The 2015 agreement to restrain the Islamic State’s nuclear program—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—promised to keep the ayatollahs at least a year away from being able to produce a bomb for the subsequent fifteen years. While the JCPOA was deeply flawed, the new version currently being negotiated in Vienna is apt to achieve even less. In a clear explication of the technical details, Andrea Stricker writes:
Why can’t a revised JCPOA push Iran’s breakout time back up to twelve months? The answer revolves around gas centrifuges, the machines integral to the process of enriching uranium. Iran’s centrifuges have continually grown in number and capability. The JCPOA did not stop this advance, and the Iranian regime has ruled out additional restrictions.
Prior to the JCPOA, the breakout time was a matter of weeks. The JCPOA temporarily increased Iran’s breakout time by limiting the size of its stockpile of enriched uranium and constraining the purity level of uranium the regime could produce. The deal also put temporary restrictions on the regime’s use of faster centrifuges—initially, Tehran could only use its slowest model, the IR-1. Since the clerical regime began openly violating the accord in mid-2019, its breakout time has dropped back to a similar range.
Iran was able to reduce its breakout time so quickly because the JCPOA did not force it to discard or destroy its more advanced centrifuges, it required only that they be put in storage. The machines were kept under international monitoring but remained available for rapid deployment at a time of the regime’s choosing. Moreover, Iran could likely have redeployed these machines in only a few months. As part of any new deal, the Biden administration and its European allies will reportedly permit Tehran to retain in storage—not destroy—hundreds of new advanced centrifuges it produced in violation of the JCPOA.
By 2031, when all JCPOA restrictions on uranium enrichment terminate, the deal itself will have paved Iran’s pathway to the nuclear threshold. Thus, any “JCPOA-minus” that the Biden administration finalizes ultimately does little to address the Islamic Republic’s nuclear threat.