JCPOA: Positions Harden Ahead of Sixth Round of Talks

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With negotiators from the US and Iran bound for Vienna for a sixth round of talks, diplomats are zeroing in on the details of a potential return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is known. As talks drag into their third month and Iran's elections near, the issues are becoming more complicated and hurdles to a straightforward "compliance for compliance" deal are emerging. Even if Washington can reassure Tehran it will offer sanctions relief, politics, not economics, may decide the course of action. • A major unresolved issue is Iran’s use of advanced centrifuges. Some reports suggest that the US wants Iran’s deployed newer centrifuges to be destroyed while other reports say that they could be put into storage instead. The JCPOA allowed extremely limited use of such machines for research and development. But Iran has far exceeded those restrictions and apparently now insists that it be allowed to continue using the newer-generation models under a new agreement. A source in Vienna says that the Iranians view their demands as "part of the compensation" for damages caused by sanctions, while also suggesting that putting Iran’s program back to where it was in 2015 may be impossible. "Some of R&D activity is not reversible. What you know, you know. It’s like, 'you have the new car but we’d like you to walk,'" says another source. • US politicking is increasing the political cost for US President Joe Biden at home as well. This week, US lawmakers put forward a number of alternative pathways they’d like to see the administration take. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat who voted against the 2015 deal but defended it when Trump withdrew in 2018, said he wants changes made so that the restrictions on Iran’s program never expire to "make sure they never get into within a year" of a nuclear weapon. The outbreak of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas, which is backed by Iran, has made selling the deal even harder. Republican critics now routinely cite Iran-backed Hamas’ use of rockets as a reason why Tehran shouldn’t have access to funds. Republican Sen. Jim Risch said Tuesday he wants to see Iranian money held in overseas accounts in a "lock box or have some kind of oversight over it so that it can't be used for nefarious purposes." The Biden administration is focused on "compliance for compliance" for now and has wide latitude to offer sanctions relief on its own, assuming it doesn't lose support of a large number of Democratic senators, which could allow Congress to block Biden's ability to deliver on a deal. But the longer talks take, the more complicated it may become to offer Iran sanctions relief (NIW May14'21). • Frustration is meanwhile building at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA and conducts separate routine nuclear inspections. IAEA head Rafael Grossi said this week that "it’s becoming increasingly difficult" to extend a JCPOA monitoring deal that has provided limited transparency on JCPOA-specific aspects of Iran’s nuclear program since February. It expired last month but was extended to Jun. 24 (NIW Jun.4'21). Grossi appeared visibly frustrated at a press conference this week, underscoring tensions between Iran and the organization. "What’s going on is serious ... we cannot limit and continue to curtail the ability of the inspectors to inspect and at the same time pretend there is trust," he said. Moreover, the agency said this week it could no longer give Iran a clean bill of health on the "peaceful" nature of its nuclear program, and reported that Iran is refusing to cooperate on four issues related to its separate safeguards agreement with the agency. In a statement, Iran called the findings “unacceptable” and said “there has been no single evidence of diversion of the nuclear materials to non-peaceful purposes.” In prepared remarks delivered Wednesday, the UK, France and Germany -- members of the original deal -- said Iran limiting IAEA access is making it "harder for the international community to assure themselves that Iran’s activities remain exclusively peaceful." At this week’s IAEA board meeting, representatives of more than 50 member states spoke out against Iran’s enriching to 60%, with some saying it could only indicate military intent. • Ultimately, there remain strong drivers on both sides to reaching agreement, but political calculations will determine the outcome. Iran needs revenues from oil exports, and fixing its crumbling economy could be critical for reinforcing its legitimacy at home, particularly after a wave of protests in late 2019. For its part, the US wants to break the cycle of escalation that keeps it more closely tied to the region, to allow it to focus on East Asia. Notably, Iran has stuck to talks for months despite provocations, such as the strike against the enrichment facility at Natanz (EC Apr.16'21). More cynical observers, however, note that Tehran could have an interest in dragging things out. So long as talks continue, Washington may be reluctant to aggressively go after Iran’s oil buyers -- and the hundreds of thousands of additional barrels the country is exporting today versus a year ago make a difference for its struggling economy (EC Apr.16'21). Iran’s messaging on sanctions relief has varied, with officials sometimes demanding the repeal of measures that get in the way of the sanctions relief offered under the JCPOA. Another key issue is the sequence by which Iran would agree to controls on its nuclear program and the US would lift sanctions. It’s clear, however, that the US is not interested in repealing so-called primary sanctions that affect Iran’s access to the US financial system. Such sanctions provide leverage for Washington's pursuit of a "longer and stronger" follow-on deal that extends the timelines in the JCPOA and may address other issues. "There are things for them to gain, because there are many aspects of our sanctions that are not necessarily part of the original JCPOA. And, of course, we retain all of the right and capacity to take additional steps if they're not prepared to negotiate in good faith," National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday. Emily Meredith and Stephanie Cooke, Washington A version of this feature ran in the Jun. 11 issue of NIW's sister publication, Energy Compass.

Sanctions, Nuclear Policy, Nuclear
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