Iran Nuclear Deal May Be Slipping Out of Reach

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A new Iran nuclear deal seems unlikely to be agreed before US midterm elections on Nov. 8.

Negotiations have stalled since the EU coordinator proposed a "final text" a month ago, raising hopes that an agreement could be clinched soon.

EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell, who tabled the draft text, said on Sep. 5 that he was "less confident" about sealing a deal quickly and warned that the process could be in danger because of divergent US and Iranian positions.

Borrell said initial responses to his proposal from both Iran and the US had been positive, with both sides making reasonable requests that "were taken on board without altering the text fundamentally."

Since then, however, a so-called safeguards investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) appears to have emerged as a major stumbling block in the negotiations, and this could be difficult and time-consuming to resolve.

The IAEA investigation predates the talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement with the US and other countries and is linked to Tehran's obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Concerns About 'Sunset Clauses'

Iran wants the IAEA probe to end before it will agree to a deal, fearing it could be used to weaken US sanctions relief if Washington and Tehran succeed in reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which also restricted Iran's nuclear program.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said on Friday that Tehran is still serious about trying to reach a "good, strong and sustainable agreement," but added that the US "must refrain from using ambiguous phrases in the text to reach an agreement in the shortest possible time."

Iranian state media quoted him as making those remarks in a phone call with his Chinese counterpart.

Meanwhile, US and European officials have blamed Iran for the recent lack of progress in the negotiations.

US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said on Wednesday that Iran's response to the EU initiative "took us backwards."

A senior European official, quoted by Al Jazeera journalist Ali Hashem earlier in the week, said that "because of the last Iranian response, there can be no return to the JCPOA before the [US] mid-terms."

The EU has pushed hard to resurrect the JCPOA, which could ease the energy crisis in Europe this winter by lifting US sanctions and adding around 1 million barrels per day of oil to the market.

However, it would likely take about six months for all of that oil to appear, meaning that any deal agreed after the US midterm elections would be much less helpful, especially with the EU embargo on Russian crude oil taking effect on Dec. 5.

On the other hand, a deal signed in the few weeks before the US elections could present a political problem for President Joe Biden and his Democratic Party by forcing them into an uncomfortable and contentious debate about Iran's nuclear program.

Meanwhile, further delays in the talks will reinforce concerns in the US about "sunset" clauses in the 2015 deal, under which curbs on Iran's nuclear program will start to expire from 2023, even though Iran's nuclear program is now far more advanced.

Iran's Nuclear Program Advances

Two reports by the IAEA this week, both seen by Energy Intelligence, highlighted recent advances in Iran's nuclear program and growing concerns about Iran's lack of engagement on the outstanding safeguards issues.

The UN watchdog’s quarterly monitoring report estimates that the quantity of uranium Iran has enriched to 60% purity has now reached 55.6 kg, up by 12.5 kg from the previous report.

The State Department's Patel insisted that the Biden administration would continue to seek a return to the JCPOA.

But National Security spokesman John Kirby also warned this week that the administration's patience was "not eternal," and that President Biden wanted to ensure the US had "other available options" to ensure that Iran does not achieve nuclear weapons capability.

Further complicating the negotiations process, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on four Iranian companies on Thursday for their alleged role in the supply of Iranian drones to Russia for use in its war against Ukraine.

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