Despite fizzling talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, players on both sides are expressing hope that the deal is not completely lost. However, the UN’s Watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and others are warning, if a deal is to be struck, it needs to happen extremely soon.
Iran “Galloping” Toward Nuclear Weapons
IAEA Chief Rafael Grossi said Friday that Iran’s nuclear program is “galloping ahead.”
In fact, experts now estimate Iran to be just a few weeks—perhaps even days—away from having enough enriched uranium to fuel a bomb. The next steps would include converting the uranium into a metal that is the explosive core of a bomb, inserting that metal into a small warhead, and marrying the warhead to a delivery system, like a ballistic missile.
Biden, The West “Not Waiting Forever”
Meanwhile, the latest round of negotiations broke up on June 29 in Qatar without any progress, according to a senior U.S. official who was present. “The Iranians have not demonstrated any sense of urgency, raised old issues that have been settled for months, and even raised new issues that are unrelated to the 2015 nuclear agreement,” the official said. “If there is a side that needs to make a decision, it’s them—and it’s been them for months.”
Referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), shorthand for the 2015 deal that was signed by the U.S., the UK, China, France, Russia, Germany and Iran, President Biden said, “We have laid out for the leadership of Iran what we are willing to accept in order to get back into the JCPOA,” and added, “We are waiting for their response. I am not certain when that will happen, but we are not going to wait forever.”
This past Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron told his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi that reviving the JCPOA was “still possible” but must happen “as soon as possible.”
Both Sides Distracted by Other Issues
Iran, for its part, said as recently as Monday that it is still hopeful that a deal can be reached—but it will not act with emotion or haste, according to Foreign Ministry Spokesman Naser Kanaani, who was quoted in Iranian media.
“From a pure interest standpoint, both sides would just as soon have this problem settled so they can focus on other things,” Jim Walsh, Senior Research Associate with the MIT Security Studies Program, tells Political IQ. “But it’s not a priority for them when they’ve got these other issues they’ve got to focus on.”
Biden came into office promising to restore the JCPOA, which President Trump dismantled. But since then, Walsh notes, “We’ve had the war in Ukraine, which has scrambled international relations. Covid continued. Now it’s inflation, which has caused domestic problems in Iran with protests over prices and over other things related to climate change.”
Also, Iran’s government shifted in 2021 to one that’s even more hardline.
Is a Deal With Iran Close?
But even with all that said, Walsh believes the two sides are, in fact, very close to signing a deal.
“I think they’ve gotten it done technically,” he says. “That is to say, I think they have an agreement except for one or two outstanding issues.”
Among its final sticking points, Iran wants its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) taken off the State Department’s terrorist organization list.
According to Walsh, even the U.S. Department of Defense would agree with this request. “It was not intended as a legal instrument to impose on governments,” he says. “It was supposed to go against terrorists, but because people were looking for a way to whack the Iranians, anything qualified. The U.S. military pushed back and said, ‘If we sanction the IRGC, it will complicate all our ability to operate in the region.’ The DOD has been consistently of that position.”
But another Iranian demand is one that is virtually impossible to satisfy. “I’ve spoken to Iranian officials here,” says Walsh. “The Iranians want a guarantee that if they sign an agreement, the next president won’t come in and tear it up again. Because of the way U.S. foreign policy works, no American president can offer that kind of agreement.”
In the meantime, after 30 countries voted to censure Iran for stonewalling the IAEA, Iran retaliated by removing nearly half of the cameras monitoring its nuclear facilities and announced plans to install more advanced centrifuges.
On Monday, Iran stated that it would continue to keep the cameras turned off until the 2015 nuclear deal is restored.
Iran Aiding Russia in Its War Against Ukraine
Iran is acting in bad faith in other ways, as well. Last week, even as his nation is being economically isolated for its invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Iran and met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to discuss strengthening their nations’ ties.
The meeting followed reports that Iran plans to sell weapons-capable drones to Russia. Back in April, it was reported that Iran was supplying Russia with munitions and military equipment such as RPGs, anti-tank missiles and rocket launchers.
Iran and Russia have a “love/hate relationship,” according to Walsh. “Remember, the Soviet Union invaded Iran twice in the last century.”
In fact, he says, “while the Iranian leadership hates the U.S.—and maybe after all these years the average Iranian citizens do, too—they may despise the Russians more.” However, “at the end of the day, it’s states’ interests that matter, so if they can cut a deal of convenience that helps them, they’re going to do it with whichever partner they can. So sometimes they play with the Russians and sometimes they don’t.”
China Makes Up Most of Iran’s Oil Exports
“The Iranian state’s in dire need of money,” according to Simon Mabon, Professor of International Politics at Lancaster University in Lancashire, England. That may explain why Tehran is selling weapons—and why it would like to rejuvenate the JCPOA.
“They agree in the JCPOA to lift the secondary sanctions whose target was foreign corporations doing business with Iran,” says Walsh.
On the other hand, Iran’s oil profits have risen 30% so far in 2022, mostly to China.
“If we’re ranking these in some sort of order, I always think China would be less of a problem than Russia,” says Walsh. “In other words, we haven’t seen China make any noise about busting up the JCPOA like Russia.”
New Sanctions as Patience Grows Thin
As U.S. patience grows thin, earlier this month Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced new sanctions on 15 individuals and entities involved in illicit sales and shipments of Iranian oil.
Blinken took the opportunity to press Iran to “demonstrate a commitment” to return to the JCPOA. “Absent a change in course from Iran, we will continue to use our sanctions authorities,” he said.
“An agreement, even if it’s simple and it gets us back to where we were, is a far more preferable outcome than having no agreement,” says Walsh. “I think the Iranians know that. And I think the Americans and the Europeans know that—and certainly the IAEA knows that. Any deal is better than having an unregulated, unrestricted, opaque civilian nuclear program in Iran.”