The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

The US should be appreciative of any significant delay in Iran’s breakout timetable towards a nuclear weapon. The time gained can and should be used to negotiate a “longer, stronger” agreement.

The Iranian regime is eager to generate a sense of urgency in the West, pushing the Biden Administration to give up its sanctions leverage and return to the 2015 JCPOA. The recent damage caused to the Natanz enrichment facility can change this equation. In any case, as Munich 1938 taught, it is dangerous to try and buy time at the cost of mollifying an ambitious totalitarian regime.

The Iranian regime blames Israel for the blast that seriously damaged the Natanz facility. It decided to “retaliate” by commencing enrichment to the level of 60% uranium 235. The IAEA has confirmed this, putting the Iranians one step closer to the goal of enrichment to 93% (military grade fissile material). The decision was made in the context of ongoing “indirect” talks with the US, and direct talks in Vienna with the other five partners of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) The talks seem headed towards an agreed mechanism for a return to the JCPOA and the removal of sanctions on Iran. 

Iranian conduct reminds us of three basic realities:  

1. The Iranian nuclear project has one and only one purpose: the production of a nuclear bomb. Lame excuses aside, there is no other reason to enrich uranium to 60% (or even to 20%, given that Iran does not have and will not have nuclear-powered submarines or other vessels). Sixty percent is simply a declared way station to the stockpiling of military grade fissile material. Iran also is working on tooling metallic uranium, and has been in possession of basic bomb-making technologies for nearly two decades (as the captured Iranian nuclear archives prove). In effect, the false Iranian pretense of “civilian purposes” has been dropped. There never was a “fatwa” of the Supreme Leader against acquisition of nuclear weapons. The world knows, and the Iranians hardly bother to hide, that this is a military project. Nevertheless, the entire JCPOA of 2015 rests upon the bold assertion (as spelled-out on page one of the accord), which is an outright lie: that that the Iranian nuclear project is civilian in nature.   

2. Accuracy and truth are not high priorities for the Iranian leadership. Indeed, one of the ways in which they have contended with severe setbacks – and in fact, this has served Israel well – is simply to invent a major achievement where there was none, so as to soften the blow. Thus, Iran falsely claimed to have inflicted heavy losses among IDF soldiers in response to the massive Israeli air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria on May 10, 2018 (Israeli Operation “House of Cards” in Syria). This may well be the case now too. Iran’s claim to enrichment at 60% may be accurate, but it will not be easy to accumulate large amounts of fissile material in the next few months – given the damage to Natanz. 

3. The main goal of the Iranian regime at present is to generate a sense of urgency in the West (the Biden Administration, specifically). Senior American officials, including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, already have quoted alarmist assessments as to Iran’s breakout time to justify a quick return to the JCPOA as it was in 2015; and only then to negotiate a “longer, stronger, broader” agreement. But with US leverage frittered away (following the easing of sanctions), what will motivate the Iranian regime to compromise? Should the US succumb to the arguments of urgency, which are manipulated by Iran, the prospects of achieving the goals Biden himself has set will be next to nil.

This highlights the supreme importance of the serious damage inflicted upon the enrichment facility at Natanz. This facility has been the target of several attacks in the past (– including, as David Sanger relates in his book, Confront and Conceal, systemic cyber-attacks planned during the Bush years and carried out under Obama in close cooperation with Israel). If the battle is for time, then every moment is of the essence. Therefore, the US should be appreciative of any significant delay in Iran’s ability to breakout towards a bomb, and certainly of a setback measured in months. The time gained should be used to sustain the pressure on Iran towards a better agreement – without the current “sunset clauses.”

The Biden Administration may well resent independent Israeli actions, and has made manifest its preference for diplomacy over the use of force. (See the Interim National Security Strategy document). Events such as the blast at Natanz “muddy the waters” at Vienna and may disrupt the negotiations led by the State Department and European allies. But at the end of the day, Israel’s right “to defend herself by herself” – a right formally recognized by President Obama – is an asset for US diplomacy, if used in the right manner. Israel’s independence could provide American negotiators and their European partners with key cards as the talks evolve.

In any case, the effort to “gain time” is legitimate and worthy. In the face of a determined, ambitious, and totalitarian Iranian regime, the US must not concede key principles or forfeit decisive tools of leverage, nor should it abandon loyal allies.

Alas, European appeasement of Hitler is the historical analogy that comes to mind. Chamberlain, who probably understood what sort of villain he was dealing with, wanted to gain time, and was tempted to believe that his concessions to Hitler in 1938 bought him a couple of crucial years. (They did not. War came within 11 months). The sad observation is that had Chamberlain been willing to fight Hitler right then, World War II could have been avoided since the German High Command was ready to overthrow Hitler. The time supposedly “bought” by Chamberlain’s weakness at Munich came at the cost of 60 million lives, the devastation of Europe and Asia, and the Holocaust.          

The two cases are not quite similar, except for this one central lesson. Once the wish to gain time drives a willingness to accept the demands of a ruthless, totalitarian regime hellbent on subversion and destruction – the tragic consequences are inevitable. It is this insight that should be imparted to friends in American politics and diplomacy.

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Photo: Hamed Saber