The world knows that the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) never ended -- or even intended to end -- Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. The ticking clocks you hear denote a race between America and its allies pursuing the destruction of Iran's nuclear weapons program on the one hand, and Iran's sprint to the bomb and an umbrella of terror on the other. (Image source: iStock)
In 2013, Danny Danon, Israel's Deputy Defense Minister, warned that Iran was speedily moving to develop advanced centrifuges that will enable it to enrich uranium needed for nuclear weapons within one month. "We have made it crystal clear ," Danon said, "Israel will not stand by and watch Iran develop weaponry that will put us, the entire Middle East and eventually the world, under an Iranian umbrella of terror."
This concern was shared by the United States and thus, in 2015, a nuclear agreement -- the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) -- was made between the United States, along with Russia, China, France, Great Britain and Germany, and supposedly Iran, which never signed the deal. Ostensibly Iran would give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons and the U.S. would withdraw its economic sanctions.
Iran, of course, had no intention of giving up its pursuit of nuclear weapons; contrary to what JCPOA supporters claimed, the Iranians, even under the JCPOA deal, could continue pursuing their quest for nuclear capability. This "loophole" was clear especially after it was revealed the Obama administration had conceded that Iran had a right to enrich uranium, which is not required for "peaceful" nuclear energy.
It cannot therefore be a surprise that Iran is still sprinting toward deliverable nuclear weapons with the very uranium enrichment technology permitted by the 2015 agreement. While the U.S. Senate was told the deal would halt Iran's pursuit of nuclear weaponry, the deal only camouflaged the mullahs' ambitions to acquire it.
Worse, when the deal's provisions were to sunset this decade, Iran would have been free to acquire full nuclear capability without pretending it was not.
At the time of the 2015 deal, the Obama administration warned that Iran was probably a year way from having enough nuclear material to fashion a bomb. Now, it is reported by David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) that until recently, Iran was no more than one or two months away from a nuclear weapons capability.
Some people take solace in the partial destruction of the building at Natanz that housed many of Iran's centrifuges, in which a mysterious explosion occurred in early July. Although ISIS says the damage is serious, other sources say the hall underneath the building, where the centrifuges are located, was not destroyed.
The Natanz facility, which was finished in 2018, was to mass-produce thousands of advanced centrifuges for nuclear weapons fuel production. It took six years for the building to be completed; it is important to remember that Iran was building its major nuclear weapons capability all during the negotiations that led up to the JCPOA deal and for three years afterward.
As the United States, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel have argued all this time, Iran's Islamic rulers never gave up their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Obviously, somebody took these arguments seriously: Natanz, a key facility in the Iranian nuclear program, was likely bombed. Some experts say to rebuild the facility will take upwards of two years, while others say the nuclear program is only delayed by a few months. The latter opinion is supported by the fact that Iran maintains numerous complexes for nuclear weapons work and, as noted, the centrifuge hall under Natanz is said to remain intact.
Throughout all this, critics still maintain that the United States policy of "maximum pressure" is what drives the Iranians to accelerate their quest for nuclear weapons.
Their solution? The U.S. should rejoin the JCPOA!
Such arguments fall apart for a number of reasons. First, the Iranians have never given up their pursuit of nuclear weapons: they never complied with the JCPOA from its start. Second, as USAF General and former CIA Director Michael Hayden explained, the JCPOA actually allowed Iran to build an "industrial strength nuclear program" with a capability that served no other purpose than to allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon in a matter of months. And third, the "maximum pressure" campaign seems to be working, and working so well that it drove the Iranians to make a fateful decision: sprint to a nuclear weapon and risk being found out -- or suffer further economic deterioration that would eventually bankrupt Iran and threaten the survivability of the regime.
The mullahs obviously chose to continue their sprint to a bomb. They enriched more uranium, refused IAEA inspections for military sites where nuclear work was done, illegally sought nuclear technology from Germany, and expanded their violations of the JCPOA, all the while trying to keep the U.S. military at bay and enticing the Europeans to increase investment and trade.
The strategy might have worked: the White House is reluctant to go to war in an election year, even if the U.S. could destroy the entire Iranian nuclear weapons program. After America tried regime change in Iraq to eliminate Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, "not again" became the Pentagon watchword. With U.S. military leaders remaining wary of an escalation of rising tensions between Iran and the United States, the mullahs are counting on U.S. restraint to shield them from attack.
U.S. restraint is one thing, but what about the friends of the United States? In 1981, for instance, the Israelis destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq with a perilous long-range air attack without air-to-air refueling. Then, in September 2007, the Israelis destroyed a nuclear reactor in Syria that was being built by North Korea and paid for with Iranian cash.
In short, the U.S. may not need to end Iran's nuclear weapons program by "going to war," the argument used by JCPOA supporters who said that the U.S. had a choice either to agree to a flawed nuclear deal (even one allowing Iran eventually to get nuclear weapons) or go to war. A better choice is to recognize that the United States has allies that could get the job done, such as an Israeli government that understands how to deal with difficult military problems, and a Saudi Arabia willing to help with matters such as over-flight permission and airfield use to refuel returning airplanes.
The Iranian leadership knows this. They understand they are facing an alliance of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel, all of which see the JCPOA as a dangerous failure. The mullahs also know that all the Middle East allies need to "get the job done" is an American green light.
As a result of that understanding, current events, and sanctions, Iran is seeking to be rescued by China. Although first explored in 2016, and to a degree previewed last year, the Iranian government has now formalized a new historic deal with China. In exchange for hundreds of billions of dollars in promised investment, Iran is promising cheap oil for 25 years and access to the Persian Gulf for military facilities and bases.
As one analyst put it, Iran is "selling its soul to China," apparently giving up on Europe to provide enough investment to prop up its economy. China is buying time for Iran. Perhaps China believes that its presence in the region will persuade the United States to show "restraint."
The United States should not take the bait. It is clear that Iran is "crossing important [nuclear] thresholds that dangerously reduce its breakout time" to anywhere from two to four months, according to John Hannah of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Combined with IAEA concerns over the equipment and nuclear material at two sites targeted for inspection but denied access by Iran, it is obvious the nuclear weapons threat from Iran is only getting worse. In addition, in April, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), launched a military satellite into orbit. It was no doubt a prelude to a nuclear-armed missile being launched.
The prospects ahead are possibly dark. A change in U.S. administration may likely see a return to the JCPOA, an end to sanctions and maximum pressure, and an Iranian sense of having won a major struggle with the "Great Satan." That is not a prospect American allies in the Middle East want to accept. The United States should not risk waiting, either.
The world knows that the JCPOA never ended -- or even intended to end -- Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. The ticking clocks you hear denote a race between America and its allies pursuing the destruction of Iran's nuclear weapons program on the one hand, and Iran's sprint to the bomb and an umbrella of terror on the other.
Peter Huessy is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute. He is also senior consulting analyst at Ravenna Associates, a strategic communications company.