BICOM Special Digest: Iran and the nuclear talks

In light of the the return to nuclear talks in Vienna and visits this week to the US by Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Mossad head David Barnea, this BICOM special digest brings you three voices on Iran and the JCPOA talks: a UK-based Middle East expert from Chatham House, a former Washington policy advisor, and a former head of the Iran desk in IDF intelligence.

We also bring you an extended analysis by Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former director in the IDF Intelligence Research Department and currently a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, published here for the first time in English.

The BICOM Podcast

NEW: Episode 168 | From Vienna to Tehran – Samuel Nurding speaks with Dr Sanam Vakil. Sanam is the Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, where she leads project work on Iran and the Gulf.

Episode 167 | Understanding Iran with a former IDF intelligence officer – Major (res.) Danny Citrinowicz, former head of the Iran file in the IDF’s Military Intelligence Unit and IDF representative at the Israeli embassy in Washington

Episode 166 | Will Iran and the US return to the JCPOA nuclear deal? – Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Controlling our Own Fate? The Problematic Course Being Charted by Israel, by Yossi Kuperwasser

Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Yossi Kuperwasser served as director in the IDF Intelligence Research Department and is currently a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. This piece, published for the first time in English,  was originally published in Hebrew by Mako/Channel 12 News and by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on 16 November 2021.


Ahead of the resumption of nuclear talks between Iran and the world powers in Vienna, and upon US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley’s visit to Israel and several Arab countries, everyone engaged with the Iranian nuclear programme is facing difficult dilemmas. They need to decide whether they would prefer a return to the 2015 JCPOA, which has advantages and disadvantages; whether they wish to seek a better agreement; or whether they are prepared to deal with the new reality that has begun to unfold, in which Iran continues to inch closer to becoming a nuclear threshold state with every passing day. Namely, a country that can transition within a very short period of time to manufacturing a sufficient quantity of military-grade enriched uranium (usually, over 90 per cent) for a deliverable nuclear device (either a warhead or a bomb).

In the initial stage, it is Iran and the US that will have to decide on those dilemmas. Iran’s goal is to arm itself with a nuclear arsenal safely and swiftly since it views an arsenal of that kind as being essential to guaranteeing its status and for continuing to export the Islamic revolution. Despite the serious damage that the American sanctions have caused Iran, Tehran has been reluctant thus far to re-enter the original JCPOA and has demanded several changes to it. The central change that the Iranians want is a guarantee that the US will not be able to withdraw once again from the agreement in the future, as President Trump did, even after Biden is out of office.

A second Iranian condition is for the US to lift all sanctions that have been imposed on Iran in the time since the JCPOA went into effect, including sanctions that are unrelated to nuclear activity. The Iranian message is that if the US adamantly refuses to accept the first condition, Iran will choose to continue to edge forward to becoming a nuclear threshold state despite the risks that doing so entails.

Presumably, the top tiers of the new Iranian government, in which the pragmatists (such as the former president, Rouhani, or the former foreign minister, Zarif) have less of a say, will increasingly come to argue in favour of taking that risk, which they do not believe to be particularly considerable, and to forge ahead. After all, Iran is already on the cusp of becoming a nuclear threshold state, and it was able to alleviate the economic pain caused by sanctions thanks to Chinese aid and belt-tightening. Presumably, the Iranian officials who advocate taking that course believe that the recent series of American decisions signalling its weakness—beginning with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, via its failure to retaliate for Iran’s nuclear violations (first and foremost its failure to report about nuclear facilities and denying inspectors access to them), the restrictions it imposed on supervision over its nuclear program, its amassment of between 10 and 25 kilograms of 60 per cent enriched uranium and more than 100 kilograms of 20 per cent enriched uranium.

The practical significance of the above is that Iran will only need a few weeks’ time to produce military-grade enriched uranium for a first explosive device. Furthermore, Iran has already begun to manufacture metallic uranium—a measure that has no explanation other than the intent to manufacture a nuclear weapon. The failure to react to the attacks on American bases in Syria and the attempt that was made on the life of the Iraqi prime minister have taught the Iranian leadership that it has nothing to fear from an American reaction—despite the demonstrative flight of an American B1 bomber in the area. Israel is entirely unready to act both because of lapses in its operational readiness and on account of the absence of American support for taking any such action.

It seems that Iran has already begun to prepare in practice for moving in that direction. The accelerated pace of arms shipments to Syria and Hezbollah, which have forced Israel to step up its attacks in Syria, and the mounting Iranian self-confidence in the quality and quantity of the unmanned aerial vehicles and missiles in their arsenal, is proof of that.

Another and equally important indication of that is the very decision to produce metallic uranium. The expertise that the Iranians are currently gaining will allow them to shorten the amount of time they will need to make their enriched uranium military-grade, which they will then be able to use to manufacture a bomb. Several people, including the former IDF Intelligence director and Mossad director, believe that it will nevertheless take two years between acquiring military-grade enriched uranium and completing the process of building a nuclear bomb. I am sceptical. The Iranians’ progress in manufacturing metallic uranium, and the progress they have made in manufacturing long-range missiles, the disparities between what the Iranians had acquired before they suspended their nuclear program in 2003 and what they have recently done in that field, and even common sense, all oblige us to assume that the time they will need for building a nuclear bomb is much shorter. Having said that, there is no doubt that if Iran does choose to chart that course, it will have to traverse a dangerous threshold period in the course of which it will be vulnerable to attack (either Israeli and/or American), and subject to severe economic sanctions.

US Warns, but Doesn’t Threaten

The option of returning to the original JCPOA is one that I and many others believe to be the safest and most convenient choice for Iran to make if it wishes to amass a large arsenal of nuclear weapons within less than a decade. The original JCPOA will free Iran from the need to traverse the above-cited dangerous threshold period. That option has been presented by Iran as the worse one to choose from both because part of the leadership in Tehran truly believes that to be the case and because by so doing the Iranians will do away with the American demand to introduce improvements to the agreement that might prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal and guarantees that if they do take that course, that decision will be applauded internationally and will yield practical achievements from the US and the international community as a whole.

The US, which wants to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons but, at the same time, wishes to refrain from a belligerent conflict with it, considers a return to the original JCPOA to be the preferred option. The US previously presented that as a first step that would keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons quickly, after which negotiations would begin to be expanded and strengthen the agreement so as to ensure that Iran would never acquire nuclear weapons. That always appeared to be impractical and unlikely, but that objective has all but been dropped from public American comments on the issue. The US has warned Iran against continuing to advance towards becoming a nuclear threshold state, but it has made sure to refrain from making any concrete threats, and in particular it has refrained from talking about any sort of violent action that might be taken to prevent that.

The US has also refrained from doing anything that might precipitate a powerful Iranian reaction. In a joint statement that was issued with the leaders of the UK, France and Germany on October 30, the parties stressed their shared concerns about Tehran’s behaviour, and the leaders said that they were determined to make sure that Iran would never be able to develop nuclear weapons and to arm themselves with any. However, the call that was issued to Iran to return to the JCPOA was coupled with weak statements about the option of subsequently discussing other issues that trouble the West and Iran (instead of explicitly taking about strengthening and expanding the JCPOA).

Israel is an important player at the current stage of things, but to a large extent it is playing a reactive role. Its policies will be determined on the basis of the decisions that get made by Iran and the US. Israel’s preferred option is to have the US bring its full weight to bear in an effort to get Iran to accept an agreement that will correct the numerous and dangerous weaknesses of the existing JCPOA. That was, in broad strokes, the policy that was enacted by the former American president, Trump. Had he been re-elected, that policy might have been given a chance to prove itself. Ultimately, however, the Iranians bet correctly and now the probability of the option that Israel would prefer to see enacted is very low. As such, we need to prepare for the other two scenarios. The question as to which would is preferable to Israel is, to a great extent, theoretical, unless one posits that Israel has the ability to influence Iranian decision-making and American policy. While Israel does possess some capabilities, it would be a mistake to overestimate their impact.

Those capabilities were put to the test on several previous occasions. In 2012, Netanyahu’s threat against Iran by means of the cartoon he presented of a bomb with a red line prompted Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20 per cent. That persuaded China to join the pressure on Iran and it prompted Obama to adopt a firmer policy towards Iran to persuade it to begin the direct negotiations that ultimately produced the JCPOA. All of that was done, to a great extent, to avert an Israeli strike. A second attempt was made in Netanyahu’s address to Congress, which failed to prevent the JCPOA from being implemented. A third attempt was the decision to steal and reveal the Iranian nuclear archive, which contributed to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA. Other operations that were ascribed to Israel allegedly damaged the Iranian nuclear programme. However, those operations not only failed to stop the programme—they were exploited by Iran to justify its own violations of the JCPOA. Today as well, the Israeli threat to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons by any means is taken seriously by the US and Iran, but that threat appears to have less impact on Iranian and American policy now than it used to.

The two scenarios that are on the agenda are problematic for Israel. If the Iranian nuclear programme isn’t stopped, Iran will be able to become a nuclear power within a short period of time. That will pose a significant threat to Israel, will entrench Iran’s regional hegemony and will start a nuclear arms race in the region. An Israeli (or American) effort to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear threshold state status could lead, with a medium-to-high degree of likelihood, to a regional conflagration.

If Iran and the US decide, in an attempt to avert a regional conflagration, to agree to return to the JCPOA, the Iranian regime will enjoy a tremendous financial windfall and public prestige that will allow it to intensify its efforts to establish its regional hegemony, coupled with increasing its threat to Israel in the very near future. Above all, Iran will be able to achieve nuclear threshold state status within a decade and will be able to assemble a large nuclear arsenal without having to traverse a dangerous threshold period of the kind that it will be forced to traverse if it presses ahead now down its current course.

It is important to bear in mind that Iran’s willingness in 2015 to accept the restrictions of the JCPOA was made possible primarily because that agreement assured Iran not only of far-reaching economic relief, but mainly it provided it with a safe-passage route, with barely any threshold period, to becoming a nuclear threshold state in 2031 with the ability to assemble a large array of nuclear bombs within a short period of time. Iran will be in possession of the three components needed to achieve that end—enriched uranium, the ability to weaponised it and means of delivery. Towards the end of the period in which the JCPOA is to be enforced, all restrictions are to be lifted. Iran will be able to use fast centrifuges to enrich uranium; it will not be subject to inspections at every site and at all times; and no one will be able to know with certainty how much progress Iran has made in its armament efforts. The JCPOA will allow the Iranians to retain possession of not only the large underground nuclear facility in Natanz, but also the smaller underground enrichment facility in Fordo, which was designed to allow them to complete the final stage of enrichment safely. The JCPOA imposes no restrictions on the development of missiles that are capable of delivering nuclear payloads.

Don’t Count on American Support

The choice between the two problematic options isn’t really in Israel’s hands, but in the overarching view of things, Israel would be better off addressing the immediate threat both because that is the course currently being charted by the Iranians and because it is easier for Israel to deal with it. The scope of the Iranian program is still limited, and it is only capable of producing a small number of nuclear devices. It will have to traverse a problematic threshold—with limited ability to protect its nuclear facilities from covert operations, cyberattacks and conventional attacks and while its ability to inflict serious damage to Israel is still partial. For the time being it seems that Israel does not have American support for carrying out an operation of that kind.

In the course of a visit to Washington two weeks ago I heard a uniform message from the members of Congress whom I met—don’t count on American support, and certainly not a direct American operation or American aid. You’re on your own, and you should do what you think you think you need to do. That was a disturbing but unsurprising message. Having said that, American support may be achieved if Iran insists on pressing ahead. The US administration might even wish to leverage the Israeli threat to persuade Iran to return to the JCPOA. If Iran does continue to progress towards becoming a nuclear threshold state, at a certain point (for example, as soon as it begins to enrich to 90 per cent), Israel may be able to persuade Washington to play a direct role in the effort (what is known as Plan B).

A return to the JCPOA is more problematic. First of all, because it isn’t a return to the same bad agreement, but to an even worse agreement (the Iranians have already learned how to manufacture advanced centrifuges, metallic uranium and to enrich uranium to higher grades). Second, in the course of the coming decade they will continue to improve their abilities to defend their nuclear facilities and to threaten Israel. There is no guarantee that we will make better use of the time than they will.

Some people describe a return to the JCPOA as a move that will buy time and, as the Americans like to say, will let everyone “kick the can” down the road. The problem is that that can keeps getting more dangerous with every kick because of the swift lifting of restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program. When it finally gets kicked to the end of the road, that can is going to explode. Taking the route offered by the JCPOA will allow Iran to become a nuclear threshold state on the cusp of having a large nuclear arsenal within a decade and will neutralise Israel’s ability to operate. One senior American official who still holds office in the current administration told me in 2016 that while the JCPOA may be problematic, the advantages it offers in its first years compensate for its drawbacks. He said then that the American president would have to re-evaluate between its fifth and seventh year whether the correct course would be to continue to adhere to the JCPOA. We have now reached that point in time and it is fairly clear that any objective analysis would raise serious doubts about the advantages of sticking to the agreement.

So what should we do? First, we should hold a close dialogue with the United States to impress upon the Americans the importance of improving the agreement and of curbing the Iranian effort to become a nuclear threshold state, while emphasising the negative outcomes of refraining from so doing. Israel should also try to secure American support and military aid once that becomes necessary. Second, we should complete our preparations for an operation that would thwart the current Iranian effort and its nuclear programme as a whole, with or without American support. At the same time we should try to encourage the Americans to take the lead on that effort.

Recent Morning Briefs 

6 December 2021| Iran hardens its negotiation stance in Vienna talks

  • “The seventh round of talks in Vienna ended on Friday with Iran hardening it stance and no progress made … a senior Iranian official said that the lifting of all US sanctions placed under President Trump remains the main issue stumbling block between the sides and that progress cannot be finalised until this issue is clarified.” Read More

3 December 2021 | Mossad head promises to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons

  •  “The head of Mossad, David Barnea, pledged yesterday that ‘Iran will not have nuclear weapons, not in the coming years, not ever. That is my personal commitment, that is Mossad’s commitment’ … in parallel, earlier this week the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed more details of Iran enrichment programme, which includes uranium to up to 20 percent purity with one cluster of 166 advanced IR-6 machines at Fordow”. Read More

1 December 2021 | Nuclear talks get underway in Vienna

  •  “The nuclear talks with Iran and the UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany began on Monday afternoon and continued yesterday, as Israeli leaders warned that lifting sanctions could lead to Israeli military strikes on Iran … the JCPOA negotiators were hoping to resume talks where they left off in June. However, Ian’s senior negotiator Ali Bagheri gave the impression yesterday that they could start from the beginning.” Read More 

 29 November 2021 | Foreign Minister Lapid in UK as nuclear talks resume

  • “Foreign Minister Lapid is in London for talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Minister Liz Truss ahead of the renewal of the nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna … according to Israeli media, one area that Lapid will focus on with the European allies is to make sure the sanctions on Iran’s banking sector remain in place.” Read More

Further Reading

It’s too soon to write the obituary of the anti-Iran alliance in the Middle East

Middle East expert Jonathan Spyer argues that while the anti-Iran alliance is being tested in the region, reports of its death are premature. Israel, meanwhile, as the only military power capable of pushing back Iran amid US retrenchment, can strengthen its position with regional allies.

Iran under President Raisi: What should the region and the West expect? | An interview with Henry Rome

On 13 July, Fathom’s deputy editor Samuel Nurding sat down with the Eurasia Group’s Henry Rome to discuss the state of play in the nuclear talks between the US and Iran in Vienna and to assess what impact Iran’s newly-elected President Raisi might have on the trajectory of the talks, as well as to explore the future of the nuclear agreement and Iran-West relations.

Opinion | Iran now controls three borders with Israel. Hamas’s missile war was a foretaste of what Tehran intends next

Kyle Orton argues that Israel has been thwarting Iran’s global terrorist operations but has been less successful closer to home. The IRGC and its rocket-rich proxies now encroaches all around it. Confrontation is a matter of when not if.

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