The JCPOA allowed Iran to enrich uranium to 3.67% purity. Now released from its obligations, Iran reached the 60% level, just short of the purity required to produce a nuclear bomb. A nuclear bomb requires about 25 kg of weapons-grade uranium and Iran currently has 17.7 kg.
‘This is the last chance for Iran to engage in negotiations seriously”, said Liz Truss, the new British Foreign Secretary last Sunday, as the first part of the seventh round of negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) ended. She’s probably right, as patience among the six world powers who signed the original plan in 2015 is wearing thin.
Having taken years to agree, the JCPOA set limits on Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of a large number of international sanctions. All was going well and Iran was sticking to its side of the bargain, according to the international inspectors monitoring the deal, until Donald Trump decided to unilaterally rat on the agreement. Arguing that it wasn’t extensive enough and should have covered all of Iran’s “mal-activities” in the Middle East, Trump in 2018 withdrew America from the JCPOA, much to the dismay of his co-signatories. His action led to a blistering attack on the US by Iran’s ambassador to the UN: “For the first time in the history of the United Nations, the United States, a permanent member of the Security Council with a veto power, is engaging in penalising nations across the entire world; not for violating a Security Council resolution, rather for abiding by it.” The White House declined to challenge this claim.
The result of Trump’s action has been predictably disastrous. The JCPOA allowed Iran to enrich uranium to 3.67% purity. Earlier this year, now released from its obligations, Iran reached the 60% level, just short of the purity required to produce a nuclear bomb.
And it’s not just the purity which is alarming Iran’s neighbours, chiefly Israel. It’s also the quantity. A nuclear bomb requires about 25 kg of weapons-grade uranium and Iran currently has 17.7 kg, according to the UN International Atomic Energy Agency. Two weeks ago, the agency reported that Iran had begun to install advanced centrifuges, the kind required to rapidly purify uranium, in a fortified site in the mountains around Fordow, close to its holy city of Qom.
Iran is well aware that its uranium sites are prone to Israeli attacks, which is why they have been widely dispersed throughout the country, many deep inside mountains. Embedded in Teheran’s memory is the 1981 Israeli Operation Opera, which destroyed an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor located 17 km outside Baghdad. Later, on 6 September 2007 Israeli forces carried out another airstrike, Operation Orchard, against Syria’s suspected nuclear reactor in the Deir ez-Zor region.
If there is any doubt in the Mullahs’ minds about Israel’s determination to remove any threat to its very existence, it was revealed this week that the Israeli air strikes on 8 June, when it fired missiles at three military targets near the Syrian cities of Damascus and Homs, were part of a campaign to stop what Israeli officials believe was an emerging attempt by Syria to restart its production of deadly nerve agents. The attacks reflected grave concerns that arose within Israeli intelligence agencies after Syria’s military successfully imported a key chemical that can be used to make the deadly sarin gas, regarded as a direct threat to Israel’s security. At the time of the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Damascus controlled one of the world’s largest and most advanced stockpiles of chemical weapons, including hundreds of tons of binary sarin and VX, two of the deadliest chemical warfare agents ever made. Syria perceives Israel as its long-term adversary and Jerusalem has made it perfectly clear that it will not tolerate any attempt by Syria to manufacture new chemical weapons.
In the same vein, Israel will not tolerate any nuclear threat from Iran. “Iran has publicly stated that it wants to wipe us out”, said Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in October during a visit to Washington. “We have no intention of letting this happen.” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was much more circumspect, saying merely that Iran wasn’t negotiating seriously and that Washington is “prepared to turn to other options”. But the chances of the US attacking Iran to stop it from becoming a nuclear power are practically zero. It would mean going to war against a country of 85 million, whose Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps wields an arsenal of advanced missiles and drones, together with terrorist proxies capable of inflicting widespread damage on US interests.
The job of stopping an Iranian nuclear bomb would therefore fall to Israel, the only other country that combines the will and military capacity needed to effectively paralyse Iran’s nuclear infrastructure for any length of time. There is every indication that preparations are being made for such an event, according to Israel’s Defence Minister, Benny Gantz, who said last week while having meetings in Washington that he had instructed the Israeli Defence Forces to prepare for a strike against Iran. Gantz told reporters that the US and European countries “are losing patience” and that Iran is trying to drag out the negotiations in Vienna aimed at reviving the JCPOA. He said that while Israel hopes the US will deter Iran, Israel will act if Washington fails to do so and if there is no diplomatic solution to the Iranian problem.
But how serious is this threat? After all, Israel’s entire territory, population and national infrastructure would be vulnerable to Iran’s inevitable retaliatory strike, including up to 150,000 lethal projectiles in the hands of Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, stationed directly on Israel’s northern border. These missiles are capable of striking Israel’s most critical targets with warheads as large as 1,000 pounds, which would result in Israel suffering destruction on a scale unprecedented in the country’s history. While Israel’s counter-proliferation efforts have severely limited Iran’s ability to transfer precision-guided munitions along various routes to Hezbollah, some Israeli officials privately suggest that the terrorist group could already have several hundred in its arsenal. Once it acquires 1,000, it could fire 10 precision strikes at each of Israel’s most critical pieces of national infrastructure, overwhelming the country’s Iron Dome missile defence system and paralysing Israel’s civic society.
Nevertheless, Israel appears determined to use military force against Iran if the nuclear threat continues. It has long opposed the JCPOA, insisting that it did not go far enough to halt Iran’s nuclear programme and, echoing Trump’s position, does not address what it sees as hostile Iranian military activity across the region. While some prominent voices in Israel are now calling the US withdrawal from the JCPOA a blunder, as there was no contingency plan for Iran’s continuously developing nuclear plan, Israel’s new government has maintained a similar position to that of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rejecting a return to the original deal and calling for diplomacy to be accompanied by military pressure on Iran. Israel’s spy chief, David Barnea, even told the country’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper last week that Israel will not be bound to any nuclear deal and will keep up efforts to “quell Iran’s nuclear activity”. In recent years, both Israel and the US are widely believed to have carried out secret assassinations and cyber-attacks against Iranian nuclear personnel and infrastructure, in a bid to sabotage the programme.
For its part, Iran maintains that before the JCPOA can be resuscitated, all sanctions imposed since 2018 must be lifted, including those recently added by the Biden administration. Iran also insists on a guarantee from the US that it will not again unilaterally withdraw from a new deal, should one be agreed. As if to show that it is preparing for war, Iran last week tested a surface-to-air missile defence system near its Natanz nuclear facility.
Pessimism and anxiety pervade the talks in Vienna. Negotiators largely blame Iran for the lack of progress, saying that Iran has “fast-forwarded its nuclear programme and backtracked on diplomatic progress”. In the meantime, Israel has been preparing military strikes in the expectation that the talks will fail, leaving the Iranian nuclear programme unconstrained, a position completely unacceptable to Jerusalem.
Not only would a war between Israel and Iran be a disaster for the Middle East, costing many lives and destroying vast amounts of infrastructure, it would also endanger a third of the world’s oil supply. With Russia’s activities in Ukraine also threatening Europe’s gas supplies, sending prices through the roof, the combination would result in the world economy plummeting in a matter of weeks.
Unless there is an unexpected breakthrough in Vienna, the day when Israel decides to act might be much closer than many people think. A resurgent Covid-19 in 2022 could be the least of the world’s problems.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.