by Doreen Horschig, originally published in The National Interest. Listen to the whole episode on Press the Button.
Iran announced last week that it would begin enriching uranium up to 60% following an attack on its Natanz nuclear facility that damaged centrifuges and cut the power supply. Worries grew quickly that this attack, allegedly carried out by Israel, could negatively impact the ongoing efforts to revive the Iranian nuclear deal.
Fortunately, diplomacy in Vienna wasn’t halted. In fact, the talks are picking up speed.
Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, joined Press the Button, a weekly podcast from the Ploughshares Fund, to discuss Iran’s plans, the enrichment announcement, and what that means for efforts to save the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). According to Davenport, “the United States and Iran are beginning to get into [a] level of detail and that level of granularity generally seems like conversations have progressed. (…) The continuation of the talks, the continuation of these detailed discussions is quite positive.”
Davenport highlighted that it was not Iran’s first time threatening to move to a higher enrichment level. It had done so previously to convince the United States to return to the nuclear deal and lift its sanctions. This time, Iran followed through on the threat. However, Davenport added that it is too early to know how the enrichment will impact the nuclear program and proliferation risk.
For now, the increased enrichment can be taken for what it is: a political signal to the perpetrator of the attack and other parties of the nuclear deal that sanctions need to be relieved.
There is still fairly little known about the impacts of the attack on the enrichment facility, but Davenport explained that Iran has to inspect the nearly 6,000 centrifuges at Natanz that were working at the time. If several thousand machines were damaged, then it likely had a significant impact on the facility.
The attack on Natanz is one in a series of efforts to disrupt and undermine aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, from cyberattacks to assassinations. Davenport suggested that “these attacks may set Iran’s program back, but the setbacks are temporary—and Iran usually responds by ratcheting up its activities even further.”
That is why diplomacy is important for putting lasting limits and monitoring on the Iranian program, Davenport explained. As implemented, the JCPOA was demonstratively effective and verifiable. Not only did the nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, report Iranian compliance, but US intelligence reports demonstrated the benefits of the deal.
Not everyone agrees. Several actors, including Israel and some of the Gulf states, are taking actions to try to prevent a return to the JCPOA. Davenport noted that the sabotage is not only directed against Iran but also the Biden administration’s plan to restore the deal. She expressed disappointment over the European and American condemnation of Iran’s 60% enrichment but not the attack on Natanz. It “sends the wrong message that these types of attacks will be tolerated and that there are no consequences for a country like Israel if they choose to engage in these types of activities in the future,” she said.
Despite the attacks, the working groups resumed their discussions over specific US sanctions removal and Iran’s steps in response and negotiations are continuing. Earlier this week, negotiators in Vienna reported progress and goodwill among the parties present.
However, work remains. There are still difficult technical questions and political decisions over the next few weeks or even months. In the United States, President Biden must be willing to lift not only the sanctions specific under the JCPOA but also those imposed by former President Trump intended to prevent reentry to the deal. And Biden will need to carry it out despite challenges in his own party—despite, as Davenport pointed out, “prominent voices in the Democratic Party that are throwing up roadblocks and challenging the Biden administration’s approach to Iran.”
Davenport sees the JCPOA as the first step. “We need a better strategy for security in the region. We need to think about ballistic missile proliferation. But the path to those issues with Iran runs through restoring the JCPOA and beginning to rebuild US credibility.”
But sequencing matters. Davenport posits that it is “critical that the United States and Iran remain focused on restoring the nuclear deal (…) and the talks in Vienna.” She remains optimistic that the two countries are on the right track.
The entire interview with Kelsey Davenport is available here on Press the Button.