If US eases sanctions on Iran, how much quicker could it produce a nuke?

The coronavirus crisis could be an opportunity for Trump to cite unique and changed circumstances to show flexibility and claim that he did not blink in the two-year game of chicken with Iran.

A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor, Iran (photo credit: REUTERS/RAHEB HOMAVANDI)
A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor, Iran
Sanctions and Iran can be one of the most confusing subjects on the planet.
The US on Tuesday announced that it would continue limited waivers from sanctions so that the EU, Russia and China can continue to provide humanitarian aid and nonproliferation items to the Islamic Republic.
This changed nothing.
The bigger question is whether, due to the coronavirus crisis escalating a humanitarian nightmare in Iran, the US might roll back some of the additional sanctions it has imposed on Tehran since May 2018.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo showed the first sign of flexibility on this issue in nearly two years after the Trump administration has been taking increasing heat from the UN, the EU and others for rejecting calls to roll back sanctions as Iran’s death toll from corona shoots through the roof.
Until now, the Trump administration has fought off these calls, saying that any additional trade or funds it would allow for Iran would go to the regime, the nuclear program and terrorism – not to the sick and poor general public.
What if the Trump administration changes its tune on the issue, with Pompeo’s statement as a trial balloon?
All along Trump has wanted a deal with Iran, as long as he could claim some kind of improved deal and present it as better than what his predecessor Barack Obama achieved with Iran in 2015.
The coronavirus crisis could be an opportunity for Trump to cite unique and changed circumstances to show flexibility and claim that he did not blink in the two-year game of chicken with Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
IF THE US were to reduce sanctions pressure, how much faster might the Islamic Republic be able to achieve breakout capability?
First, the 12-month breakout period has been eviscerated.
Saying it was responding to US sanctions, Iran started in May 2019 to publicly violate the 2015 nuclear deal’s limits.
By March 3, even the IAEA, which tries to stay on Tehran’s good side, was reporting that Iran had exponentially increased its enriched uranium stock – passing the volume of low-enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon.
Depending on your politics and looking at best- or worst-case scenarios, Iran is now viewed as being between three to six months from being able to weaponize that low-enriched uranium.
In predicting how much faster Iran might be able to move toward a nuclear weapon if the US eases sanctions, a key question would be which sanctions were being eased and in exchange for what.
There was a round of non-oil related sanctions in August 2018, a much more damaging round of oil-related sanctions in November 2018 and an ending of broader waivers of sanctions for eight countries in May 2019.
Since then there have been additional layers of sanctions piled on.
In fall 2019, France proposed the US restore broader waivers (the waivers approved on Tuesday were very narrow and related only to humanitarian issues) or the US roll back oil sanctions by half in exchange for Iran returning to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal’s restrictions.
While both the US and Iran rejected this compromise, might it be back on the table now?
If so, the first two items for the US to try to achieve in negotiations would be for Iran to reduce its new enrichment of uranium and uranium stock back down to the 300 kilogram limit, while exporting the excess uranium that has it above the 1,000 kilogram line necessary for a bomb.
Or would Iran be trying to hold out for the US to roll back sanctions with no concessions on its part to return to compliance with the nuclear deal?
In the first scenario, where both sides compromise, the Islamic Republic’s clock for obtaining a nuclear weapon might even be pushed back.
In the second scenario, where the US makes one-sided concessions to Iran due to the corona crisis, there are three possibilities.
One is that Khamenei does not proceed forward, viewing the US concessions as a sign of good faith that he does not want to squander.
A second possibility is that Khamenei views the concessions as a sign of weakness and barrels forward and closer to a nuclear bomb.
In a third scenario, the additional funds Iran gets lead to additional funding of terrorism by its proxies, but do not lead to a drive to get closer to a bomb.
The third possibility is the most likely one because the Islamic Republic risks littlewhen it activates its proxies, whereas once it is clearly dashing to breakout for a nuclear weapon, its leaders know they must worry about an Israeli preemptive strike and possibly even one from the US.
Further, Tehran can continue to enrich uranium at a low level and increase its stock, presenting this as an achievement, while at the same time avoiding enriching uranium to higher levels which would set off Israeli and US alarm bells.
So probably a partial reduction in sanctions due to the coronavirus would not lead Iran to rush faster toward a nuclear bomb.
If anything, The Jerusalem Post has learned, the corona crisis has likely slowed down some of Iran’s nuclear activities, because all echelons of the Iranian government have been impacted.
The bigger question, aside from the humanitarian issue, is will a concession now positively influence Tehran toward less conflict, or negatively lead it to believe the US has weakened in its long-term determination over the issue?