The idea of point of no return in itself has elements of destiny and “force majeure”. It is a means to express a feeling of loss of control, stating that from this stage on there is or will be nothing else to do, but giving in into imminent inevitability. In essence, this is a subjective feeling, connected to either known, but not necessarily relevant, classifications, or to instrumental definitions, used to make a point.
The most common use of this expression, point of no return, is in threatening an audience into acting in a timely measure. The idea of the “point of no return” closing in, clearly states that very soon one cannot be held responsible for what is about to happen. However, not all points of no return are fictional.
In fact, it is quite easy to differentiate between a fictional point of no return and a real one. One possible way is that of transformation. If the matter changes into another matter, like in a chemical reaction, there will be a point from which on the reaction is ongoing and cannot be stopped. None-the-less, in some cases, even after the transformation, energy may enable us to reverse the reaction. A second possibility is that of will. If the change is subdued to human will, there will be always a possibility to return.
In the case of the Iranian nuclear project, we face several “points of no return”, not chronologically, but in reference to the process in question. First and foremost, we are confronted with the point from which on Iran will have nuclear weapons capabilities that make her weapons program inevitable. Then there is the point less mentioned, from which on there is no point in negotiations concerning JCPOA, as it has stopped to be relevant. Another “point of no return” being referred to as significant is that of acquiring enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb. There is a point from which on fanatic Islamists will have access to nuclear devices, a point we will consider later on in this paper.
There is no such point. A nation can decide, for various reasons, to stop or dismantle a nuclear weapons project even after achieving weapons capabilities. Best known example is that of South Africa, that had dismantled her nukes in 1989 and signed first the NPT and then the Pelindaba treaty. A less known example is that of Switzerland. The Swiss did in fact sign the NPT in 1969, but continued a secret project up until 1988, but gave it up. One of the main motivations to give up a nuclear weapons project is the need to avoid international isolation. For that to happen, first the isolation has to be profound and disturbing.
Every part of the JCPOA can be achieved at any stage. One can disassemble second and third generation centrifuges, eliminate stockpile of low and high enriched Uranium and allow access to any facility the IAEA sees the need to monitor. This is in no way a “point of no return”, but a means to put pressure on western states to prefer international diplomacy over sanctions that won’t allow Iran to join the table.
In fact, in most cases, when you look closer at the facts, the idea presented is that of enough partly enriched Uranium to shorten the period of time needed for a break-out scenario, meaning that once Iran decides to go for a nuclear weapon, the time needed to achieve enough weapons grade Uranium for a first device is significantly shorter. This does not shorten the period of time needed for metallurgy, developing and testing a working device. In any case, one can dilute the enriched Uranium, no matter if it has been re-converter to UF4 or even into metal. You can return from any state of enrichment, the lower the stage of reconversion into metal, the easier to do.
All three points refer to a rational perspective, led by social, economic and security guide lines, as we are used to in modern politics. But what about irrational points of no return, such that don’t comply with our standards, don’t use our values and ethics.
The point from which on fanatic Islamists might have access to nuclear devices is such an irrational point of no return. Thomas Sowell of the Hoover institute is referring to this point as a point of no return and to Iran with nuclear weapons as a stage in this process, we are drifting towards. Once Iran has nuclear weapons, the threat of helplessness confronted with further Iranian expansion in the region will start an accelerated nuclear weapons race. In this scenario, Islamic fundamentalist groups will have easier access to this technology and greater motivation to use such a weapon. Once they have achieved such capabilities, the impact on the free world will change the ground rules, possibly even more than the events of 9/11, but for some reason the west is slow to act or even react, disregarding the scale of consequence and the price to pay.