As war rages on in Ukraine, diplomacy is on the cusp of prevailing in Vienna. Against the odds, negotiators are poised to revive the Iran nuclear agreement and block Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon—a crucial U.S. interest. According to officials who are familiar with the draft of the agreement circulated in Europe and Tehran in the latter half of August, Iran will once more give up its stockpile of enriched uranium, apart from 300 kilograms enriched at lower levels. It will also cease all enrichment above 3.67 percent and remove thousands of advanced centrifuges from operation. Iran will also have no pathway to a plutonium-based nuclear weapon. Perhaps most important, its nuclear program will once more be fully open to intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.
If the agreement is formally adopted, it will mark a significant breakthrough for U.S. national security and stability in the Middle East. Instead of contending with Iran inching closer to a bomb, the United States can now look forward to having the Iranian nuclear program in a box at least for the next two years. The aftermath of Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the original 2015 agreement, when Iran returned to a rapid expansion of its nuclear program and came closer than ever to having the material for a nuclear weapon, clearly shows that the United States is better off with the deal than without it. But as it currently stands, the new iteration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) will be precarious at best.
Critics will contend that the new deal is shorter and weaker rather than longer and stronger. Some of these arguments have merit. Iran’s breakout capability—the amount of time it will take for Tehran to amass the material for a nuclear bomb—will be six to nine months rather than the original 12 months. Still, from a nonproliferation standpoint, even a half year is vastly superior to Tehran’s current breakout capability of roughly a few days. And whereas the original JCPOA contained restrictions of up to 20 years on Iran’s nuclear program, the revived deal may last only as long as a Democrat is in the White House, since key Republican leaders have already publicly committed to killing the deal if a Republican is elected in 2024.
Yet the main reasons why the new JCPOA is more fragile are not internal to the deal but external. There is now deepened mistrust, both in Tehran and in other capitals around the world, about Washington’s ability to uphold international agreements. The current U.S. and Iranian political leaderships also have few domestic incentives to move beyond their shared enmity. As a result, the new Iran deal may come into existence in a strategic context that reduces rather than bolsters its longevity. Still, both sides can take steps to address these concerns and make the deal more durable. If they do not, even this historic breakthrough could be merely a precursor to an even more dangerous crisis.
Read the full piece in Foreign Affairs.