Analysis: Tensions mount as Iran nuclear negotiations resume

Negotiations about Iranian Nuclear Program. Image credit: US State Department, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Regional tensions in the Middle East have risen in recent days as a seventh round of talks over the resurrection of the Iran nuclear deal, first negotiated in 2015, have begun in Vienna.

What’s happening

  • Negotiations resumed on Monday following a five-month hiatus, hoping to breathe new life into the deal following the Trump administration’s withdrawal in 2018.
  • The formal meetings in Vienna include Iran, Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany. The US is taking part indirectly.
  • Talks were broken off by Iran in June following the coming to power of ultraconservative president Ebrahim Raisi.
  • Raisi opened negotiations with “maximalist demands”, including the unfreezing of $10 billion in assets by the US.
  • Indeed, Tehran has insisted that any new deal must serve “Iran’s national interests” but claimed that he was “firmly determined to reach an agreement”, viewing sanctions relief as a major economic win for Iran.
  • Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that “the US still fails to properly understand the fact that there is no way to return to the deal without verifiable and effective lifting of all sanctions imposed on Iran after the US departure”.
  • “This opportunity is not a window that can remain open forever”, he added.
  • Latest reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency this month made clear that Iran had significantly increased its stockpile of highly enriched uranium in recent weeks, reaching 113.8kg enriched to 20 percent, up from 84.3 kg in September enriched to 60 percent.
  • Raz Zimmt, an Iran scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies, has estimated that it would take Iran 3-4 weeks to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon, with up to an additional two years to build the necessary detonator and delivery system.

A recap

In 2015, Iran agreed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US (the P5+1) to limit its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. The deal was intended to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapons programme.

Under the deal:

  • Iran agreed to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98 per cent to 300kg, for a period of 15 years.
  • Iran’s centrifuges would only enrich to 3.67 per cent, which was considered enough for civilian nuclear power and research, but well below weapons grade enrichment (90 per cent). That limit on enrichment would be maintained for 15 years.
  • The number of centrifuges in operation would be reduced by two thirds. The Fordow facility would be prohibited from enriching uranium for 15 years and the facility repurposed into a research facility, with Russian assistance. Only limited enrichment would take place at the facility at Natanz. Iran would not build any new enrichment facilities for 15 years. The heavy water reactor at Arak which was capable of producing weapons grade plutonium, would be redesigned so that it could not produce spent fuel.
  • Iran agreed to provisionally implement the Additional Protocol to its Safeguard Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In exchange, all nuclear-related sanctions would be lifted. Under the agreement, non-compliance could see sanctions automatically reintroduced (the snapback provisions). The deal is overseen by a Joint Commission comprising the signatories of the agreement and the EU. The Commission is chaired by EU High Representative Josep Borrell. Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA is monitored and verified by the IAEA.

The Trump administration withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 and reimposed all sanctions as part of its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign. The remaining signatories to the JCPOA, including the UK, did not follow suit.

Problems with the JCPOA

Many of the JCPOA’s critics, including numerous Arab states and Israel, have warned of the original deal’s shortcomings. Major issues remain unresolved and are seen as opportunities for Iran to continue its malign activities even when in compliance with the deal.

President Biden has repeatedly stated his desire to fix these loopholes through a “stronger and longer” deal that would “strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern”. This would form part of a “renewed international consensus around America’s Iran policy – and a redoubled commitment to diplomacy – to more effectively push back against Tehran’s other malign behaviour in the region”.

Outstanding problems:

  • The JCPOA incorporates sunset clauses, including the conventional arms embargo which expired in 2020; the relaxing of the number of permitted advanced centrifuges in 2024 and the lifting of limits on Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium in 2030.
  • The JCPOA does not include provisions constraining Iran’s usage of ballistic missiles, which have been used to threaten Israel and other Iranian foes.
  • Concerns remain around inadequate inspection and verification regimes, including the 24-hour notice period and access to undeclared sites.
  • Iran’s destabilisation activities, or what the JCPOA terms ‘regional issues’, were excluded from the agreement. This includes support for Iranian proxies in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, support for the Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist groups, and the activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is also recognised as a terrorist group by the US.

The view from Jerusalem

Israel’s commentary on the efforts to resurrect the deal have been relatively muted in comparison with the vocal initial criticisms from Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015.

  • Israel remains officially opposed to the 2015 deal, with some Israeli officials believing that the deal as originally agreed has been fatally undermined by Iran’s progress towards enrichment since 2018.
  • Speaking on Sunday, prime minister Naftali Bennett urged the powers in Vienna not to “give in to Iran’s nuclear blackmail” in return for “almost nothing” – all while Iran “gets paid” to “keep its nuclear programme”, a reference to the lifting of sanctions.
  • “Iran deserves no rewards, no bargain deals and no sanctions relief in return for their brutality”, Bennett added.
  • Defence minister Benny Gantz expanded, saying that Israel “does not oppose talks – but we can’t allow deceptions”.
  • “There needs to be a price that is expressed in economic sanctions and military activities so that the Iranians halt their nuclear race and their regional aggression”, he added.
  • Israel has reportedly pushed for relevant parties to make any progress conditional on Tehran’s cessation of uranium enrichment. Israel claimed on Monday that Iran was preparing to enrich weapons-grade uranium in the past month.
  • Israel has also reportedly made efforts to both stop a return to the 2015 agreement and to prevent any interim agreement, seen as a possible stop-gap should no full agreement be forthcoming.
  • Meanwhile, it has been reported that Jerusalem believes the potential failure of the talks could lead to increased friction between Iran, Israel and the Gulf states.
  • Indeed, a series of drone strikes and attempted attacks in the Middle East in recent months have been attributed to Iran as a means of applying pressure to ensure a favourable outcome in the talks.

Lapid in London

Iran was top of the agenda on foreign minister Yair Lapid’s trip to the UK on Monday this week. Speaking in London, Lapid warned that “the Iranians are coming to these talks for only one reason – to get sanctions lifted”. “They need money. For Hezbollah, for the Revolutionary Guards, for their global terrorist network, and for their continued race towards a nuclear weapon”, he continued. Lapid argued that the Vienna negotiations had to be “conducted from a position of strength”, with tighter sanctions and supervision of nuclear sites as conditions for agreement. Signing a memorandum of understanding with the UK government, Lapid also published a joint op ed with UK foreign secretary Liz Truss in which he pledged to “work night and day to prevent the Iranian regime from ever becoming a nuclear power”, adding that “the world has to be safe for freedom-loving democracies” and praising the Abraham Accords process as “no greater sign of what can be achieved through open dialogue”. Lapid also visited Paris, where president Macron urged Iran to engage in the talks in a “constructive manner”.

What happens next

Expectations for significant progress towards a renewed deal in the coming weeks are low. However, with time running out, it seems likely that Iran’s true intentions – whether to stall for time to attain the bomb or to genuinely return to a deal – will soon be made plain.