OASHINGTON — Last month, the odds of the United States joining the Iran nuclear deal looked higher than they had in years.
CNN and Reuters reported that Iran dropped several demands in negotiations over a new deal that would update the original reached in 2015.
Senior US officials were confident the new deal would be completed within days.
Then, on August 29, the Iranian government said it wanted more time – until September – to consider the US response to a recent proposal.
It is no longer clear whether Iran has made the concessions that US officials were so sure of, and the light that international diplomats thought they saw at the end of the tunnel is starting to dim – again.
What was in the original deal with Iran?
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as it is officially called, emerged under the Obama administration and traded sanctions relief for rollbacks of Iran’s nuclear program.
Israel has vilified the deal from the start, arguing that Iran – which regularly calls for the destruction of Israel – is not to be trusted.
Several Jewish lawmakers have debated whether or not to back their president and the deal, which has become a landmark foreign policy achievement, or heed the condemnation of Israel and many Jews in their local communities.
By signing the JCPOA, Iran agreed to reduce its stockpile to a small amount of 3.67% enriched uranium – a level needed for medical research, unusable for weaponization – and to end plutonium production. .
It has also agreed to allow regular inspections of its nuclear facilities.
The other parties to the deal – including Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France, joined by major trading partners such as India and South Korea – have agreed to end the sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program (which Iran continues to insist is for non-military purposes) and its banking and oil sectors.
Critics of the deal denounced what they called fatal flaws:
Limitations on Iran’s enrichment program had expiration dates and several concerns were left out of the deal, including Iran’s missile program, its disruptive actions in the Middle East and its support for terrorists in the whole world.
Why is the United States not currently a signatory to the pact?
Republicans also hated the deal, but during the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump heeded the advice of top advisers who said pulling out of the deal would be worse than staying in Iran’s police force. Then, from May 2018, he opted for a program of maximum pressure on Iran, leaving the agreement, reinstating the suspended sanctions and adding many new ones.
In 2020, he ordered the killing of one of Iran’s top military officials, Qassem Soleimani.
In retaliation, Iran began increasing its fissile material enrichment to unprecedented levels. It is now believed that there are only a few weeks left before we have enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon, as opposed to a year, which was the case when all parties were respecting the agreement.
While campaigning for the presidency, Joe Biden pledged to seek to get back into the deal. He said he wanted to improve the deal and negotiate limits on Iran’s other disruptive actions, but said his priority was to get back into the deal first.
One of Antony Blinken’s first acts as Biden’s new Secretary of State in February 2021 was to join the three European JCPOA partners in telling Iran that the United States was ready to return to the negotiating table.
What’s in the latest version of the agreement?
Iran will allow inspectors to verify it is returning to original 2015 restrictions – a complex process that could take months as inspectors watch the dismantling of enrichment systems that have been upgraded to higher levels than before 2015.
The US will likely lift sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear sector, oil exports and banks.
The deal will be less effective because Iran has advanced its enrichment capability to the point that even with a deal in place, it will likely never be more than six months away from a bomb, which is half the time. under the old agreement.
Additionally, the “sunsets” – the expirations of enrichment limitations due in 2026 and 2031 – are now approaching.
Returning to the deal will open Iran’s oil exports to legitimate markets; the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank critical of Iran in Washington, estimates revenues will reach $1 trillion by 2030.
If Biden wants to come back – what’s holding him back?
Representatives of all the countries party to the agreement, plus the United States (and the EU, which participated as a bloc in the negotiations but is not signed as a bloc), are negotiating a US reentry and new conditions since April 2021.
Iran elected a radical president, Ebrahim Raisi, shortly after Biden took office. Raisi was implicated in crimes against humanity in the late 1980s and chose for his cabinet two men involved in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
While Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry has been pictured joking with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, Iranian officials now refuse even to be in the same room as Americans, leading to intermediaries to shuttle between the conference rooms of the Palais Coburg hotel. and slowed the process considerably.
Iran asked for three concessions which Biden refused to accept. The first is for Biden to remove what Iran sees as the most harmful of Trump’s new sanctions: placing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the United States’ list of designated terrorists. Biden, who is close to families who lost soldiers in IRGC-backed attacks in Iraq, flatly refused.
Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a national security adviser and Mossad chief, have been in Washington in recent days, arguing against some of the rumored concessions, particularly the IRGC’s delisting.
Iran also wants the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, to end an investigation into undeclared nuclear material its inspectors discovered in 2019.
Iran also wants assurances that future administrations will not renege on the deal, as Trump did.
Western negotiators have claimed that Iran appears to have backed down from the first two demands in recent weeks.
US negotiators said they could not assure Iran that a future president would not walk away from the deal.
What are US lawmakers saying this time around?
Back-to-back supporters say some of the damage caused by Trump’s withdrawal is irreparable, while opponents of the deal say the flaws were baked into the original deal.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who has been outspoken in favor of reentry, acknowledged in a Time magazine op-ed in February that any renewed deal would fall short of restrictions imposed under Obama.
“This new deal may not look like Obama’s because of all the ground we lost during Trump’s presidency,” Murphy wrote. “But an agreement from Iran to dramatically extend its escape time and allow all inspections to resume would make the world a safer place.”
A staffer who is regularly briefed on the administration’s Iranian planning recalled the appearance of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2012 at the United Nations General Assembly meeting. Netanyahu was mocked for bringing a poster with the image of a bomb drawn on it, purporting to represent Iran’s nuclear program.
“Bibi’s little bombshell cartoon is actually real,” the staffer said. “You are literally presented with an almost binary choice, which is to accept a flawed deal that will set them back now, or to do nothing and go to war.”
“They have more stuff installed,” the staffer said. “They have less oversight. They have a larger inventory of 60% enriched uranium than they had during the JCPOA or even before the JCPOA.
What other jokers are bothering you?
Congress has the right to review the agreement. Opponents of the JCPOA, including in the pro-Israel community, are also planning a full court press against it this time around as well, and if Republicans take over at least one house of Congress in November, they could slow implementation. of the agreement.
There are also international trends that might make Americans shy away.
Iran is said to be helping Russia in its war against Ukraine by supplying it with armed drones and teaching it how to evade US sanctions.
Biden’s foreign policy priority cripples Russia. and bringing Iran back into the international community could hinder that goal.
Another setback could come in the form of open conflict between Iran and its American allies. Anti-Iranian tensions have flared into violence in Iraq, and Israel clashed last month with an Iranian ally, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in the Gaza Strip.
Iran has also not ceased its malign activities, including apparently in the United States, where a dissident faced assassination attempts and an assailant stabbed author Salman Rushdie, who remains in limbo. of a death sentence handed down by Iran in 1989.