• Richard Murff

Don't Forget Weapons-Grade Iran


There's yellowcake in them hills...

The world is a hairy place, and it’s only getting hairier. Remember that, like a middle-aged man, it’s getting hairy all over. We’re all focused on Ukraine and Taiwan – both of which are safe until the navel-gazing Beijing Olympics wrap up. Let’s not forget, however, that Iran is now only about a month short of its weapons grade nuclear breakout. This, one suspects, could be problematic for world peace. It could also make for a lively spring.


Now in the eighth round of talks, which started just after Christmas, this week diplomats are meeting (again) in Vienna to sort out the tattered, bruised remains of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, or depending how you vote, any number of hyperbolic monikers. The accord was never quite as brilliant as the Obama administration claimed, but Trump’s “worst deal of the century” business wasn’t quite right either. The deal did achieve its broad goals, which was never to make Iran cry “Uncle.”


The 2015 accord allowed for full-scale enrichment of uranium after 15 years, 2030. At the time, Iran’s estimated nuclear “breakout” – the point when they’d have enough fissile material to weaponize – was about a year. The hope (possibly misplaced) was that with easing of sanctions and a growing economy, the hard-liners in Tehran might cycle out in favor of a gang moderate enough to see that turning the Sunni and Jewish neighborhoods to glass wasn’t particularly good for business.


It might have worked, but we’ll never know. When the Trump administration walked away from the deal in 2018, it had the effect of entrenching the hardliners with a casus belli. It also allowed Iran to step away from a deal in which it was largely compliant and drastically accelerate its nuclear program. Tehran isn’t exactly upfront these things, but it appears that they’ve spun uranium to about 60% enrichment – just a nasty whisper from weapons grade. The program has also cracked the nut on converting enriched uranium hexafloride gas into metal, presumably for making bombs. Any substance with that many syllables must be terrifying.


The QED to all this is that since 2018, Iran’s has shortened its nuclear break out to about a month. After that narrow timeframe, any deal will be, in the words of an involved European diplomat, an “empty shell.”


So, the diplomats from the remaining signatory nations – Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – are trying to patch up the withering deal as President Biden signaling from the sidelines that we’d like to rejoin the club. Other than some symbolic geo-political act of contrition, there really isn’t any point rejoining, though. Even if all parties were to agree to return to the old deal this week (including the US) and stick with it, the meat-hook reality of a one-month nuclear break out renders the old deal of sinking value to all signatories.


Except for China and Russia, who are playing their own game with the JCPOA. They, along with Iran and India, are also signatories to the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SOO), designed to counter the Western market blocs. In their eyes, if Beijing and Moscow their cards right, they just might peel the EU a little further from the irresponsible United States, further isolated their great rival in the world stage.


What’s to be done? If the deal is pointless, and only getting more so, the only logical thing to do is scrap it completely and start again. In an ever-changing world, these things happen and, well, there we are.


Like the unworkable first draft of a screenplay after the director changes the concept from slap-stick comedy of errors to a dark phycological thriller. Which is as good a metaphor as any for the lifespan of that damned agreement.