uranium stockpiling and enrichment activities remained within the limits set forth in the JCPOA. The IAEA repeatedly confirmed Iran’s compliance with these limits. However, while the IAEA was fixated on these shiny objects, Iran remained free to conduct secret research and development into nuclear explosive and missile integration technologies at Parchin and other undeclared military sites.
Iran has indicated that its military sites are off limits to the IAEA inspectors. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has admitted that when it comes to the IAEA’s capacity to check whether Iran was still conducting work on nuclear explosive device technology, which the JCPOA prohibits, his agency’s “tools are limited.”
Iran’s latest shell game has seemed to be working. Up until just recently the IAEA has given Iran a clean bill of health with regard to meeting its uranium enrichment commitments. High level Obama administration officials continue to claim that Iran’s leaders have acted like eagle scouts, only to be provoked by the Trump administration’s unilateral actions. “Iran was complying with the deal until the US pulled out and started violating its terms,” tweeted Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications.
All the while, the Iranian regime has made sure that the IAEA inspectors are blocked from freely visiting Iran’s military sites for unannounced inspections to verify that Iran was not working on developing nuclear explosive device technology. By blocking such inspections, Iran has been in violation of the JCPOA from the outset. Its steps to breach the JCPOA’s nuclear enrichment limitations brings out into the open its treachery, which deserves even harsher penalties than the Trump administration has imposed so far.