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Talks on Iran's Nuclear Programme Have Restarted, So What's the Deal Now?

After Trump withdrew from the deal, Iran rapidly increased its nuclear stockpile at the cost of tougher sanctions.

Updated
Explainers
8 min read
Talks on Iran's Nuclear Programme Have Restarted, So What's the Deal Now?
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The stage is all set for the revival of talks regarding the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The negotiations will happen in Vienna, Austria, on Friday, 29 November, three years after Donald Trump, the former president of the United States, decided to withdraw from the deal, leading to Iran violating many of the conditions set out in the agreement at the cost of tougher US sanctions.

It is important to note that the US is not directly attending the conference per se, and the meeting will constitute Iran, along with Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany, BBC reported.

US officials, however, will be watching the meeting closely.

A lot has happened since 2018, and the events post the US withdrawal constitute the focus of this article.

To gain a better understanding of the nuclear deal itself, the reader would benefit from taking a look at this detailed explainer.

Nevertheless, a quick recap is warranted, after which we discuss the change in circumstances that surround the Vienna talks, such as Iran's increasing nuclear stockpile, its new hardliner president, persistent Israeli attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities, and an American president who is eager to revive the deal.

Talks on Iran's Nuclear Programme Have Restarted, So What's the Deal Now?

  1. 1. Recap: What's the Deal, and Why Did Trump Detest it?

    The deal, which became official in January 2016 under the US presidency of Barack Obama, consisted of eight signatories – Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia), Germany, and the European Union.

    Israel has been vehemently against the deal since the very start.

    According to the deal, Iran had to stop producing enriched uranium and plutonium, both of which are key components of a nuclear weapon.

    In addition to using its nuclear facilities only for civilian research, Iran also agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct inspections at its facilities and other potential nuclear sites to prove that it wasn't clandestinely developing a nuclear weapons program, as reported by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

    In exchange for cooperating in the ways mentioned above, the US, the EU, and the UN lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, and the latter even recovered $100 billion worth frozen overseas assets.

    It was also agreed that if the IAEA finds, after five years since the commencement of the deal, that Iran isn't violating any conditions, then the UN can lift its embargo on weapons transfers to Iran that had been in place since 2007, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

    President Trump, with one stroke of his pen, undid everything that was present in the deal.

    Calling it "disaster" and "the worst deal ever" and something that could lead to "a nuclear holocaust", Trump withdrew the US from the deal, arguing that the deal "cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement."

    US Republicans, who had tried (and failed) to block Obama's move, too, argued that the deal was too lenient, with Senate Majority Leader at the time Mitch McConnell stating that the deal "was flawed from the beginning", PBS reported.

    So the US withdrew from the deal and reimposed nuclear-related sanctions, but what has that really led to? Did the tough US stand vis à vis the sanctions deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear capability?

    Expand
  2. 2. Iran's Nuclear Stockpile Has Actually Expanded

    The withdrawal actually had the opposite effect.

    Richard Nephew, an American nuclear weapons and sanctions expert who was present during the 2015 negotiations, told Foreign Policy magazine that "Iran is manifestly closer to being able to produce a nuclear weapon than they were two years ago."

    Iran, after Trump's decision, restarted its uranium enrichment program and even expanded its nuclear fuel stockpile, which has eventually led to a situation in which Tehran now needs only half the time to produce enough nuclear fuel to build a bomb, as compared to before the withdrawal.

    President Obama did tell us so.

    In his statement after the US withdrew, he argued that the decision was a serious mistake and "could embolden an already dangerous regime" and would leave the US with "a losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran or another war in the Middle East."

    Therefore, Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear capability is not too far away because it has not only refused to comply with the provisions of the deal, it has actually gone further and accelerated its program, especially after the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the chief of Iran's nuclear program, on 27 November 2020.

    While Yossi Cohen, the ex-director of Israeli intelligence (Mossad) hinted at Israel's role behind the killing, the Iranian Parliament passed a legislation on 2 December 2020 that blocked certain IAEA inspections, Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation reported.

    "I would say we are flying in a heavily clouded sky," said IAEA chief Rafael Mariano Grossi, who was talking about the IAEA's inability to monitor Iran's nuclear activity due to the above mentioned law, reported The Associated Press.

    Expand
  3. 3. The Change in Iranian Leadership

    Iran has had a new president since the first week of August 2021.

    That man is Ebrahim Raisi, the ultraconservative Muslim jurist who won a presidential election that saw the lowest-ever voter turnout in the history of post-revolution Iranian elections.

    President Raisi is known to be a favourite of supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who has himself gone to say that "trust in the West does not work and they do not help, and they strike a blow wherever they can, and if they do not strike somewhere, it is because they cannot", as quoted by The New York Times.

    Raisi is no less of a hardliner when it comes to the US, and his remarks about the revival of the 2015 deal have confused US policy makers and observers alike.

    One one hand, he insists that he will not leave the fate of Iran's economy (which is actually in shambles) to what he calls "the will of foreigners", Yahoo News reported.

    But on the other hand, Raisi has also said that he "will seek to lift the tyrannical sanctions imposed by America", in a statement that many Americans (policymakers and experts alike) have perceived to be a Iran subtly offering the US an invitation to restart talks concerning the 2015 deal.

    After all, Iran needs to fulfil some US demands if it has any hopes of getting nuclear-related sanctions waived to improve the state of its economy.

    Iran's oil exports nosedived after by the middle of 2020 as consequence of US withdrawal from the deal and the reimposition of sanctions. By October of the same year, US sanctions on major banks led to Iran's currency, the Iranian rial, to plummet even further while pegged against the US dollar, according to a report by CFR.

    Therefore, even though Raisi has given mixed signals regarding the deal, there is hope for a revival.

    President Biden has promised to cooperate with Iran about its nuclear weapons program and has also promised to leave the deal if and only if Iran violates the terms of the agreement.

    Additionally, Biden's British, French, and German counterparts have "welcome[d] President Biden’s clearly demonstrated commitment to return the US to full compliance with the JCPOA [joint comprehensive plan of action] and to stay in full compliance, so long as Iran does the same", The Guardian reported.

    Expand
  4. 4. The Israel Factor

    Other than a hostile Iran, there is one more country that is bound to challenge the US in its efforts to revive the JCPOA, and that's Israel, a nation which has been strongly allied to the US since its creation in 1948.

    Iran and Israel are sworn enemies, with Iran-sponsored terrorist groups like Hezbollah having waged war against Israel in the past.

    Additionally, Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2005 had infamously declared that Israel must be "wiped off the map", as quoted by NYT and other sources.

    So, Israel's opposition to any form of capitulation to Iran is understandable, to say the least.

    The Israelis have, since the 2015 deal, held the belief that the only the use of force can deter Iran from acquiring nuclear capability.

    Israel's Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon in an interview to the German Magazine Der Spiegel said that Israel is "not willing to tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran."

    "We prefer that this be done by means of sanctions, but in the end, Israel should be able to defend itself."

    Israel has certainly walked the talk.

    Mossad has been long linked to the assassinations of numerous Iranian nuclear scientists in the past 15 years, starting from Ardeshir Hosseinpou in 2007 who suspiciously died of gas poisoning caused by a malfunctioning heater.

    Israel's latest alleged victim has been Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the founder and chief of Iran's nuclear program, as mentioned above.

    But other than the targeted killings of nuclear scientists, Israel has also allegedly preyed on Iran's nuclear facilities, sampled by the explosion at Natanz uranium enrichment facility and another site in western Tehran where Iran conducts chemical weapons research, The New York Times reported.

    Of course, Israel has never directly taken responsibility for these attacks, but it has hinted the same.

    None of it is surprising, however, considering the hostile attitude of Israeli leaders towards Iran and its nuclear program.

    The Israeli prime minister at the time of the finalisation of the 2015 deal, Benjamin Netanyahu, had referred to the JCPOA as a deal that kowtows to Iran and "a bad mistake of historic proportions", The Guardian had reported.

    The current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has also spoken out against the deal, saying that "even if there is a return to an agreement, Israel is of course not a party to it, and is not bound by it, " as quoted by The Times of Israel.

    Therefore, the hostility of the US' closest Middle Eastern ally may prove to be a hinderance to Biden's efforts to get Iran to restrict its nuclear program.

    What are the overall chances of the success then?

    Expand
  5. 5. Prospects of the Vienna Meeting

    To estimate the chances of fruitful negotiations, one has to be clear about what the major players are going to demand.

    Iran naturally wants all nuclear-related sanctions removed. The question is, how far are they willing to go regarding their nuclear program to attain the waiver?

    "While it's a safe bet to assume that the new Iranian negotiating team will drive a hard bargain, it is hard to predict whether they would, in addition to their maximalist demands, have the requisite flexibility to meet the US halfway," according to Ali Vaez, who is the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, a transnational NGO headquartered in Brussels.

    The US now knows that Iran knows the benefits of its nuclear program, benefits that may outweigh the costs of US sanctions with respect to Iran's growing power in the Middle East.

    Therefore, a "maximum pressure" approach by Biden akin to what was unsuccessfully applied by President Trump is unlikely to deter Iran from advancing its program.

    The US must meet Iran somewhere halfway if it even hopes to make the Middle East more secure.

    Finally, we have Israel and the Gulf states that are allied to the US.

    As for the latter (who are Sunni states as opposed to Iran being a Shia majority country), they were initially quite uncomfortable with the JCPOA, with Saudi Arabia complaining about the lack of consultation by the US during the 2015 negotiations.

    Now, however, they seem to agree that some deal curtailing Iran's nuclear capability is much better than risking Iran possessing a nuclear threat.

    In a recent joint statement, the US and the Gulf Cooperation Council stated that a return to the JCPOA "would help pave the way for inclusive diplomatic efforts to address all issues that are necessary to ensure sustainable safety, security and prosperity in the region", Al Jazeera reported.

    Israel, therefore, as explained above, remains the real dissident to US efforts.

    And Biden won't not take its concerns seriously, as Israel remains not just a key geo-strategic ally in the Middle East, but also an important economic partner that the US has supported has been supporting unequivocally for more than seven decades.

    Perhaps the trickiest aspect of the talks is that the US has no way of ascertaining Tehran's intentions.

    Does Iran really want an improvement in relations alongside the waiver of sanctions? Or is it using these negotiations to buy itself time so that it can secretly enrich more uranium to create the bomb?

    It is impossible to tell for now. The talks might provide an answer, but its acceptance of IAEA inspections is the only way by which the world can know the truth about the Iran's nuclear program.

    Until then, take everything that Iran claims with a pinch of salt.

    (With inputs from Reuters, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, Associated Press, The Times of Israel, BBC, Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations, Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, and Observer Research Foundation.)

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

Recap: What's the Deal, and Why Did Trump Detest it?

The deal, which became official in January 2016 under the US presidency of Barack Obama, consisted of eight signatories – Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia), Germany, and the European Union.

Israel has been vehemently against the deal since the very start.

According to the deal, Iran had to stop producing enriched uranium and plutonium, both of which are key components of a nuclear weapon.

In addition to using its nuclear facilities only for civilian research, Iran also agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct inspections at its facilities and other potential nuclear sites to prove that it wasn't clandestinely developing a nuclear weapons program, as reported by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

In exchange for cooperating in the ways mentioned above, the US, the EU, and the UN lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, and the latter even recovered $100 billion worth frozen overseas assets.

It was also agreed that if the IAEA finds, after five years since the commencement of the deal, that Iran isn't violating any conditions, then the UN can lift its embargo on weapons transfers to Iran that had been in place since 2007, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

President Trump, with one stroke of his pen, undid everything that was present in the deal.

Calling it "disaster" and "the worst deal ever" and something that could lead to "a nuclear holocaust", Trump withdrew the US from the deal, arguing that the deal "cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement."

US Republicans, who had tried (and failed) to block Obama's move, too, argued that the deal was too lenient, with Senate Majority Leader at the time Mitch McConnell stating that the deal "was flawed from the beginning", PBS reported.

So the US withdrew from the deal and reimposed nuclear-related sanctions, but what has that really led to? Did the tough US stand vis à vis the sanctions deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear capability?

ADVERTISEMENT

Iran's Nuclear Stockpile Has Actually Expanded

The withdrawal actually had the opposite effect.

Richard Nephew, an American nuclear weapons and sanctions expert who was present during the 2015 negotiations, told Foreign Policy magazine that "Iran is manifestly closer to being able to produce a nuclear weapon than they were two years ago."

Iran, after Trump's decision, restarted its uranium enrichment program and even expanded its nuclear fuel stockpile, which has eventually led to a situation in which Tehran now needs only half the time to produce enough nuclear fuel to build a bomb, as compared to before the withdrawal.

President Obama did tell us so.

In his statement after the US withdrew, he argued that the decision was a serious mistake and "could embolden an already dangerous regime" and would leave the US with "a losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran or another war in the Middle East."

Therefore, Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear capability is not too far away because it has not only refused to comply with the provisions of the deal, it has actually gone further and accelerated its program, especially after the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the chief of Iran's nuclear program, on 27 November 2020.

While Yossi Cohen, the ex-director of Israeli intelligence (Mossad) hinted at Israel's role behind the killing, the Iranian Parliament passed a legislation on 2 December 2020 that blocked certain IAEA inspections, Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation reported.

"I would say we are flying in a heavily clouded sky," said IAEA chief Rafael Mariano Grossi, who was talking about the IAEA's inability to monitor Iran's nuclear activity due to the above mentioned law, reported The Associated Press.

The Change in Iranian Leadership

Iran has had a new president since the first week of August 2021.

That man is Ebrahim Raisi, the ultraconservative Muslim jurist who won a presidential election that saw the lowest-ever voter turnout in the history of post-revolution Iranian elections.

President Raisi is known to be a favourite of supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who has himself gone to say that "trust in the West does not work and they do not help, and they strike a blow wherever they can, and if they do not strike somewhere, it is because they cannot", as quoted by The New York Times.

Raisi is no less of a hardliner when it comes to the US, and his remarks about the revival of the 2015 deal have confused US policy makers and observers alike.

One one hand, he insists that he will not leave the fate of Iran's economy (which is actually in shambles) to what he calls "the will of foreigners", Yahoo News reported.

But on the other hand, Raisi has also said that he "will seek to lift the tyrannical sanctions imposed by America", in a statement that many Americans (policymakers and experts alike) have perceived to be a Iran subtly offering the US an invitation to restart talks concerning the 2015 deal.

After all, Iran needs to fulfil some US demands if it has any hopes of getting nuclear-related sanctions waived to improve the state of its economy.

Iran's oil exports nosedived after by the middle of 2020 as consequence of US withdrawal from the deal and the reimposition of sanctions. By October of the same year, US sanctions on major banks led to Iran's currency, the Iranian rial, to plummet even further while pegged against the US dollar, according to a report by CFR.

Therefore, even though Raisi has given mixed signals regarding the deal, there is hope for a revival.

President Biden has promised to cooperate with Iran about its nuclear weapons program and has also promised to leave the deal if and only if Iran violates the terms of the agreement.

Additionally, Biden's British, French, and German counterparts have "welcome[d] President Biden’s clearly demonstrated commitment to return the US to full compliance with the JCPOA [joint comprehensive plan of action] and to stay in full compliance, so long as Iran does the same", The Guardian reported.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Israel Factor

Other than a hostile Iran, there is one more country that is bound to challenge the US in its efforts to revive the JCPOA, and that's Israel, a nation which has been strongly allied to the US since its creation in 1948.

Iran and Israel are sworn enemies, with Iran-sponsored terrorist groups like Hezbollah having waged war against Israel in the past.

Additionally, Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2005 had infamously declared that Israel must be "wiped off the map", as quoted by NYT and other sources.

So, Israel's opposition to any form of capitulation to Iran is understandable, to say the least.

The Israelis have, since the 2015 deal, held the belief that the only the use of force can deter Iran from acquiring nuclear capability.

Israel's Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon in an interview to the German Magazine Der Spiegel said that Israel is "not willing to tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran."

"We prefer that this be done by means of sanctions, but in the end, Israel should be able to defend itself."

Israel has certainly walked the talk.

Mossad has been long linked to the assassinations of numerous Iranian nuclear scientists in the past 15 years, starting from Ardeshir Hosseinpou in 2007 who suspiciously died of gas poisoning caused by a malfunctioning heater.

Israel's latest alleged victim has been Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the founder and chief of Iran's nuclear program, as mentioned above.

But other than the targeted killings of nuclear scientists, Israel has also allegedly preyed on Iran's nuclear facilities, sampled by the explosion at Natanz uranium enrichment facility and another site in western Tehran where Iran conducts chemical weapons research, The New York Times reported.

Of course, Israel has never directly taken responsibility for these attacks, but it has hinted the same.

None of it is surprising, however, considering the hostile attitude of Israeli leaders towards Iran and its nuclear program.

The Israeli prime minister at the time of the finalisation of the 2015 deal, Benjamin Netanyahu, had referred to the JCPOA as a deal that kowtows to Iran and "a bad mistake of historic proportions", The Guardian had reported.

The current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has also spoken out against the deal, saying that "even if there is a return to an agreement, Israel is of course not a party to it, and is not bound by it, " as quoted by The Times of Israel.

Therefore, the hostility of the US' closest Middle Eastern ally may prove to be a hinderance to Biden's efforts to get Iran to restrict its nuclear program.

What are the overall chances of the success then?

Prospects of the Vienna Meeting

To estimate the chances of fruitful negotiations, one has to be clear about what the major players are going to demand.

Iran naturally wants all nuclear-related sanctions removed. The question is, how far are they willing to go regarding their nuclear program to attain the waiver?

"While it's a safe bet to assume that the new Iranian negotiating team will drive a hard bargain, it is hard to predict whether they would, in addition to their maximalist demands, have the requisite flexibility to meet the US halfway," according to Ali Vaez, who is the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, a transnational NGO headquartered in Brussels.

The US now knows that Iran knows the benefits of its nuclear program, benefits that may outweigh the costs of US sanctions with respect to Iran's growing power in the Middle East.

Therefore, a "maximum pressure" approach by Biden akin to what was unsuccessfully applied by President Trump is unlikely to deter Iran from advancing its program.

The US must meet Iran somewhere halfway if it even hopes to make the Middle East more secure.

Finally, we have Israel and the Gulf states that are allied to the US.

As for the latter (who are Sunni states as opposed to Iran being a Shia majority country), they were initially quite uncomfortable with the JCPOA, with Saudi Arabia complaining about the lack of consultation by the US during the 2015 negotiations.

Now, however, they seem to agree that some deal curtailing Iran's nuclear capability is much better than risking Iran possessing a nuclear threat.

In a recent joint statement, the US and the Gulf Cooperation Council stated that a return to the JCPOA "would help pave the way for inclusive diplomatic efforts to address all issues that are necessary to ensure sustainable safety, security and prosperity in the region", Al Jazeera reported.

Israel, therefore, as explained above, remains the real dissident to US efforts.

And Biden won't not take its concerns seriously, as Israel remains not just a key geo-strategic ally in the Middle East, but also an important economic partner that the US has supported has been supporting unequivocally for more than seven decades.

Perhaps the trickiest aspect of the talks is that the US has no way of ascertaining Tehran's intentions.

Does Iran really want an improvement in relations alongside the waiver of sanctions? Or is it using these negotiations to buy itself time so that it can secretly enrich more uranium to create the bomb?

It is impossible to tell for now. The talks might provide an answer, but its acceptance of IAEA inspections is the only way by which the world can know the truth about the Iran's nuclear program.

Until then, take everything that Iran claims with a pinch of salt.

(With inputs from Reuters, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, Associated Press, The Times of Israel, BBC, Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations, Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, and Observer Research Foundation.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Edited By :Saundarya Talwar
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