By Samuel Hickey
Iran’s nuclear program continues to expand and become less transparent with Iran limiting UN inspectors’ access to nuclear sites. Further, there remain monitoring disputes separate from the deal over access to Iranian facilities that has led the head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog to complain about an “astonishing” lack of communication. The urgency for compromise is rising, but the resumption of talks lowers the tension a decibel. Here’s where the nuclear talks stand.
Status of the diplomatic standoff
The talks on November 29 will be the seventh round of negotiations since President Joe Biden assumed office and the first round since Ebrahim Raisi was inaugurated as president of Iran. The new Iranian government has outlined additional concessions that go beyond the original terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran demands that the United States remove all sanctions imposed since the United States withdrew from the agreement in May 2018 and guarantee that a future president will not leave the deal again. However, these demands should not be seen as redlines. Rather, Iran appears to seek a metric to validate the value of any deal it reaches over its nuclear program. Under the terms of the JCPOA, there are some benchmarks to measure Iranian compliance, like the 98% of enriched uranium that was shipped out of Iran, but there is no metric to verify that Iran has received the promised economic benefits from U.S. sanctions relief. Understood in these terms, there may be creative measures that could square the circle and prove to Tehran that a nuclear deal is in their interests even if the next U.S. president were to abandon a deal in three or seven years.
From the U.S. perspective, Iran has gained important knowledge through its nuclear advances that have begun to erode the non-proliferation benefits of the JCPOA. President Biden also campaigned on reaching a “longer and stronger” deal and has sought an Iranian pledge to engage in follow-on negotiations that would touch on regional issues and potentially Iran’s ballistic missiles. The Biden administration would benefit in the deal’s revival not just by defusing a nuclear crisis, but also by potentially paving the ground for de-escalation in the region. The JCPOA assures the international community that Iran cannot get a nuclear weapon without sufficient notice for a global response and in that way, prevents the loss of life that comes with military action.
Iran’s nuclear escalations
One year after the United States withdrew from the JCPOA and imposed maximum pressure sanctions, Iran began incrementally stepping back from compliance with the nuclear deal. After the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian Parliament passed a law in December 2020 requiring the government to accelerate its nuclear program. As of November 2021, Iran has produced 113 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, installed advanced centrifuges, installed equipment to produce uranium metal and reduced compliance with UN inspectors. Iran has also enriched uranium to 60 percent in uranium-235 ostensibly to fuel nuclear submarines.
What needs to happen moving forward
When talks came to a halt in June 2021, there was a text that left disagreements over substance and sequence that would have required flexibility from both Washington and Tehran to overcome. The same is true today, but now it appears that Iran is returning to the table with the intent of renegotiating the text or using the leverage from its advancing nuclear program to get its way on those remaining areas of disagreement. If both sides are willing to compromise and show some flexibility over what constitutes a deal, then the core bargain of significantly constraining Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief can still be realized. For both sides, a return to compliance with the deal is the best option to avoid escalation that could spiral out of control.