When talks in Vienna for a resumption of the Iran nuclear deal were suddenly halted last week, the European powers leading the diplomatic effort warned that there were only “weeks” left before Iran’s rapid-paced nuclear program makes diplomacy questionable.

While Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, in recent months it has increased its stocks of uranium much closer to purity than needed for a nuclear bomb, and has installed hundreds of sophisticated centrifuges to produce this uranium.

Why we wrote this

Negotiations over a nuclear deal have done little so far to mask the feeling that the United States and Iran are on a collision course. For diplomacy to work, can threats and postures give way to restored confidence?

For many proliferation experts, Iran’s announcement of its progress aims to strengthen its position at the negotiating table, where it is seeking relief from harsh US sanctions. But what worries a growing number of analysts is how these advances have irrevocably brought Iran closer to becoming a nuclear-threshold state that has the materials and expertise to launch a bomb on short notice.

“If the diplomatic route fails, we should not rule out that some in Iran may want to switch to a more advanced program as an insurance policy” against regime change, says Suzanne DiMaggio of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “We have sunk into a deep quagmire of mistrust,” she said. “It is vital to reverse this before it takes root. “

Washington

In the months following the resumption of talks aimed at relaunching the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran announced that it had taken technical step after step in its nuclear program and continued to run towards… what exactly?

The answer to this question remains unclear. But for some experts in nuclear proliferation, Tehran can at least weigh the possible need for an insurance policy against regime change that would bring it to the brink of nuclear weapons.

Iran insists, as it has for years, that its nuclear program is intended only for peaceful purposes. And this month, CIA Director William Burns said the United States still sees no sign of Tehran militarizing its agenda.

Why we wrote this

Negotiations over a nuclear deal have done little so far to mask the feeling that the United States and Iran are on a collision course. For diplomacy to work, can threats and postures give way to restored confidence?

For many nuclear proliferation experts, Iran’s announcement of its nuclear production jumps is largely aimed at strengthening its position at the negotiating table, where it seeks relief from sanctions imposed by the President of the United Nations. era, Donald Trump, after withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in 2018.

Iran’s achievements include building up stocks of enriched uranium to levels of purity much closer to those needed to fuel a nuclear bomb, and installing hundreds of increasingly sophisticated centrifuges designed to produce this enriched uranium. .

But what worries a growing number of non-proliferation analysts is how Iran’s unbridled nuclear program and the technical advancements it has made since 2018 have brought it irreparably closer to the state. nuclear threshold, that is, a state with all the physical elements and intellectual expertise necessary to deliver a bomb on short notice.

Without an agreement that reimposes limits on the Iranian agenda while bringing the United States back and removing the Trump-era sanctions, “raising a militarization threshold could become an attractive option for Iran,” says Suzanne DiMaggio, researcher senior with expertise in Iran and North Korea at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“If the diplomatic route fails,” she adds, “we shouldn’t rule out that some in Iran might want to switch to a more advanced program as an insurance policy. “

EU delegation in Vienna / Reuters

Members of the Iranian negotiating team await the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Committee in Vienna on November 29, 2021.

Indirect talks between the United States and Iran resumed on November 29 in Vienna after a five-month hiatus. But no progress has been made as the United States has responded to Tehran’s maximalist demand for the complete removal of sanctions by doubling down on the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of increasing sanctions.

Talks suddenly came to a halt last week when Iranian negotiators said they needed time to consult with their government. This has left European powers at the forefront of the diplomatic effort to save the JCPOA, warning that there are only “weeks” left to reach a deal before Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program makes diplomacy questionable.

North Korea’s precedent

The idea of ​​nuclear weapons as an insurance policy does not originate from Iran, but rather dates back more than a decade to the failure of US-Korean diplomacy. Regional experts now say Pyongyang’s decision to develop nuclear weapons was a way to protect Kim’s regime from American destruction.

A key difference between North Korea and Iran, some analysts say, is that the Iranians have not decided to arm their nuclear program. But what worries some is that the United States is now using an approach with Iran similar to the one it used with North Korea, while expecting a different outcome.

“When it comes to comparing North Korea to Iran, one of the reasons we’re already there is to think we can kick them out of their way. [nuclear] program, ”says Jim Walsh, senior associate researcher in the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“In both cases, the main American tool is sanctions, the idea being that we can impose enough punishment on them to force them to do what we want”, he adds. “But instead, North Korea and Iran decided the best response was to speed up. In both cases, it was the complete failure of coercion and coercion.

Not everyone would agree. Many experts claim, for example, that the harsh sanctions that the Obama administration imposed on Iran in the beginning helped to get Tehran to accept the limits the JCPOA placed on its nuclear program.

But for others, this does not change the fact that in the cases of Iran and North Korea, the US rejection of diplomatic agreements at the start of the two countries’ nuclear programs only encouraged both countries. to move forward.

“Recall that we had the opportunity to make a deal with Iran in 2003 when they had something like 300 centrifuges,” says Dr Walsh. “But because the United States said, ‘We want zero centrifuges,’ the deal fell apart – and now they have 19,000 centrifuges and … are making noise about storage [highly enriched uranium] at 60%. “

Office of the Iranian Presidency / WANA / Reuters

A number of Iranian new generation centrifuges on display on Iran’s National Nuclear Energy Day, Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021. Iran has for years insisted that its nuclear program is intended only for peaceful purposes.

As for North Korea, Ms. DiMaggio de Carnegie notes that the Clinton administration has reached a framework agreement with Pyongyang aimed at nipping its nuclear program in the bud. “But then we had a presidential transition from Clinton to Bush, and the deal was rejected,” she adds, as the new administration ruled that the deal was essentially the appeasement of North Korea. .

Pyongyang is now believed to be expanding its nuclear arsenal and perfecting missiles that could deliver these weapons.

Different regional context

Yet despite the similarities between North Korea’s and Iran’s trajectories, there are also key differences that could prevent Iran from becoming a de facto nuclear power.

On the one hand, warns Ms. DiMaggio, the regional contexts of the two countries are very different. “North Korea did not have Israel to face,” she said, referring to Iran’s nemesis. “In fact, they have a China which in some ways is their only but very important friend.”

Indeed, President Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited Israel this week to meet with Iran, at a time when the military from the two allies are discussing joint exercises to avoid possible operations against an Iranian nuclear program which has also disappeared. far.

For some, rumors of such potential exercises are primarily aimed at pushing Tehran back to the negotiating table – perhaps early next year – and being more open to compromise to bring the JCPOA back into effect.

And while Iran may be deepening its relationship with China and Russia as a strategic counterweight, neither is close to the powerful friend China is to North Korea.

A return to mutual trust?

MIT’s Dr Walsh said the next round of talks would be the time, now or never, for the United States and Iran to step away from “new and devious ways both sides have found to push the other ‘and move away from maximalist positions.

Because if the talks fail and Iran chooses to continue its march towards the nuclear threshold, he says, there is no reason to believe that military strikes would deter Tehran.

Instead, Iran could opt for this insurance policy.

“Let’s say we bomb them,” he said. “Then there’s a good chance they’ll decide they’re a nuclear state and build a bomb. “

To avoid this outcome, Ms. DiMaggio says the United States is going to have to reduce the maximum pressure campaign, while the United States and Iran are going to have to put together a basic ingredient of successful diplomacy between adversaries – mutual trust. .

During this year’s talks, “we sank into a deep quagmire of mistrust,” she said. “It is vital to reverse this before it takes root. “