By the year 2025—or year ten since the JCPOA’s adoption day—the UNSC will “no longer be seized of the Iran nuclear issue,” meaning countries can drop all proliferation-related restrictions. Effectively, the UNSC will be passing back the Iranian nuclear dossier to the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), signaling that Iran’s nuclear program is no longer subject to international sanctions. While this will increase the importance of the IAEA’s verification role, Iran is sure to herald the occasion as a landslide political victory. In fact, the transference of Tehran’s nuclear file back to the IAEA was something sought by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as early as 2011, and was an issue he campaigned on for the presidency in 2013. After the transfer of the file, it would be difficult to get the IAEA’s thirty-five-member board to refer the Iran case back to the UNSC.
Also that year, the UN resolution’s “procurement channel,” which approves and regulates Tehran’s imports of nuclear-related equipment, will cease to exist. This will happen regardless of whether Iran has satisfactorily addressed a separate investigation by the IAEA into whether it hides undeclared nuclear material and activities relevant to nuclear weapons.
At the same time, the ability for a participant state to trigger a restoration, also known as “snapback” of UN sanctions, will terminate, leaving the international community with little to no leverage against Iran as its nuclear program is legally permitted to expand. After year ten, Iran can more freely deploy its oldest centrifuge, the IR-1, but more concerning is that it will start to operate mass numbers of advanced models, such as the IR-2m and IR-4. Restrictions also lift progressively on the faster IR-6 and IR-8 starting from year eight and a half on, with all advanced centrifuge restrictions terminating at year thirteen, or in 2028.
By year fifteen, prohibitions that Iran has already violated will lapse. These include limitations on Iran’s enrichment of uranium above 3.67 percent purity, a 300-kilogram cap for domestically enriched and stored uranium, and uranium enrichment only taking place at Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant. Iran would also legally be able to enrich at its underground Fordow facility.
Sun-setting limitations in year fifteen also govern Iran’s second pathway to the bomb, through plutonium. While the JCPOA required a modification to Iran’s IR-40 reactor—a modification which Tehran long-ago bragged about undercutting through illicit procurement—after year fifteen, Iran is not prohibited from reprocessing spent fuel, building heavy water reactors, or storing excess heavy water on its own territory, the latter of which Tehran violated early on.
A Good Deal for Iran
Despite claims by some more “hardline” regime members, Tehran both wants and needs the JCPOA and UNSC resolution 2231. It is too good a deal for the Islamic Republic to give up: the potential for an industrial-size enrichment program that can be within striking distance of weapon-grade uranium, suspended and later terminated U.S. and EU sanctions, and no restrictions on a quantitative, and increasingly qualitatively, robust and unrestricted missile arsenal.
Before it gets there, Tehran desperately needs the sort of financial relief that only America’s re-entry to the JCPOA can provide. For over a year, the regime waged a calibrated campaign of nuclear escalation designed to coerce Washington into removing sanctions and force it back to the deal. Since President Biden’s election, Tehran has pressed its case, enriching uranium to 20 percent purity at the underground Fordow facility, installing advanced centrifuges, threatening to leave an IAEA inspection agreement, and testing yet another space-launch vehicle (SLV) that can improve its long-range strike capabilities.
Worryingly, there are signs that such blackmail will bear fruit. At a think tank event in late January, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated JCPOA re-entry is a “critical early priority,” reversing earlier attestations by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines that the Biden team need not make haste to re-enter the deal.
It is perhaps no greater twist of fate that many members of the Biden team who are dealing with Iran today were also at the helm during the presidency of Barack Obama, and either directly or indirectly negotiated the JCPOA.
A Better Deal for America
If the new administration is serious about reinvigorated diplomacy, it must resist Iran’s nuclear extortion and forgo the temptation of rejoining the JCPOA. Breathing life into an expiring accord will not help dampen the Islamic Republic’s nuclear, missile, and military threats. Rather, the administration should take time to capitalize on existing sanctions leverage and force Iran to negotiate genuinely on a broad swath of issues.
To prepare the ground, the Biden administration should first restore a unified position on Iran with its trans-Atlantic partners. While no small diplomatic feat, a cohesive Western front is a necessary diplomatic component of getting Iran to agree to a better deal. Washington and the E3 should also back the IAEA’s investigation in Iran and a full IAEA inquiry into evidence that Tehran continues to maintain and advance nuclear weapons capabilities.
Elsewhere, by working with Congress, the administration can codify the executive order it inherited governing the status of the Iran arms embargo. This can help enforce the embargo abroad through interdictions and sanctions, reminding the international community that Washington is serious about thwarting Iranian weapons proliferation and military modernization.
Lastly, the Biden team should continuously consult with Middle East allies on the parameters of an accord that they feel can address the breadth and depth of the Iran challenge. These countries live on the literal frontlines of any potential confrontation with Iran, and should have a say in the shape or direction of an agreement that aims to stem further conflict and proliferation.
As the sun continues to set on the JCPOA and UNSC resolution 2231, it will be up to the Biden administration to prove that it can usher in a new dawn. The clock is ticking.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think-tank in Washington, DC, where Andrea Stricker is a research fellow. They both support FDD’s Iran program and non-proliferation policy research. Follow on Twitter @FDD and @StrickerNonpro.