As the financial benefits of the JCPoA continue to elude Iran due to sanctions unrelated to the nuclear issues (terrorism, human rights etc…), the nuclear issues are moving back to front stage. Tehran is threatening that it would “resume large-scale uranium enrichment” if the US doesn’t free up all sanctions against Iran even though all of the nuclear-related sanctions were lifted on time. In fact, the US has become one of Iran’s major lobby groups in the world, openly calling for world businesses to do business with Iran even if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei banned over 227 US corporations from Iran.
To make matters worse, the reports from the IAEA since the implementation of the JCPoA are not helping to blow away the fears of a militarized nuclear program in Iran: the reports emanating from Iran are less detailed and murkier despite the promise for more “transparency” and allow for what President Barack Obama said in order to reassure the world: “this deal is not built on trust; it is built on verification”. The reports lack in-depth data and lingering questions are left unanswered such as the exact whereabouts of Iran’s stockpiles of Uranium.
Furthermore, the IAEA tested soil samples from Parchin, which were unprecedentedly taken from the site not by IAEA officials but by Iranian officials, produced two different types of man-made Uranium giving reason to believe that tests on nuclear weapons were carried out there in the past. Parchin remains highly suspicious according to the IAEA satellite pictures show evidence of a massive clean-up, evidence that was backed up by the IAEA’s only visit to Parchin in 2015. Tehran, of course, denies any wrong-doings and refuses to allow further inspections of the base.
This refusal is an example of the growing differences between how the JCPoA was understood by the West at its signing and how it’s being interpreted in Iran today. Visits to “suspicious” sites, which was part of the JCPoA to allow IAEA officials “access where necessary, when necessary”, remains another point of contention since the IAEA has not reported on visits to any such sites.
But the problems do not begin nor end with the IAEA. The JCPoA included specified clauses which would forbid the testing of ballistic missiles “designed to be capable of” carrying a nuclear payload. The fact is that since the signing of the JCPoA, Iran has carried out three ballistic missile test that we know of. The US and the UN warned Iran that the missile tests were a breach of the JCPoA but these allegations were hotly contested by Iran’s FM Javad Zarif, the chief architect of the deal: the JCPoA, he says “doesn’t call upon Iran not to test ballistic missiles, or ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads … it calls upon Iran not to test ballistic missiles that were “designed” to be capable….that word (“designed”) took me about seven months to negotiate, so everybody knew what it meant“. This issue was weakened further by the weak wording in which the UN “calls upon” Iran to desist from testing missiles and not “prohibiting” the missile tests. US Secretary of State Johan Kerry tried to rectify the wording by asking Iran to rewrite this clause in the deal but he was brusquely rejected by Tehran’s defense minister who called it “nonsense”.
Other outstanding issues include the stockpiles of heavy water at the Arak plant which were meant to block the possibility of a “Plutonium path” to a nuclear bomb and more importantly, the estimates of Iran’s “break-out” time (to build a bomb) is still being disputed. The Obama administration sold the deal by claiming that it would extend the “break-out” time to one year but the estimates are now placed at only 7 months.
All of these issues point to a growing distrust on both sides on the validity of the JCPoA. This distrust is enhanced by none other than Khamenei himself: the issuer of the infamous “nuclear fatwa” and an ardent denier of Iran’s plans to militarize its nuclear program in the past, present or future, is so disenchanted with the nuclear deal that he continues to add fuel to the fire of fears. In a speech to the Assembly of Experts entitled “With Power, We Can Take From the Enemy (the US/West)“, he made it clear that Iran has mastered the potential to enrich Uranium to 20%, emphasizing that “if a country is able to bring itself to 20%, from there until the 90%-99% (level needed to build a nuclear bomb) is an easy task, there isn’t a long way (left to go). They (the world powers) know this. The Islamic Republic has progressed on this path”.
The West, especially the US is now stuck between the proverbial “rock and a hard place”: If it reneges on the deal and slaps back sanctions, Khamenei will follow on his threat to “burn the deal” and will definitely increase the enrichment of Uranium which will pressure the West into deciding whether to wage war on Iran or wait until it builds a nuclear bomb…both options are scary since they can easily lead to World War 3.
The other alternative is to play into Khamenei’s raging paranoia of a “soft war” meant to increase “foreign influence” in Iran through allowing foreign businesses and investments into the Iranian economy. As Kerry stated, “doing business is one of the best ways to create interests and vested purpose, if you will, in furthering transformation“. This strategy is surely a winner in the long run but it requires that Iran remain stable and open to the world for a long time since foreign businesses remain wary of investing in Iran as long as the regime remains volatile.
As long as President Hassan Rouhani remains in power, such a strategy may succeed since Rouhani has placed great emphasis on attracting foreign investments despite Khamenei’s repeated calls to maintain a “resistance economy” as if the JCPoA were not signed. And even if Rouhani does win the 2017 elections, it must be noted that his ability to steer Iran to a less “Revolutionary” path is severely limited by, once again, Khamenei, who is proud to view himself as a “Revolutionary” rather than a politician – a fact which helped Henry Kissinger to say that Iran has to decide “whether it is a nation or a cause“.
Until then, the world will have to keep on holding its breath and hope that Iran will choose peace with the world instead of trying to fulfil Khamenei’s ambitions for a “Global Islamic Awakening” which could be powered by a nuclear war.