Jacob Nagel / Mark Dubowitz
After six months of stalling nuclear talks and expanding its nuclear weapons program, the Islamic Republic of Iran is signaling a return to negotiations in November. The objective, per Washington’s lead Iran negotiator Robert Malley, is “compliance for compliance,” shorthand for a return to the 2015 nuclear deal. But, as Malley grows more desperate for a deal, something worse may be in the offing: a more modest agreement that its advocates call “less for less.” Sober-minded people would call it “less for more”—fewer nuclear restrictions in exchange for more economic relief.
Israel’s leadership and almost the entire Republican Party oppose a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Pursuant to the deal, in under a decade, Iran can emerge with an industrial-size nuclear program with near-zero nuclear “breakout,” advance centrifuge-powered clandestine “sneakout” capabilities and ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Massive sanctions relief under the JCPOA will further enable the regime to finance terrorism and engage in other destructive activities.
The original objective of the JCPOA—to keep Iran one year from “breakout” to one-bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium—is long gone. The regime’s nuclear advancements since 2015 have reduced breakout to less than three months. Today, even Malley acknowledges that five months will be as good as it gets.
Iranian R&D work on advanced centrifuges, which the 2015 agreement permitted, enables the regime to produce and hide these more powerful machines in clandestine sites where fewer centrifuges can enrich uranium for an atomic weapon. Meanwhile, Tehran is enriching uranium to 60-percent purity—just shy of weapons-grade. It is also manufacturing uranium metal that can be used in a nuclear warhead. It is accumulating large stockpiles of fissile material and denying UN weapon inspectors access to sites where these activities occurred.
Most of these advancements occurred after Joe Biden‘s election, and after he abandoned his predecessor’s maximum-pressure campaign. Over six negotiation rounds in 2021, Iran stalled for time and expanded its nuclear capabilities. New Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi took office in August with the same goal as the previous president: Maximum sanctions relief for few nuclear restrictions, with pathways to nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them.
A return to the 2015 JCPOA is now impossible. American, European and Israeli policymakers are forced to consider their options. None are good. The worst among them is a smaller deal or “less for less,” where the Biden administration agrees to a shorter and weaker deal, only to then negotiate what they call a “longer and stronger” agreement.
But this plan is very dangerous.
The smaller deal will not be the launching pad for something better. It will be the last deal. In fact, under “less for less,” Iran will actually get “less for more.” Tehran will give up few nuclear concessions but keep most of its important nuclear advancements, including its advanced centrifuge R&D—as well as other advancements achieved through violations of the JCPOA since 2015 and the Non-Proliferation Treaty before that.
The deal will effectively legitimize these violations in a new agreement. Tehran will continue to undermine the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by negotiating an end, or perhaps a freeze, to all past and current investigations into Iran’s nuclear violations, as it did in the original JCPOA. This will reduce the IAEA’s relevance and jeopardize the entire Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Already, the clerical regime refuses to answer the agency’s questions and is denying inspectors access to suspected sites and materials. So much for the “unprecedented verification and monitoring” touted by the Obama administration when the JCPOA was signed.
Through nuclear blackmail, Iran has forced President Biden and Malley to order the IAEA’s diligent director general, Rafael Grossi, to back down from censoring Iran at the IAEA on at least three occasions this year. Referring Tehran’s violations to the UN Security Council is also out of the question.
After a “less for more” deal, stopping Iran’s nuclear program will fall from a high priority to a backburner issue. The false assumption will be that Iran’s nuclear program will be “back in a box,” in the words of U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan. The reality will be much more alarming: The clerical regime will find that little constrains it from moving toward a “threshold” nuclear state. Indeed, at a time of their choosing, the mullahs can develop nuclear warheads without any country capable of stopping them.
On top of that, the Islamic Republic will likely get more sanctions relief than the Biden administration will ever admit. The Iranian economy is already rebounding from the severe pressure of the Trump administration’s “maximum-pressure” campaign. Positive economic indicators, like a return to GDP growth, $70 billion in non-oil trade, surging oil sales and stabilizing inflation stem from the Biden administration’s decision not to impose additional economic sanctions or enforce most of the existing ones.
A smaller deal will likely give Iran even more sanctions relief, leading to a greater economic recovery, greater immunity to peaceful Western pressure and more resources to fund terrorism, missile proliferation and regional aggression alike.
The administration hopes that Tehran will be more amenable to a “longer and stronger” deal after getting major nuclear and economic concessions in exchange for a “shorter and weaker” deal. This is an illusion. Iranian leaders understand leverage better than President Biden and his team do. They see that Washington is loath to respond to their regional belligerence, including repeated Iranian proxy attacks on American soldiers. Why would the clerical regime agree to severe restrictions on its nuclear and missile programs when it gets almost everything it needs through a return to JCPOA or a smaller deal? Why would the regime stop its nuclear advances when Biden repeatedly refuses to wield American force as a credible deterrent?
To stop Iran from becoming a threshold nuclear country, Washington must place hard limits on all three crucial elements of Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program: production of fissile materials, weaponization and the means of delivery, and maximum economic pressure backed by a credible military threat. “Less for more” fails to achieve these objectives on all fronts. It sends a signal to the clerical regime that the West will acquiesce to Iranian intransigence.
Israel is, of course, the country that will pay the ultimate price. Iran continues to threaten its very existence. The Israelis must, then, consider military force or other coercive tools. A “less for more” deal makes it harder to pursue such options. Israel will face global condemnation for strikes against a program legalized by an international agreement, even if a fatally flawed one.
Israel’s leaders now have no choice but to speak in one voice explaining why a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement is impossible, and why any smaller deal is even worse. American opponents of the deal must do the same. Anything less will send the wrong signal to Iranian and American negotiators and make Iran’s nuclear weapons program a dangerous reality.
Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace faculty. He previously served as acting national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and as head of Israel’s National Security Council. Mark Dubowitz is FDD’s chief executive. An expert on Iran’s nuclear program and sanctions, he was sanctioned by Iran in 2019. Follow Mark on Twitter: @mdubowitz. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.