A revived nuclear pact could benefit Washington and Tehran: Foreign Policy

April 10, 2022 - 19:18

In a commentary dated April 5 titled “The little Iran nuclear deal that Couldn’t”, Foreign Policy said a revived nuclear pact could benefit both the United States and Iran but it is proving a hard sell.

Following is an excerpt of the article:

Talks on Iran’s nuclear program have been veering between success and failure for months now, bedeviling the best efforts of prognosticators to forecast the outcome. A deal would have something to offer both Washington, in the form of greater constraints to slow Iran’s nuclear advances, and Tehran, which would gain access to a fresh pot of money. But such a deal would be fraught with political risks that would make it potentially painful for both sides to swallow.

“You have to decide what’s more important: uranium enrichment or Iranian enrichment,” said Ali Vaez, an expert at the International Crisis Group and a proponent of a deal who believes there is a 50-50 chance of a new pact being sealed. “If you are more concerned about uranium enrichment, then this deal is better than the alternative. If you are more concerned about Iranian enrichment, then you would argue for a no-deal scenario.”

The ongoing Iran nuclear talks are aimed at resurrecting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a landmark 2015 pact that offered Iran relief from financial and economic sanctions in exchange for a verifiable commitment to accept constraints on its nuclear program. Former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in May 2018 and imposed additional sanctions on Tehran. A year later, Iran—which had until then complied with the pact—began ramping up its own nuclear activities, violating the terms of the original agreement.

The Biden administration committed to rejoining the JCPOA on the condition that Iran return to compliance with the pact and reopened indirect negotiations with Iran in April 2021. Those talks—which have included representatives from successive Iranian administrations—were nearing completion last month. But they have since stalled, most recently over a Russian demand that it be granted a broad exemption from sanctions imposed on Moscow in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Russia is important to the Iran deal because, for now, it is the one country willing and able to offload Iran’s uranium.

Negotiators for the key signatories to the nuclear accord with Iran—China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain, and the United States, as well as the European Union, which is facilitating the talks—have largely returned home from the stalemated talks. The final stumbling blocks include a pair of demands by Iran to remove its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations and to provide some guarantees that the pact will not be rescinded if Republicans come to power in the United States. The Biden administration was reportedly entertaining the possibility of delisting the IRGC, which would continue to be subject to separate sanctions, but the arrangement has faced enormous backlash in Washington, Israel, and the Persian Gulf (Saudi Arabia and the UAE). It remains unclear whether the United States will delist the Iranian force.

A new deal

The announcement of a nuclear deal would provide some clear benefits to U.S. policymakers. It would require Iran to stop operating its most advanced centrifuges. Iran would also have to store those centrifuges in a warehouse under international monitoring and either degrade its stockpile of highly enriched uranium or ship it abroad. But a deal is a hard political sell. The new pact is certain to be weaker than the original, with a significantly shorter breakout time. It would leave Iran in possession of a new generation of advanced centrifuges that it began operating only after the Trump administration pulled out of the deal.

Under the terms of the original 2015 deal, Iran can legally resume some of its enrichment activities in 2026 and 2031. Iran secured the right to expand the size of its uranium stockpile, currently capped at about 660 pounds, in January 2031 and to then enrich uranium at higher levels than currently allowed under the 2015 nuclear pact. It remains unclear whether a new deal would extend those provisions. But Iran has, in the wake of the U.S. abrogation of the pact, already enriched more uranium, and to greater purities, than it could have done under the deal it previously adhered to.

But Iran would still be subject to expanded international monitoring of its nuclear program for up to an additional 10 years. The original pact also required Iran to sign an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—known as the Additional Protocol—that involves more intrusive scrutiny of its nuclear program than required by signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Iran has long been saying that its nuclear program is aimed at securing the country’s energy future.

It is unlikely that the U.S. Congress can, or will, block the implementation of the deal. The Senate majority leader, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, an opponent of the original 2015 nuclear deal, has expressed support for the talks this time around, and fellow Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Ed Markey have made a public case for a deal. “There is no good alternative to reentering the Iran nuclear deal,” Markey told Congress, noting that Trump’s maximum pressure policy had resulted in “maximum enrichment” and put the United States “on a perilous path to war.”

“These failed policies have led Iran closer to a nuclear weapon,” he said.

No new deal 

A breakdown of talks would have serious downsides for Washington, removing international scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program and raising the prospect of a military confrontation with Tehran. It also comes at a time when the West is craving new sources of oil and gas to offset the reduction of Russian exports brought on by sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine. For Tehran, the failure to close the deal would cut off billions of dollars in future oil revenues and frozen funds. France and Britain would likely trigger the snapback provision of the 2015 nuclear deal, which would reimpose a raft of UN Security Council nuclear and ballistic missile sanctions on Iran.

Those who support dumping the deal, or renegotiating a stronger pact, have argued that Iran will only be emboldened to engage in more activities, including a ballistic missile program that continues to advance in the face of nuclear diplomacy. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has criticized the emerging deal, predicting it would be weaker than the original pact, and warning that some of its key provisions would expire in the next decade.

But Bennett has stopped short of mounting the same kind of provocative public campaign that saw his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, delivering a highly combative address to the U.S. Congress in an effort to derail then-President Barack Obama’s most important West Asia diplomatic initiative.

Supporters of a deal acknowledge that it isn’t likely to be perfect, but they say the alternative is worse: an Iranian government with few constraints on its nuclear activities and the ingredients for greater confrontation—and potentially war. The maximum pressure campaign launched by the Trump administration was an abysmal failure, they note, providing Tehran with political cover for restricting international monitoring and leaving the country with a more stockpile of highly enriched uranium.

“We don’t want Iran to have a nuclear weapon, and the best way to get to that is probably through a negotiated solution,” Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, then-head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters in mid-March.

Under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran was only allowed to produce low-enriched uranium containing 3.67 percent U-235, the fissile material extracted from natural uranium to generate electrical power. A year after Trump withdrew from the deal, Iran began expanding its stockpile of uranium enriched to 4.5 percent U-235, and deploying more advanced centrifuges capable of accelerating its enrichment activities, in violation of the original pact. Iran first announced it was enriching uranium at a level of 20 percent U-235 in January 2021, in the final days of the Trump administration. Tehran has since begun enriching to 60 percent U-235.

Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, said that while it will be much more challenging to sell a final deal as an unalloyed diplomatic achievement, congressional opponents don’t have the votes to kill it off.

Still, Rome said he doesn’t expect the outcome to emerge as a central theme in the U.S. midterm elections. “As much as Iran analysts like to think their subject is at the center of the universe, I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that voters will take this into account in a serious way,” he said.

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