Geopolitics: US, Iran Could Struggle to Fit Back Into 2015 Deal

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• The clock is ticking on negotiations on Iran's nuclear program, stalled since the country's June elections. • US officials warn that Iran's continued nuclear advances mean simply returning to the 2015 nuclear deal may not be possible. • The longer talks drag on, the less likely Iran’s oil returns to market. The Issue After six rounds of indirect negotiations earlier this year, it is not at all clear when diplomats might meet again in Vienna. Observers have been pointing to a potential mid-September rendezvous, but on Tuesday Iran’s foreign minister said it would take "two to three months for the new government to ... plan for any decision." US officials are warning that diplomacy has a deadline, albeit an unspecified one: "There will come a time where Iran’s nuclear advances are such that it will no longer be possible to simply rewind the clock," US negotiator Robert Malley said last week (EC Aug.27'21). Facts on the Ground Iran has continued developing its nuclear program as diplomacy has dragged on. The country has deployed more advanced centrifuges than it had before the 2015 agreement, manufactured uranium metal and enriched uranium to more than 60% -- still below a weapons-grade threshold but far higher than necessary or useful for power generation. Those developments all make it more difficult to return to a one-year "breakout" period envisioned by negotiators of the 2015 deal. Estimates of Iran’s current breakout -- the time the country would need to acquire enough material for a single nuclear weapon -- vary but are generally between two and three months. The core of the problem is that Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced today, making it easier to rapidly advance to a nuclear weapon even if the country returns to the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). "They could come back into nominal compliance, but they've got all this knowledge and experience under their belt so if they decided to break out, it would be a much faster process than back in 2015," the Brookings Institution’s Robert Einhorn said. Complicating Negotiations US negotiators haven't publicly tied a durable return to a one-year breakout as a condition for reviving the deal. And breakout time isn't the sole determining factor in a country’s status as a nuclear weapons state, points out Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, because the material still needs to be mounted on a missile, and a single weapon isn’t generally considered to be militarily useful. But the 2015 agreement specifically laid out parts of the program that needed to be rolled back, and those that could remain. Iran agreed in 2015 to dismantle the majority of its early model IR-1 centrifuges, for example, and store them under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring. Since then, however, Iran has deployed newer advanced models well beyond what the agreement allowed for. A new agreement -- even just meant to restore the original terms of the JCPOA -- would need to specify what should happen with the more advanced centrifuges, contributing to perceptions in both Washington and Tehran that the other side is asking for "more" in diplomatic talks. The IAEA also has concerns about the agency’s access to Iran’s nuclear facilities. IAEA head Rafael Grossi is expected to travel to Iran this month ahead of a quarterly agency board meeting at which an updated report on the country's nuclear program will likely be circulated. The report and the outcome of the trip could serve as a reminder of how fraught the situation has become, potentially adding to diplomatic tensions. Changed Aims? Unclear is whether Iran still wants to return to the "compliance-for-compliance" style deal negotiators were targeting earlier this year, when the primary draw for Tehran was sanctions relief. The government of Iran's newly inaugurated ultraconservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, is taking its time coming to the table, and some hard-liners in Iran view the original 2015 agreement as a "bum deal to begin with," the International Crisis Group's Naysan Rafati says. "I think it would be a mistake to assume that the Iranian government is going to make policy decisions based on sanctions relief," Sanam Vakil, Iran expert at the UK's Chatham House, said on a Financial Times podcast published last month. "I think they feel relatively confident that they have weathered the brunt of the economic pain from the sanctions that were imposed gradually from 2018" (EC Aug.6'21). 'Other Options' The focus so far has been on restoring the JCPOA because, for all the hurdles, it’s the most straightforward avenue for putting constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. "The JCPOA is a detailed, well-understood, previously agreed-to and complied-with agreement. If it is not possible for one reason or another for the two parties to return to compliance ... there will need to be an effort to try and come up with a new interim arrangement," says Kimball. But the administration of US President Joe Biden has signaled it is looking for alternatives if diplomacy doesn't work. Early indications of those policies, Rafati says, include the US’ recent decision to blacklist an Omani oil trader allegedly involved in smuggling on behalf of Iran's Revolutionary Guard (IOD Aug.13'21). If Europeans likewise lose patience -- French and German officials on Wednesday pressed for resumption of talks in short order -- there could be further diplomatic fallout, including a possible bid to snap back international sanctions on Iran, Rafati said. Ahead of last week's meeting with new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Biden said he is prepared for "other options." Israel opposed the 2015 agreement for failing to address Iran’s missile buildup and aggression in the region, and Bennett has said that the country’s first goal remains countering Iran’s regional activities, and its second to contain Iran's nuclear program. But nondiplomatic options are largely confined to the kind of sabotage that Israel is widely understood to have carried out, with neither the US nor Israel favoring an all-out military option (EC Aug.13'21). That kind of sabotage still amounts to only "temporary setbacks" from a nonproliferation perspective, Einhorn said. Emily Meredith and Stephanie Cooke, Washington, and Simon Martelli, London

Security Risk , Sanctions, Nuclear Policy
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