Analysis: Update from Iran nuclear talks

Ayatollah Khamenei. Image Credit: Tasnim News, CC BY 4.0.

Months of talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal appear to be reaching a conclusion – despite Tehran’s refusal to negotiate directly with the Biden administration.

The news from the Vienna talks – which began in April 2021 but were then paused for months following the election of the hardline conservative Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s president last summer – came as Israel warned that a new agreement risked creating “a more violent, more volatile Middle East”.

What happened

  • Last week, the European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles tweeted after a call with Iran’s foreign minister: “I strongly believe an agreement is in sight. The moment has come to make an ultimate effort and reach a compromise.”
  • Senior EU officials have also suggested that the talks are on the verge of a breakthrough but warned that “some questions, some of them rather political and difficult to agree” remain outstanding.
  • Both Iran and Washington also signalled a deal may be in reach. On Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the talks had made “significant progress”, while cautioning that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. He also said that “the remaining issues are the hardest”.
  • Last week, the US State Department said that the ball was in Iran’s court. Suggesting that “substantial progress has been made in the last week,” a State Department spokesperson said that “if Iran shows seriousness, we can and should reach an understanding on mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] within days”.
  • However, on Monday the Iranian president indicated that the outstanding questions were for Washington to decide. “The United States must prove its will to lift major sanctions,” Raisi said. “To reach an agreement, guarantees are necessary for negotiations and nuclear issues.”
  • Details of a potential deal were reported by Reuters last week.
  • Israeli politicians across the political spectrum remain sceptical, including Labor leader Merav Michaeli, who said that “this deal is much shorter, with many more sunsets, with many, many more – I would say – bad opportunities, cracks. And yes, it’s very, very problematic.” She also made clear that she was committed to “a complementary agreement between Israel and the US.”
  • A number of stumbling blocks remain, including Iran’s insistence that the US guarantees it won’t pull out of the agreement again and its desire that all sanctions – not just those related to its nuclear programme – should be lifted.

Ticking time-bomb

The pressure to reach a deal is driven by the continuing pace of Iran’s nuclear programme. “We are reaching a point where Iran’s nuclear escalation will have eliminated the substance of the JCPOA,” European diplomats indicated last month, noting that “this means we have some weeks and not months to reach an agreement.” Iran’s nuclear programme, analysts suggest, is more advanced than ever and continued to pick up pace even while talks were held in Vienna. Its “breakout time” – the period needed for Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon – has shrunk dramatically from one year before Donald Trump quit the JCPOA in 2018 to around three weeks. Iran has also enriched some of its uranium stockpile to 60 percent purity – way above the 3.67 percent level set out in the JCPOA – and close to the 90 percent needed to produce nuclear weapons. While Tehran claims its programme is for peaceful, civilian use only, independent observers are sceptical. “A country enriching at 60 percent is a very serious thing,” Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), suggested. “Only countries making bombs are reaching this level.” Moreover, since February 2021, Tehran has refused to allow IAEA inspectors access to footage recorded on cameras installed by inspectors in Iran’s nuclear facilities, making it difficult to assess the current state of the programme.

Shape of the deal

The 2015 agreement was designed to freeze the Iranian nuclear project for 15 years until 2030, although some of its “sunset clauses” were due to expire in about another two years. President Biden pledged to make the agreement “stronger and longer” but it is not clear whether a new agreement would stretch this timetable or whether it will expire in eight years as set out in the original agreement. However, a 20-page draft agreement seen by Reuters last week provided some clues as to what may be in the deal:

  • The agreement envisages an initial stage where Tehran would limit its enrichment to five percent and release western prisoners the regime is effectively holding hostage. In return, $7 billion in Iranian funds frozen in South Korean banks under US sanctions would be released.
  • “Reimplementation Day” would follow once stage one was complete, with Iran returning to the 3.67 percent enrichment cap and the US beginning to once again issue waivers to end sanctions on the all-important Iranian oil industry. These presidential waivers would likely be for 90-120 days.
  • The fate of Iran’s stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium is unclear. After the 2015 agreement, Tehran’s former stockpile was moved to Russia.

The view from Tehran…

Last week, the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, made his first comments in months on the negotiations. He argued that Iran is in “urgent need of peaceful nuclear energy sooner or later” and accused “the enemy” of making “meaningless claims on how close Iran is to making a bomb”. Khamenei, whose final approval will be necessary for Iran to agree a deal, also warned the country’s negotiators in Vienna not to repeat their alleged mistakes of 2015: “My criticism was that certain points had to be observed in the JCPOA so that problems would not arise in the future. Well, some of these points were not heeded, and problems emerged later, as everyone is now witnessing.” The pressure was stepped up by the conservative-dominated parliament, which published a letter to Raisi outlining its six conditions for backing an agreement. Among them were a guarantee the US and Europe wouldn’t exit the agreement or impose “snapback sanctions” to punish future Iranian violations and the lifting of all sanctions, including those related to Iran’s ballistic missile programme, support for terrorism and the regime’s human rights abuses. The Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, offered a potential compromise on the demands for a guarantee, suggesting on Saturday a joint statement by the heads of the US Senate and House of Representatives to back the nuclear deal would be a sufficient “political guarantee”.

…and Washington

Biden faces a “bloody political battle”, John Hannah, a national security adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney and a critic of the 2015 deal, warned this week as Republican opposition to a new agreement grows. In a letter, 33 Republican senators warned the White House that any deal would “likely be torn up” by the next presidential administration “as early as January 2025.” A letter signed by more than 100 House Republicans this week issued a similar threat. It’s not just Republicans who are wary of a new nuclear deal, however. “I ask why we would try to simply go back to the JCPOA — a deal that was not sufficient in the first place and still doesn’t address some of the most serious national security concerns we have,” Senator Robert Menendez, the Democrat chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, suggested earlier this month. He termed Iran’s nuclear programme a “clear and present danger” that has “grown disproportionately worse day by day” and called instead for the administration to “reinvigorate our multilateral sanctions efforts and pursue new avenues, new ideas, new solutions for a diplomatic resolution”.

Israel united

The current Israeli government has avoided the public row with Washington which accompanied Benjamin Netanyahu’s fight with Barack Obama over the 2015 deal. However, Israeli politicians remain deeply sceptical of the emerging shape of the potential new agreement.

  • On Sunday, the prime minister, Naftali Bennett, branded the likely deal “shorter and weaker” than the 2015 agreement, with “sunset clauses” expiring in just over two years, and warned Iran would spend the bounty it received from the lifting of sanctions supporting regional terrorist groups and proxy armies.
  • Bennett told the weekly cabinet: “The original agreement, signed in 2015, was an agreement for ten years and is now for two-and-a-half years. Meaning, restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme are expected to expire in 2025. Two things have happened since the original signing: The Iranians have made great strides in building their enrichment capability and time has passed.” He continued: “If the world signs the agreement again – without extending the expiration date – then we are talking about an agreement that buys a total of two and a half years, after which Iran can and may develop and install advanced centrifuges, without restrictions.”
  • The prime minister also warned that “the Iranians will currently receive tens of billions of dollars and the lifting of sanctions; that is a lot of money. This money will eventually go to terrorism in the area.” Bennett cautioned that a return to the JCPOA would thus “create a more violent and less stable Middle East” and “enrich [Iran’s] brutal and corrupt regime.”
  • Labor leader Merav Michaeli, who serves as transport secretary in the coalition government and is a member of the security cabinet, said last weekend she too opposed the emerging agreement. Addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations in Jerusalem, Michaeli said she had supported the original 2015 nuclear deal, but cautioned the new agreement is “much shorter, with many more sunsets, with many, many more – I would say – bad opportunities, cracks”. “It’s very, very problematic,” Michaeli argued, “We are doing whatever we can to make it as best as possible.” The Labor leader also said Israel was ready to work on “a complementary agreement” with the US.
  • The apparent failure of Bennett’s attempts to quietly persuade the White House to take a tougher stand with Tehran was underlined by Jerusalem Post columnist Herb Keinon. “Israel can express its opposition politely, as the Bennett-Lapid team has done, or express it rudely, as Netanyahu did, but at the end of the day, it really does not matter,” he wrote this week. “Israel is a small country a long way away from America and its ability to impact US policy on matters that the US believes touch on its national interests is limited … When push comes to shove, Israel will, as it has in the past, need to act on its own – no one else is going to do its work for it.”

What happens next

Dennis Ross, who oversaw Iran policy during the Obama administration, warned that any deal will likely only kick the can down the road. “You arrest the advance of the of the programme; you buy time to deal with what is a problem that is being deferred,” he suggested. “It’s not going away — it’s being deferred.”