With the United States and Iran closing in on a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement, the revived deal will likely fail to restore what its Obama-era predecessors claimed was the original deal’s primary benefit. Namely, putting Iran at least a year away from being able to enrich a bomb’s worth of fissile material.
President Obama touted the JCPOA as “purchasing for 13, 14, 15 years assurances that the breakout is at least a year…. And we have those assurances for at least well over a decade.” But a return to the JCPOA’s original terms now would not achieve the same effect.
If the Biden administration reenters the JCPOA, Iran’s breakout time could be between 6.5 and 4.8 months—but only for four years, after which this timeframe would steadily shrink further, to an estimated three months or less when the deal expires in 2030.
Rather than putting Iran’s nuclear program “in a box,” as the administration keeps repeating as its goal, a new deal will be twice as bad as the original JCPOA, delaying Iran’s nuclear program by only half as much, and for only half as long.
The dangers of an Iranian dash to a bomb grow as breakout time—the time needed to produce at least 20 kilograms of 90 percent enriched uranium, the minimum needed for a nuclear weapon—shrinks.
Breakout time depends on four factors: 1) enriched uranium stockpile, 2) enrichment level of that stockpile, the 3) quantity and 4) efficiency of available centrifuges.
Breakout times below two months could challenge the ability of the United States and its partners to detect, and effectively respond to, any Iranian attempt to sprint for a bomb. The JCPOA raised Iran’s breakout time, at least temporarily, from as little as two months in 2015 to, as the Obama administration claimed, one year by capping enriched uranium stocks at 300 kilograms of 3.67 percent enriched uranium, and limiting operational centrifuges to 5,060 first-generation IR-1 machines.
Yet the deal also contains significant concessions that will enable Iran to quickly rebuild and expand its enrichment program in coming years, including:
• For the duration, allowing all deployed centrifuges in excess of 5,060 IR-1s to be stored in Iranian nuclear facilities, rather than destroyed or shipped out;
• Starting in 2024, allowing Iran to build, but not fully assemble, 400 highly advanced centrifuges (200 each of IR-6 and IR-8) annually;
• Starting in 2026, allowing Iran to build 400 fully-assembled IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges (200 of each) annually, and allowing it to replace operational IR-1 centrifuges with more efficient IR-2m and IR-4 machines;
• Starting in 2030, allowing Iran to use unlimited numbers of centrifuges to amass unlimited stockpiles of enriched uranium at any level(s) of enrichment it chooses.
Thus, any attempt to return to exactly the same terms as the original JCPOA, particularly those regarding centrifuges, would permit Iran to store—and thus quickly redeploy—the advanced centrifuges it has developed and operated since leaving the deal in 2019.
Under a renewed JCPOA, Iran would place in storage roughly 700 of its more than 5,700 IR-1 machines currently operating, as well as 500 installed but non-operational IR-1s. It also would have to mothball all of its roughly 1,850 advanced centrifuges (IR-2m, IR-4 and IR-6) that are actively enriching. The IR-2m, IR-4 and IR-6 are estimated to be 4.1, 3.7 and 5.8 times more productive, respectively, than the IR-1.
With its advanced centrifuges in storage and available to reinstall, should Iran decide to sprint for a bomb, a restored JCPOA could leave Tehran with an estimated breakout time of 6.5 months—almost half of what President Obama touted as the deal’s major benefit.
Unlike when the JCPOA first went into effect in 2015-16, today Iran has gained invaluable, irreversible know-how from developing and operating these advanced machines since it left the deal—all of which would help expedite any future breakout.
Moreover, because these advanced centrifuges are so much more efficient, it is simpler and faster for Iran to reinstall them than to put in place the number of IR-1 centrifuges necessary to achieve the same overall enrichment capacity.
Iran also is in the process of deploying additional centrifuges—if it completes its stated expansion plans before a deal is finalized, breakout time under a renewed JCPOA would fall to an estimated 4.8 months.
Little currently is known about Iran’s time frame for deploying these centrifuges, given its months-long obstruction of IAEA inspectors at its main Karaj production plant after a suspected covert attack caused significant damage in June 2021.
Furthermore, both of these breakout estimates would begin decreasing after January 2026, as per Iran’s centrifuge research and development plan, agreed privately on the sidelines of the original JCPOA, which permits Iran to steadily expand its enrichment capacity over at least the following three years.
What should the United States do next?
The Biden administration should urgently, and finally, accept that its oft-repeated concern—that Iran’s nuclear advances threaten to make the JCPOA obsolete—is already a reality, and that an actual “return” to the parameters of the original deal is not possible.
Moreover, one of the Obama administration’s main selling points—that Iran’s increased breakout window would last for at least a decade—already is more than half-expired.
Accordingly, rather than permit Iranian diplomats to continue calling the shots in Vienna, dragging out talks and increasing their leverage by continuing to expand their nuclear program, the administration should convey clearly it will leave talks by its informal but public deadline at the end of February, deal or no deal.
As part of these final negotiations, the administration should insist Iran destroy or ship out, not merely store, its advanced centrifuges under a renewed nuclear agreement.
Regardless of what comes out of Vienna, the United States also urgently must strengthen the viability of alternatives to diplomacy to deter or deny any potential Iranian breakout.
Blaise Misztal is Vice President for Policy and Jonathan Ruhe is Director of Foreign Policy for The Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).
This article was first published by JINSA.