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Preparing for Plan B with Iran

Given the risks posed by a collapse of talks on restoring the JCPOA, it is critical for the US and other signatories to the deal to develop a plan B.

While Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, continues to express support for restoring the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), prospects for reviving the agreement appear increasingly low. Rhetoric from Tehran suggests Raisi will reject progress made by his predecessor, as warnings from the US that the window for diplomacy to revive the deal will not remain open indefinitely raise concerns that efforts to restore US and Iranian compliance with the accord may fail.

Although restoring the JCPOA is the best option to stave off a nuclear crisis and provide Iran with sanctions relief, the chances of miscalculation and the ticking clock necessitate thinking about a plan B.

Nuclear Implications

If talks to restore the JCPOA collapse and there is no hope of reviving the accord, the proliferation implications are significant. While Tehran is highly unlikely to openly pursue nuclear weapons in that scenario, it is likely that Iran will continue to take steps to increase its leverage and respond to any escalation. It is likely that:

  • Breakout time will continue to decrease. Iran’s breakout, or the time it would take for the country to produce enough nuclear material for one bomb if the decision were made to do so, was about 12 months when the JCPOA was fully implemented. As a result of Iran’s JCPOA violations, that metric is now about 1–2 months. Breakout will likely drop further as Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium grows and it installs more efficient IR-6 centrifuges, both of which are actions Iran is required to take, absent sanctions relief, to meet a law passed in December 2020. Iran could also take other steps that would reduce breakout, such as expanding its 60% enrichment and the introduction of more efficient centrifuges for enriching uranium.
  • Reduced transparency will compromise knowledge. Complicating breakout assessments still further is the reduction of access for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. After Iran suspended more intrusive monitoring required by the JCPOA, the IAEA has had less insight into certain activities. Continued lack of transparency will make it more difficult to determine early on if Iran is taking steps that could impact breakout time and/or weaponisation. The lack of intrusive verification will also likely fuel speculation that Iran is engaged in illicit activities, which could further escalate tensions and have a negative impact on any future nuclear agreements.
  • The knowledge Tehran gains from its new nuclear activities will challenge assessments about Iran’s proliferation risk. In the past year, Iran has successfully enriched uranium to a new threshold – 60% – just shy of weapons grade, or 90%. Iran is also engaging in uranium metal production activities, a capability the country had limited experience with in the past. If Iran continues to pursue these activities, greater mastery of the processes may impact how Tehran could choose to go about developing nuclear weapons, if it decided to do so. There are also a range of other weaponisation-relevant activities currently prohibited by the JCPOA that Iran might pursue under the guise of civil nuclear necessity or for non-nuclear military purposes that could have a similar impact.

These factors give Iran escalation dominance in the short term and increase the risk of military strikes and/or disruptive attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities. Both the US and Israel have threatened to use military force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even though any use of force would likely backfire in the long run. Iran has typically responded to attacks in the past by ratcheting up its nuclear activities. A larger-scale attack could push Tehran to consider abandoning its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty commitments and pursuing nuclear weapons in order to deter further attacks.

Options for Plan B

Given the proliferation risks posed by a collapse of the JCPOA, it is critical for the US and the P4+1 group of countries – China, Russia, France, the UK and Germany – to have a plan B if talks to restore the nuclear deal fail.

In that scenario, it is likely that the US and Europe will consider the playbook that led to negotiations on the JCPOA: sanctions pressure and isolation, coupled with a diplomatic off-ramp. Yet this strategy will be challenging and time-consuming to reconstitute even partially. The US is rightly criticised for sanctions overreach; US credibility to lift sanctions was severely diminished by the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA while Iran was complying the deal, and there are few areas left to ratchet up economic pressure. Raisi also appears less interested in relations with the West. This strategy becomes even more challenging without Russian and Chinese support, given their stronger economic ties with and influence in Iran. While both actively support restoring the JCPOA, it is unclear where they stand if those efforts fail. Their support may depend on the manner in which the talks collapse. If Iran is perceived as the intransigent actor and seeks to renegotiate progress made before talks stalled in June, Russia and China may be more inclined to support international efforts to pressure Iran to resume talks. However, if they perceive the US and the E3 (the UK, France and Germany) as taking actions that impede progress on JCPOA restoration, their support for a sanctions-centric strategy is less likely.

US credibility to lift sanctions was severely diminished by the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA while Iran was complying the deal

A better option would be to pivot negotiations to restore the JCPOA towards talks on an interim agreement or gesture-for-gesture arrangement that reduces the proliferation-sensitive activities on Iran’s side in exchange for certain sanctions relief. This could include Iran taking steps to restore certain monitoring activities, suspend uranium enrichment above 5%, and suspend advanced centrifuge and uranium metal development. In exchange, Iran could receive some limited sanctions relief in areas that would quickly provide benefits, such as the release of financial assets and oil sales, and the resumption of nuclear cooperation.

These actions could be taken with the understanding that stabilising the current situation to prevent a crisis would create time for a new negotiation that could go beyond the parameters of the JCPOA on both Iran’s nuclear activities and the scope of sanctions relief. On the nuclear side, this could include addressing the new capacities that Iran has developed over the past year that may alter pre-JCPOA understandings of Iran’s ability to pursue nuclear weapons and create new timelines for certain restrictions. In return, Tehran may look for actions from the US and the P4+1 that would garner more effective sanctions relief, such as putting primary US measures on the table and commitments for certain investments and licenses. Negotiating such an agreement would be complex, but it would restore the intent of the JCPOA, address its perceived shortcomings, and reduce the likelihood of conflict.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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