By Sam Hickey
On January 5, Iran announced it will breach the limits imposed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the number of centrifuges it installs. Despite the headlines claiming Iran abandoned the deal, the reality is more nuanced. While Iran is no longer abiding by any operational restrictions on its nuclear program, Iran retains the ability to reverse course. Going forward, it will be important to pay closer attention to Iran’s actions, rather than its rhetoric. So far, Tehran has not kicked out international nuclear inspectors, nor has it significantly increased its enrichment levels or production capacity. That seems to indicate that there is a small, but real path away from potential conflict. Here’s what you need to know about Iran’s latest announcement.
- Iran did not fully abandon the nuclear deal. Iran’s ambiguous statement claims its program will now “be developed solely based on its technical needs,” which does leave the deal in its most precarious position yet. However, Iran said it would restore all of its commitments under the deal, if the United States acts in kind. The door remains open for diplomatic action to save the deal, but Iran is retaining the ominous threat of increasing its proximity to a nuclear weapon capability. The number of centrifuges and the type Iran installs will significantly impact Iran’s “breakout time” (you can read more about the misconceptions of Iran’s “breakout time” here).
- Iran’s announcement was unrelated to the United States’ targeted killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Solemani. Iran has been incrementally stepping back from its obligations under the deal, in 60-day intervals, since May 2019, and even casual observers of Iran’s nuclear program expected another announcement of some kind on January 5. The progression was as follows: first, Iran exceeded its enriched uranium stockpile; second, Iran began enriching to a higher purity; third, Iran started using advanced centrifuges; fourth, Iran began injecting gas into the centrifuges at the underground facility of Fordow; fifth, Iran is now installing more centrifuges than is allowed under the deal.
- Iran did not significantly reduce its “breakout time.” Prior to the JCPOA, Iran’s breakout time — the amount of time it would take to accumulate enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon — was only 2-3 months. After the JCPOA, this timeline was increased to about 12 months. Neither of these timelines include the time it would take to design, manufacture, or assemble the bomb’s components or the nuclear weapon itself. In this most recent announcement, Iran did not elect to increase its enrichment capacity, nor did it decide to jack up its production capacity. Either of these announcements would have increased Iran’s proximity to a nuclear weapon.
- International nuclear inspectors are still on the ground. Iran is still provisionally implementing the Additional Protocol and is cooperating with nuclear inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog. So far, there has been no announcement that the continuous monitoring of Iran’s enrichment levels or production capacity would cease, so the international community is in a very strong position to affirm Iran is not pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program.
- Iran’s violations can be reversed. Iran breached what it called “the last key component of its operational limitations” by surpassing the limit on the number of centrifuges imposed under the JCPOA. This move is remarkably measured and is entirely reversible, which is in line with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s tweet describing the fifth and final violation as “remedial.” Centrifuges can be uninstalled and stored in sealed containers, but while active they increase Iran’s capacity to ramp up its enrichment operations if Iran’s nuclear doctrine shifts again.