While we have been focusing on North Korea the Iran nuclear file bubbles underneath the surface, and sometimes that bubble breaches the surface.
Iran just had presidential elections where the reformist incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, was decisively reelected.
My view of Iran’s nuclear programme long has been that the thing to be concerned about was not, and is not, breakout, so much as a clandestine parallel nuclear fuel cycle. A lot of the discussion focuses on breakout scenarios, but if Iran goes nuclear it won’t be via breakout.
Briefly, breakout scenarios envisage a state breaking out from its non-proliferation obligations and using its capabilities to manufacture a nuclear weapon before decisive military action can fully prevent this. A parallel fuel cycle is a secret military nuclear fuel cycle sitting alongside a civilian one, perhaps under IAEA Safeguards, which develops a nuclear weapon or the capabilities to rapidly assemble one prior to countervailing action.
The latter is more rational than the former, given it poses less risks.
What kicked all this off was statements made by Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Oragnisation, stating that Iran has the capability to mass produce IR-8 centrifuges, but initially this was reported as Salehi saying that Iran will mass produce advanced centrifuges. There’s a difference there, and further nuanced is added into the mix when we consider that Salehi’s comments were made during the presidential election campaign.
The mass production of advanced centrifuges would lower breakout times, that is the time from kicking out the IAEA to bomb manufacture, because it enables the more rapid production of weapons grade uranium.
Now according to the latest IAEA verification report on Iran
At the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), 1044 IR-1 centrifuges have been maintained in one wing (Unit 2) of the facility (para. 46), of which 1042 IR-1 centrifuges have remained installed in six cascades and two IR-1 centrifuges have remained installed separately for the purpose of conducting “initial research and R&D activities related to stable isotope production”.21 Throughout the reporting period, Iran has not conducted any uranium enrichment or related research and development (R&D) activities, and there has not been any nuclear material at the plant (para. 45)
At the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz, there have been no more than 5060 IR-1 centrifuges installed in 30 cascades, which remain in the configurations in the operating units at the time the JCPOA was agreed (para. 27). Iran has withdrawn 48 IR-1 centrifuges from those held in storage14 for the replacement of damaged or failed IR-1 centrifuges installed at FEP (para. 29.1)…
…Iran has conducted its enrichment activities in line with its long-term enrichment and R&D enrichment plan, as provided to the Agency on 16 January 2016 (para. 52)
Overall on Research and Development
No enriched uranium has been accumulated through enrichment R&D activities, and Iran’s enrichment R&D with and without uranium has been conducted using centrifuges within the limits defined in the JCPOA (paras 32–42).
Therefore, according to the IAEA, Iran has provided an inventory of centrifuge rotor tubes and bellows, and it states that Iran has used its declared rotor tubes and bellows for activities consistent with the IAEA.
Let’s assume that what Salehi stated is true, namely that Iran has secretly worked on advanced centrifuge R&D, contra the JCPOA, to such an extent that it can mass produce advanced centrifuges which lowers breakout scenarios.
That would indicate that the main weakness of the JCPOA is one that analysts don’t focus on, namely the context in which it is couched. The United States, especially since the election of Trump, has upped the ante on Iran as can be seen with the anti-Iranian rhetoric, and certain actions such as the massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia, and a recent Congressional vote on economic sanctions. The United States sees Iran as a state that refuses to acquiesce to a system of power in the region framed around US hegemony, and it is Iran’s opposition to such an order that attracts Washington’s ire not its centrifuges. Iran’s strategic policy is built not upon aggression but rather deterrence, even its support for Assad in Syria derives from balance of power considerations not ideology, and increased US hostility provides a powerful incentive for Iran to hedge its nuclear bets.
What is being proposed by many essentially is this; that the United States continues to squeeze Iran, despite its reformist president, whilst at the same time demanding that Iran agree to even tighter restrictions under the JCPOA. Concerns about the JCPOA are not JCPOA centric. The objective is to use pressure on the JCPOA front to further squeeze Iran for its defiance of US policy in the region, which demonstrates that those most vocal on the JCPOA front aren’t really concerned about nuclear non-proliferation primarily. Hegemony ranks higher.
Looking at matters thus reports that neglect the framework within which the Iran nuclear file is couched are part of the problem not the solution.