The Post-Post-JCPOA World
Statements by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his minions make it clear that the Biden administration is close to a new nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic. Terms are not yet known, and the administration may not be straightforward about revealing them. And understandings with the clerical regime have a way of dissipating or being unilaterally reinterpreted by the mullahs. The administration may not yet release billions of dollars in hard currency and allow Iran to sell oil and repatriate funds unfettered. But the White House, which has been signaling its unwillingness to use armed force against the Islamic Republic yet wants to do something about the clerical regime’s increasing stockpile of highly enriched uranium, has agreed to something that left the supreme leader and senior Iranian officials somewhat gleeful. Khamenei has blessed these proceedings, as he did in 2013, but with far less back and forth that allowed him to endorse and disown proceedings that put American and Iranian officials distastefully close to one another. It certainly appears that he views these talks as less compromising, which isn’t a good sign.
Such optimistic good cheer undoubtedly means one thing: The White House hasn’t demanded that Iran halt, or perhaps even slow, the development of advanced centrifuges. The more advanced these machines are, the faster that smaller cascades can produce highly enriched uranium. Smaller cascades are also easier to hide or bury deep underground or within burrowed mountains. Exporting surplus enriched uranium to Russia, which may be part of a new agreement, doesn’t mean much when ever-more efficient centrifuges can produce bomb-grade fuel quickly.
Since Donald Trump abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018, Iran has produced advanced centrifuges more rapidly than the MIT-educated Ali Salehi, the former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, once envisioned. For Salehi, who remains a close adviser to Khamenei, the original accord’s sunsetting restrictions on centrifuge development dovetailed with the expected time required to produce more efficient machines. He argued billions of dollars in sanctions relief and trade in exchange for short-term, limited nuclear restrictions was a win-win for Iran. Khamenei agreed. Donald Trump did, too. (It remains unclear whether Trump primarily opposed the JCPOA because of its defects or because Barack Obama birthed it.)
The Biden White House will likely now content itself with massive sanctions relief in exchange for a halt to 60 percent uranium enrichment—bomb-grade is 90 percent. Biden may well allow Iran to stockpile 20 percent enriched uranium, which is an ideal feeding stock to produce Uranium-235 quickly. Twenty percent was prohibited under the JCPOA.