“Iran today is probably within a month or two of having enough material that could, with further enrichment, be sufficient to actually build a bomb,” Gary Sick, head of Columbia University’s Gulf/2000 project and the Iran expert on the National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter, told me via email interview.
“The skill and experience that they have developed in this round, however, will not be forgotten. So even if Iran returns to the original status of 2015, it will be better poised to get there quicker the next time, if there is a next time,” Sick added.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moscow no longer shares a land border with Iran, but the last thing Russia wants is another nuclear power that close by. Bring China into the equation and this quickly becomes three-dimensional chess. While concerned about a broader conflict in the Middle East that could disrupt some of its energy supplies, China shares few of Russia’s fears of a nuclear-armed Iran.
At the same time, as one of the very few customers for Iranian oil under sanctions, China has few incentives to see sanctions lifted. The White House insists, however, that the administration has been able to engage with Russia and China within the JCPOA format and that it is still only Iran that is dragging its heels.
There is no question that the immediate impact of a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be most appalling, but the inexorable moves by Iran toward enrichment of uranium and the evidence that the US appears at least to have prioritized negotiations with Russia over Ukraine cannot be lost on a very savvy Iranian leadership.
Senior Biden administration officials have told me that they believe they are able to engage with Russia and China with respect to the JCPOA. The key evidence will be where the negotiations stand when they reopen following the current break.
Indeed now, virtually everyone with a stake in Iran’s nuclear capabilities is beginning to reposition itself in the event of a breakdown in the negotiations.
But there are more questions on which any successful outcome at the Iran talks may well hinge.
Will Iran settle for being a state permanently on a nuclear threshold and will that satisfy the security needs of its neighbors and potential targets?
For the moment, the US must thread this impossibly slim eye of a needle. It is difficult to see how the JCPOA process could survive an utter breakdown in East-West security talks or more particularly any incursion into Ukraine by Russian forces.
But the Biden administration must find a way to stay focused on Iran. At the next round of Vienna talks, there must be some real, concrete evidence of progress.