Tomorrow's inauguration of Joe Biden as President brings partial relief from President Trump's foreign policy confusion. My previous column argued that the Iran nuclear agreement was beneficial to the USA and the world, and that Trump made a huge mistake in withdrawing from it. Biden has wisely announced a desire to return to the agreement, but to do this he must act quickly and he must overrule the aggressive desires of Israel and much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
Because of Trump's foolish decision, Iran is closer than ever to a nuclear weapon. At their heavily fortified and bunkered Fordo plant, Iran has begun enriching uranium to 20 percent This is literally a short step away from the 90 percent needed for bombs.
Allow me to explain the science behind this. Natural uranium contains about 1 percent "fissionable" (explode-able) uranium; the remainder is non-fissionable. "Enrichment" separates out this small fraction. But this can't be done by chemical methods because fissionable and non-fissionable uranium are chemically identical. So separation is accomplished non-chemically by spinning gaseous uranium in vertical centrifuge tubes, where heavier uranium migrates toward the outside of the tube while lighter uranium (which happens to be the fissionable fraction) migrates toward the inside where it is removed and injected into another centrifuge for further enrichment.
Enrichment is not a "linear" process. That is, much more spinning is needed to go from 1-percent to 2-percent fissionable than to go from, say, 80 percent to 81 percent. The process is characterized by a "doubling time": The spinning time required to go from 1 to 2 percent is the same as the time to go from 2 to 4 percent or from 4 to 8 percent, etc. So going from Fordo's 20-percent enrichment up to 80 percent (two doublings) is no more time-consuming than going from 1 percent to 4 percent. Thus 20 percent is "a short step" away from bomb-grade 90-percent fissionable uranium.
Biden must quickly wrap up talks with the moderate administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign policy advisor Mohammad Zarif because Iran's next president will be elected in June and term limits prevent Rouhani from running. Thanks partly to Trump's crippling sanctions against Iran's economy, the next president could be one of the hardliners who have always opposed an agreement. On the other hand, reformists in Iran are encouraging the popular and highly competent negotiator Zarif to announce as a candidate for Iran's presidency.
According to noted Iranian journalist and Middle East analyst Saeid Jarafi, writing in the American journal Foreign Policy, Iranian moderates have little chance of winning the next election unless a new agreement, one that boosts the Iranian economy by removing USA's harsh sanctions, is signed before June. If hardliners return to power, the world will face something similar to the harsh 2005-2013 anti-U.S. rule of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It's a cinch that such a president will kill unfinished negotiations and ramp up Iran's bomb-making efforts.
Biden recently promised he would re-negotiate the agreement "using hard-nosed diplomacy and support from our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran's other destabilizing activities." But it's clear that if Biden presses new conditions such as limits on Iran's missile program, he will simply be playing into the hands of these militants who oppose any agreement.
The Biden team needs to be prepared for Iran's hardliners to conduct violent acts in the region precisely to derail an agreement. Iran's Jan. 4 seizure of a South Korean tanker ship in the Persian Gulf could be one example. This seizure followed an Iranian government claim that, since the Trump administration tightened sanctions, South Korea has kept $7 billion in Iranian funds frozen in a South Korean bank. It's not surprising that Iranians took offense toward those they regarded as "thieves" of their badly needed cash.
The November assassination, probably by Israel, of the nuclear scientist who founded Iran's nuclear program also had the effect of reducing the probability that Iran will sign an agreement. It's ironic that extremists in both Iran and in the West are doing their best to sabotage an agreement that more peaceful moderates in Iran and in the West support.
If Biden fails to revive the agreement by June, he will probably have to deal with a new conservative Iranian president resembling Ahmadinejad. This will increase Mideast tensions, increase the likelihood of an Iranian bomb, and increase the prospect of a difficult and deadly war with Iran.