In his final weeks in office, outgoing US President Donald Trump is insisting on leaving his mark on the United States’ Middle East policy. Since Iran is still high on his priority list, when Trump’s adviser Jared Kushner tried to reconcile Qatar and Saudi Arabia in his latest visit to the region, keeping up pressure on Iran was one of the reasons. Trump wants the myriad of sanctions and pressure on Iran, which will continue during his final days in office, to complicate President-elect Joe Biden’s objective of re-engaging Iran on its nuclear program.
But this is not all, trying to prevent Iran from getting tens of millions of dollars from Qatar for flying through its airspace is just a minor detail if compared with the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh that rocked Tehran. In Iran’s view, Israel could not do this without the United States’ blessing, and therefore among the first casualties of the assassination — other than Fakhrizadeh — was the will to engage with the new administration, which was expressed earlier by Iranian officials.
Following the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian parliament approved Dec. 1 a bill that would suspend UN inspections of its nuclear facilities and require the government to boost its uranium enrichment to 20% if the 2015 Iran deal partners do not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions in a month’s time.
That bill was reviewed by the Guardian Council and returned back to the parliament to amend the period to two months, in a move that was likely intended to give Biden — and even the Iranian government — some time to act. For Tehran, it is either the resumption of the nuclear deal and Iran getting its benefits, or parting with the international community and starting a new path that no one knows where it might end.
Yet the government has come out against the motion, with President Hassan Rouhani arguing that it will harm the country's diplomatic efforts. As recently as Dec. 9 the Iranian president made clear his intent to rejoin the accord as soon as Washington does so. "All it takes is a signature [from Biden], and in no time we will all be back at where we used to be," he said.
Despite Rouhani's objection to the bill suspending inspections, it could be in the government’s favor whether or not quick steps are taken by the White House to restore the pre-May 2018 status of the nuclear deal. With the Guardian Council amending the period to two months, the most conservative body in the Islamic Republic is tweaking the message to Biden, in what could be described as an act of aggressive pragmatism that is aimed at getting a quick answer from Washington: it is either the old deal or no deal.
This was later expressed by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who told the Rome Mediterranean Dialogues 2020 on Dec. 3 that if the Biden administration wants to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, it must do so with no preconditions. Zarif said, “The United States exited the JCPOA but they did not exit the UN; as a member of the UN they have responsibilities.” He called on the United States as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to adhere to Resolution 2231.
Zarif made it clear that the Iranian official stance is that “the United States has commitments and that they are not in a position to set conditions in order to implement those commitments.”
Thus, Iran as an establishment is willing to engage as far as the United States is willing to return without preconditions to the nuclear deal; this would also have implications on the chances of a moderate candidate having chances in winning the next presidential election that is planned for June 2021. Still, any president in Tehran will have to deal with an ultra-conservative parliament that is likely to create a lot of headaches, whether or not the path of engagement is restored.
If the two months pass and the United States has not done anything, the government is obliged to adopt the bill; hence, Iran’s nuclear program is going to be for the time out of control, with a Principlist parliament, and the very possibility of a Principlist candidate winning the election. This does not kill the possibility of a future engagement, but until then the determinants of the nuclear program are expected to change and, given previous experience, the program might reach a new milestone.
Past experience shows that Iran — after each failed deal — jumped from one level to another in its nuclear program. In 2003, Iran had a limited number of centrifuges, besides loads of research that could take them in different directions. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that Iran had its plans then ready for a military program while Iran denies. The engagement with the EU3, along with the regional situation after the occupation of Afghanistan and later Iraq, the willingness of the Reformist-led government in Tehran altogether led to the signing of the October 2003 Saad Abad deal.
The failure of the 2003 Saad Abad deal created a new reality. In 2005, just after the inauguration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran headed toward a new level of nuclear development, and added more centrifuges and was now insistent on enriching uranium inside Iran. With one round of talks after another, nothing solid was reached, but Iran announced that it reached the full nuclear cycle, and by 2009, engagement came to an end. Iran’s nuclear program recorded an unprecedented hike with uranium enrichment hitting 20%. The number of centrifuges increased from mere hundreds to over 19,000 at the beginning of the 2012 secret talks in Oman.
According to former US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking on July 14, 2015, after announcing the deal, Iran was a year away from building a bomb should it abandon the accord and race for a weapon — what is also called the “breakout time.”
Given the steps Iran took during the past couple of years, following Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the breakout time might once again have decreased.
Iran’s argument for not seeking a bomb is that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa that forbade the production and using any form of weapon of mass destruction. However, given the past experience, the next step for the Iranian nuclear program if there is no binding deal would be reaching the nuclear threshold state; hence, any future deal with Iran would be far more expensive than that of July 2015.