Will it or Won't it: An Iran Nuclear Deal Revival Story
It's been more than three years since the former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018. Trump's withdrawal permitted Iran to enhance its nuclear capacity and enrich uranium to 60% purity. However, the Biden administration has been a strong opponent of Trump's withdrawal from the JCPOA and has been trying to stop Iran's nuclear advances by reviving the deal.
The negotiation talks in Vienna started rather painfully, with both sides unwilling to reach a satisfactory conclusion. The negotiations between the U.S. and Iran to salvage the nuclear deal started right after Joe Biden came to office in January 2021, but the process soon stalled as Iran's presidential election took place in June 2021. Despite all this, the international talks to save the Iran nuclear deal have remained largely hopeful since the onset of this new year, with even the E.U. saying that a deal remained possible. Iran's foreign ministry spokesman has also stated that efforts by "all parties" to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement had resulted in "good progress" during the Vienna talks. So, Why exactly haven't they revived the deal yet? The answer to this question lies in the detailed analysis of what exactly transpired in the numerous rounds of negotiations in Vienna.
The new delegation of Iran under Ebrahim Raisi's government has put new proposals on the table that have proven to be incompatible with the 2015 pact and which the U.S. finds rather hard to comply with. The major bones of contention between Iran and Western powers are sanctions relief, guarantees that the U.S. will never again revoke, and the degree to which Iran has to roll back its nuclear program. The U.S. doesn't want to be too eager to revive the deal as they don't wish to risk being portrayed as the weaker side. Iran, on the other side, has repeatedly stated that removal of all nuclear as well as non-nuclear sanctions is required for it to comply with the nuclear deal. German, French, and British diplomats who took part in the Vienna negotiations said in a statement that they were disappointed after evaluating Iran's new proposals because Iran has backed down from the majority of the agreements reached in the previous rounds of talks.
Iran's proposals exposes the severe divide in the two sides' views. Many also pointed out that Iran is presenting the maximum demands to achieve the minimum demands; while also dragging out the diplomatic achievement in talks to advance its nuclear program. For example, Iran's demand for a guarantee from Biden that the next U.S. administration would honor the deal was made unacceptable by the U.S. as they pointed out that the JCPOA is not a treaty ratified by the United States Senate, and therefore Biden administration cannot make such a guarantee. The Western media outlet's purposeful portrayal of Iranian demands as maximalist hasn't helped the American cause either. As negotiation talks are "progressing," speculation about a new 'plan B' is on the horizon. Since JCPOA tends to end up in a deadlock whenever talks happen, some analysts and diplomats are suggesting the IAEA, whose board includes Russia and China, as a new forum for nuclear pressure.
Despite all the several points of contention, the impetus for reaching a deal renewing the 2015 treaty has remained stronger than ever for both sides. Iran has even hinted at its interest in a compromise over monitoring its nuclear program by granting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) permission to Iran gave the IAEA replace the monitoring system in a nuclear site in the Iranian city Karaj that was destroyed in mid-2021. The welcome move is, however, deterred by Iran's refusal to resume compliance with the JCPOA and its non-budging attitude, insisting that Washington lift all sanctions, including all sanctions that are "contrary to the nuclear deal," and verify their removal.
If the Iran nuclear deal ever gets revived, that would mean that the U.S. would lift all sanctions related to the nuclear deal (while keeping those for human rights intact), and Iran would return to its technical commitments regarding its nuclear program under the old treaty. But critical sticking points remain, which includes finding answers to questions like which sanctions and when would they be would be lifted and in return for what specific actions by Iran, with an as-yet-to-be-determined timeline that would sequence the steps.
If the U.S. wants Iran to redraw the line on Iran's nuclear program, it needs to be more flexible in its approach and abandon the "Iran's demands are nonsensical" approach. U.S. needs to accept the distressing reality that without JCPOA limits, Iran is nearing breakout capability, which is heavily concerning. Iran on the other side should be aware that it can't risk having more onerous sanctions imposed that could have disastrous impacts on its economy. Western diplomats have pointed out that they will not allow the talks to drag on much longer, possibly with early February as the final deadline. As the number of rounds of negotiations increases and the deadline of February approaches, the impending question of will JCPOA get revived or not still remains unanswered and more complicated than ever.