Fiasco: How Trump’s 2018 Decision Facilitated Iran’s Nuclear-Weapons Program

To grasp the magnitude of Trump’s strategic error it would help to use a high-jump analogy:

The world high-jump record was set more than twenty years ago, on 27 July 1993, by Cuba’s Javier Sotomayor, who cleared 2.45 m (8 ft 0.45 in) in Salamanca, Spain. No one else has ever jumped above 8 ft (2.44 m).

The 2015 nuclear deal made it impossible for Iran to build a nuclear weapon for at least 20-25 years, until 2035-2040. It was like setting the nuclear-weapons bar for Iran at 9 ft.

Trump’s May 2018 decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal allowed Iran to build a platform 8 ft 9 inches-high right under the nuclear-weapons bar.

Iran can now patiently and comfortably sit and wait on that platform, and when it decides to jump over the nuclear-weapons bar – that is, to build its first nuclear weapon — it will have to clear only 3 inches, not 9 feet.

The Deal
The 2015 nuclear deal between the world powers an Iran was a detailed, technology-dense, 159-page long document. Here is a summary of its nuclear weapons-related clauses.

In summer 2015, Iran had a large stockpile of enriched uranium and nearly 20,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges. Its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent was enough to build 8 to 10 Hiroshima-size bombs. If Iran decided to rush to make a bomb without the deal in place, it would have taken them 2 to 3 months until they had enough weapon-grade uranium (or highly enriched uranium) to build their first nuclear weapon.

Left unchecked, that enriched-uranium stockpile and the number of centrifuges would have grown exponentially, practically guaranteeing that Iran could not only build one bomb—and build it quickly – if it so chose, but that it could build additional 2-3 bombs every few weeks.

The 2015 nuclear deal removed the key elements needed to build a bomb and prolonged Iran’s breakout time from 2-3 months to 12-18 months – but Iran would have had to break its commitments under the deal to do so, and the intrusive inspection regime would have detected such violations in real time.

Iran agreed to subject itself and its nuclear program to the most intrusive, thorough, and persistent monitoring regime of any country in the nuclear age. This monitoring regime made it impossible for Iran to violate, unnoticed, the agreement which it had signed.

Moreover, the prolonged breakout time meant that the world powers would have had not only an early warning about any violation of the agreement, but would also have plenty of time to fashion an effective response to these violations.

The main elements of the deal:

1. Nuclear Material
Building a nuclear bomb requires either enriched uranium or weapon-grade plutonium, but the deal blocked Iran’s four possible ways to leverage those fissile materials.

A. Enriched Uranium Stockpile
Iran would need two key elements to construct a uranium bomb: enough highly enriched uranium to produce enough material to construct a uranium bomb, and tens of thousands of uranium-enrichment centrifuges to enrich more uranium for additional bombs.

In Junes 2015, Iran had a uranium stockpile to build eight to ten Hiroshima-size nuclear bombs. The nuclear deal required Iran to reduce its stockpile of uranium by 98 percent.

The cap on Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile would have remained in place until 2030.

B. Enrichment Uranium Level and Enrichment Centrifuges
Moreover, the deal required that Iran keep its level of uranium enrichment at 3.67 percent — the kevel needed for the generation of nuclear power, but significantly below the enrichment level needed to build a bomb.

Iran also needed tens of thousands of centrifuges to create highly enriched uranium for a bomb. In June 2015, Iran had nearly 20,000 centrifuges in its Natanz and Fordow uranium enrichment facilities. The deal allowed Iran to have no more than to 6,104 centrifuges for ten years (2025). I addition, no enrichment was allowed at the Fordow facility at all, and the only centrifuges Iran was allowed to use were the oldest and least efficient models.

Under the deal, Fordow was converted to a research facility, and no more enrichment or R&D was allowed in the facility.

The limit on Iran’s number of centrifuges and their technological level was set to expire in 2025, but surveillance of centrifuge production sites was to continue until 2035, enabling the international community to monitor any activity once the 2015 clause expires.

C. Plutonium
The third way Iran could build a nuclear weapon was by using weapon-grade plutonium. The only site where Iran could accomplish this was the Arak reactor, a heavy-water nuclear reactor. In summer 2015, this reactor could be used in a weapons program, but under the deal, the Arak reactor was redesigned so it could not produce any weapon-grade plutonium.

Moreover, the deal required that all the spent fuel rods (which could also be source material for weapon-grade plutonium) be sent out of the country as long as the Arak reactor existed. What is more, the deal prohibited Iran from building any heavy-water reactors for at least 15 years (2030). That means that because of the deal, Iran no longer had a source for weapon-grade plutonium.

D. A Covert Pathway to Iran Building a Secret Nuclear Program?
The previous three pathways – existing uranium stockpile; additional enriched uranium from centrifuge farms; and weapon-grade plutonium — occur at facilities that Iran had declared, but what if Iran tried to build a nuclear program in secret?

This is why this deal was so important. Under the nuclear deal, Iran had committed to extraordinary and robust monitoring, verification, and inspection. International inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could not only continuously monitor every element of Iran’s declared nuclear program, but they could also verify that no fissile material is covertly carted off to a secret location to build a bomb. And if IAEA inspectors became aware of a suspicious location, Iran agreed to implement the Additional Protocol to their IAEA Safeguards Agreement, which allowed inspectors to access and inspect any site they deemed suspicious. Such suspicions can be triggered by holes in the ground that could be uranium mines, intelligence reports, unexplained purchases, or isotope alarms.

Basically, from the minute materials that could be used for a weapon came out of the ground to the minute it was shipped out of the country, the IAEA, under the terms of the agreement, had eyes on it and anywhere Iran could try and take it.

2. Inspection
Under the agreement, the IAEA had access to Iran’s supply chain for its nuclear program and had continuous surveillance of centrifuge manufacturing and storage facilities for 25 years (1940). Even after 1940, inspections of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities would have continued permanently in broad accordance with Iran’s general obligations as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Criticism of the Nuclear Deal
There are two main lines of criticism of the 2015 nuclear deal. These criticisms, on closer examination, are unpersuasive.

1. Sunset clauses
Critics argue that various clauses in the deal were set to expire between 2025 and 2040. The important date is 2030, when two limits imposed by the 2015 deal would have expired: the limit on the quantity and level of enriched uranium, and the restriction on building heavy-water reactors which could be used for the production of weapon-grade plutonium.

But the 2030 expiration of these two restrictions does not mean that Iran was home free: Iran is a member of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the NPT imposes its own restrictions on enriched uranium and weapon-grade plutonium. These NPT restrictions would have kicked in if the 2015 deal were allowed to expire.

Outside the Big 5 – The United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China – which were already nuclear-weapons states when the NPT was formulated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the other four nuclear-weapons states – India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea – are not signatories to the NPT (north Korea was a signatory, but withdrew from the treaty in 2003).

The possibility of Iran, sometime between 2035 and 2040, following North Korea to withdraw from the NPT cannot be ruled out, but the 2015 deal was the only mechanism available to halt Iran’s march toward the bomb for at least 20-25 years.

Iran began its pursuit of nuclear weapons in the early 1990s. During its 30-year pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities, there was only one period during which Iran stopped making progress toward the bomb: January 2016 (when the 2015 deal went into effect) to May 2018, when the United States unilaterally withdrew from the deal.

But the January 2016-May 2018 period saw not only a halt to Iran’s nuclear progress: The deal forced Iran to significantly roll back its nuclear-weapons program.

Even though Trump’s withdrawal from the deal facilitated Iran’s effort to relaunch its nuclear-weapons program, it still took Iran about 2-3 years to regain the ground the 2015 deal made it lose.

There is another point: During the 20-25 years during which it was impossible for Iran to build a nuclear weapons, Iran’s old revolutionary leadership would have passed from the scene, replaced by a younger generation of leaders. There is no reason to think that Iran would be different than other countries under a revolutionary regime: As was the case in Russia, China, Vietnam, and other countries, the leaders which followed Stalin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh were tough, but the West could do business with them.

There is no guarantee that developments in Iran would have followed the pattern of other post-revolutionary regimes, but there was no reason for an a priori determination that Iran would be an exception.

The 2015 deal allowed the world 20-25 years without an Iranian bomb during which to examine this proposition.

2. Non-Nuclear Issues
Another criticism of the 2015 was that it did not address two other serious issues: Iran’s ballistic missiles program and Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions, which has led it to equip and train proxy groups like Hezbollah and the Houthis for the purpose of destabilizing countries in the region and extending Iran’s influence.

The world powers did try to go for broader agreement which would have included these two topics, but to no avail. The three years of negotiations with Iran proved to the experienced diplomats who handled the negotiations that the choice was between a nuclear weapons-focused agreement and no agreement.

It made sense to sign the narrower agreement and prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-weapons state for a simple reason: Iran’s ballistic missiles program would have been much more menacing if it were married to an active nuclear-weapons program. And Iran would have been in a better position to increase its destabilization efforts in the region when the moderate forces in the region, and outside forces, would have had to think more carefully about calibrating their responses to Iran’s transgression now that Iran had nuclear weapons.

In other words, Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional destabilization campaign were bad – but they would have been much worse and more threatening if backed by an Iranian nuclear arsenal.

Moreover, Iran was already under economic sanctions for its ballistic missile program, and these sanctions could be made to be more biting if the world powers decided to do so.

In Sum
From the beginning, the idea animating the 2015 nuclear deal was the recognition that there was a race between the biological longevity of the Iranian revolutionary leadership, on the one hand, and the development of the country’s nuclear weapons program, on the other hand.

The drive behind the 2015 deal was to make sure that the generation of the fanatical Iranian ayatollahs, the generation which turned Iran into a hegemony-seeking Islamic state in 1979, would leave the stage without having equipped Iran with nuclear weapons.

As we noted earlier, it is often the case with revolutionary regimes that the leaders of the successor generation tend to be more pragmatic and less infused with the original revolutionary fervor.

It made sense, in 2015, to sign a deal which significantly rolled back Iran’s nuclear weapons program and made it impossible for it to build a bomb for about twenty years (and even then, Iran would be limited by the NPT provisions).

In 2030-2035 Iran will have a different leadership, and it was not unreasonable to assume that it would be easier to deal with a more pragmatic leadership over the nuclear status of Iran.

The 2015 nuclear deal guaranteed about 20-25 years of Iran without an ability to produce nuclear weapons. Trump’s withdrawal from the deal guaranteed that Iran’s revolutionary leadership will have access to the bomb before the fanatics leave the stage.

Critics of the deal, lamenting the deal’s sunset clauses, said they were worried about Iran being (relatively) free to build an infrastructure for nuclear weapons in 2030-2035. It is a legitimate concern.

But the answer to it is not the answer Trump gave in May 2018: to withdraw from the deal and thus make it possible for Iran to build its first bomb in 2024.

On Tuesday this week the IAEA said that Iran has increased the monthly quantity of uranium it enriches to 60 percent to 9 kilograms. Iran’s breakout time – that is, the time it would take Iran to have enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb, once a decision to build such a bomb is made – is now 8-12 days.

Thanks to Trump’s 2018 decision, Iran’s stocks of enriched uranium and its centrifuge capacity combined are sufficient to make enough weapon-grade uranium (WGU), taken as 25 kilograms (kg) of WGU, for six nuclear weapons in one month, eight in two months, ten in three months, eleven in four months, and twelve in five months.

In 1804, reacting to the trial and execution of Louis Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Enghien, on orders of Napoleon, Talleyrand famously said: “C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute” (It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake).

The U.S. 2018 unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal between the world powers and Iran was worse than a crime. It was a mistake. A grave mistake.

Ben Frankel is the editor of the Homeland Security News Wire.