"We have reached a point where Iran's nuclear escalation will have eliminated the substance of the JCPOA," the Arms Control Association said earlier this month on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran's nuclear deal signed by Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, the United States. as well as Iran in 2015.
Three years later, President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the pact and reintroduced sanctions against Iran. While the JCPOA is still recognized by the remaining signatories, Iran has since embarked on an accelerated uranium enrichment program that could enable the country to create a weapon more quickly.
Each delay in the negotiations, which has just resumed after a brief hiatus in the eighth round in Vienna, gives Iran time to make further progress towards the ability - if not the will - to at least make a testable nuclear weapon. And there is, in fact, a theoretical off-ramp, barely two weeks left, when the sixth month of negotiations has reached and the negotiations can come to a real and toxic end.
"Iran today is probably within a month or two of having enough material that, with further enrichment, could be sufficient to actually build a bomb," said Gary Sick, head of Columbia University's Gulf / 2000 project and Iran expert. in the National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter, told me via email interview.
"However, the skill and experience they have developed in this round will not be forgotten. So even if Iran returns to its original status from 2015, it will be better equipped to get there faster next time, if there is a next one. time. ", added Sick.
But Sick and others believe Iran has not yet made the final decision to take the final step toward a testable nuclear unit. The great ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will make such a decision, has said that a nuclear bomb is "haram" or forbidden in Islam. Furthermore, Sick points out that Iran is at least a year or two away from producing a device that can be mounted on a missile and fired at a neighboring country or beyond.
Meanwhile, the White House is playing the blame - and is increasingly blaming Iran's accelerating progress toward a bomb on Trump's withdrawal from the process. But in fact, the United States risks taking its eye off the ball, and focusing intensely on talks with Russia about Ukraine without seeing how they can somehow connect.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow no longer shares a border with Iran, but the last thing Russia wants is another nuclear power close by. Bring China into the equation and this will quickly become three-dimensional chess. Although China is 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, China, as one of the very few customers for Iranian oil under sanctions, has few incentives to see the sanctions lifted. However, the White House insists that the administration has been able to engage with Russia and China in the JCPOA format, and that it is still only Iran that is pulling on its heels.
Nevertheless, both Foreign Minister Antony Blinken and his top negotiator Wendy Sherman, the original architect of the JCPOA under President Barack Obama, have focused intensely on the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine and sought a European agreement on sanctions should Putin invade. In fact, when Blinken was interviewed on NPR last week, he spent much of his time talking about Russia and Ukraine. Eventually, when the talk went to Iran, Blinken spent most of his energy blaming Trump.
There is no doubt that the immediate impact of a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be appalling, but Iran's relentless move towards uranium enrichment and the evidence that the United States at least seems to have prioritized negotiations with Russia over Ukraine, can not be lost on a very knowledgeable Iranian leadership.
Senior officials in the Biden administration have told me that they believe they are capable of engaging with Russia and China with regard to the JCPOA. The key evidence will be where the negotiations stand when they reopen after the current break.
In fact, virtually everyone with a share in Iran's nuclear capabilities is beginning to reposition itself in the event of a breakdown in negotiations.
At a meeting between Chinese and Iranian foreign ministers last week, the countries announced a 25-year cooperation agreement aimed at strengthening economic and political ties. China has become a major customer for Iranian oil, importing about 590,000 barrels a day last year, the highest level since Trump reintroduced sanctions. The lifting of sanctions could threaten this exclusivity.
At the same time, Russia and Iran are also strengthening ties, with President Vladimir Putin hosting his counterpart, President Ebrahim Raisi, later this month amid plans for a 20-year trade and military deal.
Other nations in the region have also begun to uncover their efforts. Israel and Russia have major interests in Iran's nuclear capabilities - perhaps even larger than Western Europe or the United States, which are beyond the reach of any Iranian missile that has been tested so far.
Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Putin "agreed on continued close cooperation in this area," according to the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. The two countries already have a "conflict" agreement that allows Israeli warplanes to attack Iranian bases and weapons convoys in Syria - the conflict is a significant extension if Israel were to launch an air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Elsewhere, Saudi Arabia has begun to enjoy Beijing. China helps the Saudis with everything from a missile development program to a massive desalination network and is already one of Saudi Arabia's largest trading partners. It is a relationship that could prove to be a fruitful source of nuclear technology if Iran develops its own weapons.
Back at the JCPOA negotiating table, Iran's key conditions remain largely unchanged. Nournews, a news service affiliated with Iran's supreme national security council, reported last week that "verification and assurances" - code for the continued demand that all sanctions be lifted - are a precondition for Iran to give its consent to resume the deal.
But there are several issues on which a successful outcome of the Iran negotiations may well depend.
Will Iran content itself with being a state permanently on a nuclear threshold, and will it satisfy its neighbors' security needs and potential goals?
For now, the United States must thread this impossibly slender eye of the needle. It is difficult to see how the JCPOA process could survive a complete collapse of East-West security negotiations or more specifically any intrusion into Ukraine by Russian forces.
But the Biden administration must find a way to stay focused on Iran. At the next round of the Vienna negotiations, there must be some real, concrete evidence of progress.