Where we are with Iran.

            The radioactive isotope U-235 can be “enriched” to higher levels of purity by the use of special centrifuges.[1] Enriched to low levels (3.67 percent), U-235 can be used as fuel for nuclear power plants.  Enriched to very high levels (90 percent), U-235 can become the basis for a nuclear weapon.  Enrichment is a slow business in the early stages, but each successive step becomes much faster from higher levels of purity.  According to one expert, it might take a month to enrich U-235 from 20 percent to 60 percent, then a week to go from 60 percent to 90 percent.  However, more centrifuges are required to achieve each higher level of purity.[2] 

            The development of nuclear material is one step.  The development of the technology of making an actual weapon, and the development of ballistic missiles are additional steps.  There is nothing to say that these steps have to be done sequentially, rather than in parallel.    

            Iran had developed a large infrastructure of uranium-enriching centrifuges, along with other elements of nuclear weapons development.  Alarmed, the international community imposed increasingly severe economic sanctions on Iran.  Eventually, the Iranian government agreed to negotiate. 

            The 2015 international agreement limited Iran to possessing 660 pounds of U-235 enriched to 3.67 percent and required the shut-down of many of its centrifuges.  In return, Iran won removal of some—but not all—of the international economic sanctions.  Many other issues regarding Iran’s foreign and military policy were set aside for further negotiations.  Many economic sanctions were retained as leverage for these proposed future talks. 

            President Donald Trump soon abandoned the 2015 agreement and plastered Iran with sanctions.  Iran then began moving away from compliance with the 2015 agreement.[3]  Iran increased its supply of U-235 that had been enriched to 3.67 percent; enriched some of its U-235 to 20 percent; restarted some its centrifuges; and blocked international inspectors from some of their agreed work.  According to a February 2021 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran now possesses ten times the amount of enriched U-235 allowed under the agreement.  If processed into weapons-grade material, that would be enough for three nuclear weapons.  In addition, Iran has “largely ignored” an agreement on missiles and has allowed an agreement to expire that permits the security cameras to view Iran’s nuclear fuel.[4] 

            There are several ways of interpreting the series of measures taken by Iran.  One way is to see it as slicing the salami, seeing exactly what it can get away with without provoking an attack.  Another way is to see it as a slow ratcheting up of pressure to both force a revival of the 2015 agreement and to improve Iran’s position in negotiations. 

            In the nature of the production process, holding down both the amount of enriched U-235 and the number of centrifuges are key.  In mid-April 2021, Israel caused a major “mishap” at the centrifuge facility at Natanz.  Perhaps several thousand centrifuges were destroyed. 


[1] Rick Gladstone, William J. Broad, and Michael Crowley, “Iran Says It Won’t Make Bombs, But It May Be Inching Closer,” NYT, 18 April 2021. 

[2] Thus it would take 500 centrifuges to move from 20 percent enrichment to 60 percent enrichment, and 600 centrifuges to move from 60 percent to 90 percent enrichment. 

[3] As American bombing in Vietnam showed, this latter strategy doesn’t always work.

[4] David E. Sanger, “On Iran, Biden Walks a Tightrope Between Force and Diplomacy,” NYT, 29 June 2021. 

The Iran Problem.

            For decades, Shi’ite Iran pursued nuclear weapons, developed ballistic missiles, and supported terrorists around the Middle East as proxies in its war with Sunni Muslims.  With the American people clearly wary of any new war in the Middle East, President Barack Obama’s administration negotiated a multi-national agreement with Iran on part of these issues.  In return for relief from some of the painful international economic sanctions, Iran agreed to limits on its nuclear weapons development program for a limited time.[1]  President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the agreement.[2]  Both Iran and the Democrats bitterly criticized Trump’s action.  The election of President Joe Biden, then, seemed to promise a ready return to the agreement by both parties.  Nevertheless, difficulties arose in completing this restoration.[3] 

            For one thing, Iran’s government now wants more than it got from the Obama administration.  It wants more sanctions relief to allow it access to international financial services.  It wants to keep the nuclear-fuel production capacity it built up after President Trump abandoned the agreement.  To increase pressure on the Americans, it announced that it would raise the cap on enriching uranium from 3.67 percent to 60 percent, cutting the time needed to produce nuclear weapons if talks broke down. 

            For another thing, the United States government now wants more than it got from the Obama administration.  It wants immediate agreement to limits on Iran’s ballistic missiles and its support for proxy terrorism.  Furthermore, the United States wants to push out the duration of the agreement to prevent Iran from building a weapon for much longer than the original agreement.[4] 

            For yet another thing, Israel sees Iran’s government as a deadly enemy.  It sees the nuclear weapons program, the ballistic missiles, and the regime’s constant denunciations of Israel as warnings of a new Holocaust.  Israel has done everything it can—short of a bombing campaign conducted in co-operation with a nearly-as-skittish Saudi Arabia—to slow down Iran’s weapons programs.  Israeli intelligence purports to believe that Iran is much closer to making a weapon than do Americans.  The Israelis disliked the original deal, will really dislike any softer deal, and may see a no-deal as lighting a fuse. 

            The Iranian regime that negotiated the agreement with the Obama administration[5] has passed its sell-by date.  The Biden administration’s negotiations  took place under the shadow of a looming Iranian election likely to be won by “hard-liners”[6] who had criticized the original agreement.  In fact, this is what happened.  In contrast, the recent Israeli elections changed nothing except the prime minister. 


[1] I supported the agreement then and support it now.  That doesn’t mean that the critics of the agreement didn’t have valid points.  It’s just a case of “half a loaf is better than none” when the alternative is to start bombing. 

[2] His administration either re-imposed or created new sanctions for a total of 1,500. 

[3] Steven Erlanger and David E. Sanger, “Two Nations Divided By a Common Goal,” NYT, 10 May 2021. 

[4] Since these seem to have been the major Republican complaints about the original agreement, it would appear that we are actually experiencing Donald Trump’s second term, just without the egregious personal behavior.  See also: China policy, North Korea policy, Afghanistan policy, illegal immigration policy. 

[5] President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. 

[6] “Hard liners” is a term from the Soviet-American Cold War.  American observers often conjectured that a struggle took place within the Kremlin between “hard-liners” and “soft-liners” or “moderates.”  For a time, British diplomats applied the same sort of analysis to understanding the pre-war Nazi regime.  At least in the latter case, the distinction between “hard-liners” and “moderates” was purely wishful thinking.  Probably an example of projection.