Thirty days. That is the timeframe estimated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in which Iran would have obtained the material required to fuel a nuclear weapon, according to The New York Times. The independent United Nations group, made up of scientific and nuclear experts, notified member states of the finding confidentially while maintaining contact with Tehran to resume the negotiating table in Vienna.
The Austrian capital has been hosting since May the dialogue for the resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in 2015. An agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1, made up of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) plus Germany, in which the European Union also participated.
The terms of the deal obliged Tehran to completely dismantle its nuclear programme and provide guarantees of full compliance with the agreement. Iran was to ship 97 per cent of its fuels out of the country, curb production of enriched uranium and plutonium, and allow regular inspections of the Fordow, Natanz and Arak facilities. In return, the international community would ease the sanctions regime that has burdened the Persian economy to the tune of $100 billion between 2012 and 2014.
The deal would have frozen Iran's nuclear production for at least the next 10 years, according to experts, as many of the restrictions defined by the JCPOA had an expiry date. However, former President Trump's unilateral withdrawal halted all progress and prompted Tehran to restart its nuclear programme. The US reinstated sanctions and Iran continued to enrich uranium above permitted levels, bordering on 60 per cent purity.
Three years later, Iran's nuclear programme has never been so close to achieving its goals. In addition to the OEIA's estimate, US intelligence information points to a worst-case scenario of "a few months" before the Islamic Republic acquires sufficient fuel capacity to produce a nuclear warhead.
Joe Biden's arrival at the White House opened a new chapter. The Democrat, Obama's vice president during the signing of the JCPOA, pledged to reinstate the nuclear deal and convened the dialogue table. Since May, the Biden administration has been working with international organisations and its partners to rescue the terms of the agreement and curb the Iranian nuclear threat. In June, the resumption of the agreement seemed close until the figure of Ebrahim Raisi emerged.
Iranian elections saw the former head of the judiciary replace the reformist Hassan Rohani, a key figure during the signing of the nuclear deal. Hardliner Raisi flatly rejected the terms and broke the negotiating table while tightening the noose by advancing the nuclear roadmap. Before re-signing the deal, the Tehran regime is demanding the "total" lifting of sanctions, while Washington and its partners are demanding evidence of active compliance with the agreement.
In this sense, the IAEA pointed out the multiple obstacles imposed by Iran when it comes to monitoring images from inside the facilities and investigating its activities. The organisation's director, Rafael Grossi, travelled to Tehran to defuse the situation and returned with a partial victory: the Persian regime had agreed to install new memory cards in the surveillance cameras at the plants to record the latest movements.
Days earlier, the United States had threatened to shelve the matter. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged that Iran's progress had been so rapid that the 2015 agreement was no longer meaningful. "I'm not going to put a date on it, but we are approaching the point where a strict return to compliance with the old agreement does not replicate the benefits that agreement achieved."
The next few weeks promise to be key. Iran is undergoing a pressing economic crisis marked by the ravages of COVID-19 and the impact of sanctions. The country is experiencing a 45 per cent inflationary increase and Iranian society is suffering. This situation destabilises the regime, which has already witnessed demonstrations in several parts of the country and will seek to mitigate the economic restrictions by giving the green light to the agreement. But not before improving its weak situation as much as possible.