The new round of talks opened on April 8 marks another step in the race against time to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. The powers have given Iran until July 20 to reach comprehensive agreement on denuclearization. But what if Iran believes it has enough nuclear potential and the time has come for a strategic pause in its nuclear program? From a technological standpoint, Iran is in much the same class - in the sense of possessing the technical ability to build nuclear weapons - as Germany, Brazil, Japan, Korea and some 10 other nations. Iran grabbed the golden ring against fierce opposition, with a lot of help from A.Q. Khan of Pakistan, and is hardly likely to relinquish its nuclear gains after investing an estimated $100 billion.
From the narrowest legal perspective, Iran has only violated a safeguards agreement, which it denies and which in turn led to referral to the UN Security Council. The Security Council then passed a series of resolutions critical of Iran based on Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, generally referring to "any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression." For the clerics and their increasingly competent lawyers, the legal arguments are on their side. Iran argues that it is in full compliance with safeguards obligations and calls the referral by the International Atomic Energy Agency Board to the Security Council "unjust." Doubtless the argument has been made in Tehran councils that any acceptance of a Chapter VII resolution would be tantamount to conceding that Iran's nuclear program is a "threat to the peace."
Since the first disclosures of clandestine enrichment were made in 2003, Iran's response has careened from outrage and denial to limited cooperation with the IAEA that led to acceptance of the Agreed Protocol along with more intrusive inspections, to angry rejection of the protocol since 2006. In the ensuing years, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, the "possible military dimensions" file opened another point of contention despite the 2007 US intelligence conclusion that Iran had suspended such activities in 2003. Then Iran disclosed the existence of the enrichment plant Fordow in 2009, under pressure of discovery, affirming expectations and raising questions about whether Iran is trustworthy even with inspections.
During this period Iran continued to work on its centrifuges, introducing new iterations, drastically increasing the number of centrifuges spinning and amassing an enriched-uranium stockpile out of proportion to actual need. Work on the Arak reactor continued, which could open up the plutonium route to a weapon - calling into further doubt Iran's contention that the nuclear program was "peaceful."
President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, followed recently by Ayatollah Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard leaders, now sound a new tone of acquiescence. It's possible that a pause in Iran's nuclear program has become desirable and convenient in the face of the sanctions that undermine the economy and the regime. Tehran may have concluded there's little downside risk in hitting a reset button with the big powers.
Why would Iran, if determined to build nuclear weapons, accede to the Joint Plan of Action worked out in Geneva, its associated commitments to the IAEA and the expectation of further limits on its nuclear program? The Obama administration argues that sanctions led to this juncture: Economic pain finally wore out a restive public. The mullahs decided they had better cut a deal. US Senators Mark Kirk, Robert Menendez and others have doubled down, introducing a bill adding new sanctions on Iran should it fail to reach or violate the agreement.