During the 2020 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Joe Biden repeatedly promised to bring the US back into a renegotiated nuclear deal with Iran, after former President Donald Trump pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018. The fraught negotiations appear to have reached a critical juncture this week, with the US submitting a response to Iran’s comments on the text of a final draft deal. Here’s everything you need to know about whether a new deal will be signed, what it’s likely to include and what it all means:
Why is a new agreement necessary?
Like nearly all 2016 Republican presidential candidates, Trump promised to dismantle the JCPOA, better known as the Iran Deal, on day one. The key parameters of the 2015 deal were sanctions relief and a degree of economic normalization for Iran in exchange for cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection regime, giving up the pursuit of highly enriched uranium needed for building a nuclear weapon. the existing stockpile of highly enriched uranium and ensuring that existing nuclear facilities only engage in peaceful nuclear activities. While many Republicans opposed the very idea of negotiating with Iran, others primarily opposed the “sunset provisions” under which certain restrictions expire (mostly at the end of 2030, but some earlier) without renewing the deal.
Although the IAEA has repeatedly confirmed that Iran was holding up its end of the deal, the Trump administration pulled the US out of the deal in May 2018. Since then, Iran has elected a new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, and is approaching the issue where the so-called “detonation time” – the time required to produce enough enriched uranium to make a working nuclear weapon – is numbered in weeks, not months or years. Talks between Iran and the remaining original parties to the deal, the so-called P5+1, restarted in 2021, but without the United States directly participating and with the EU taking the lead. The Trump administration’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the deal has poisoned relations with Tehran so badly that it refuses to negotiate directly with Washington.
What are the sticking points?
The most problematic aspect of re-engaging the Iran Deal is trust. When Iran signed the deal in 2015, it led to hopes that the country’s economic isolation from the rest of the world would end and that international companies could operate there. But when Trump reimposed many U.S. sanctions that had been lifted and successfully discouraged other countries from allowing their businesses to operate in Iran, it sent their economy into freefall. From Tehran’s perspective, it must have guarantees that the US cannot immediately plunge the Iranian economy into turmoil if a future US president decides once again to block the deal. This is why Iran is demanding that it maintain the enrichment capacity it has rebuilt since 2018. Reports indicate that Iran is seeking to keep under IAEA supervision rather than destroy the supersonic centrifuges needed to restart enrichment, which would speed up the country’s escape time in the event of a repeat in 2018. The Biden administration also reportedly agreed to grant international companies a 2.5-year grace period to continue doing business if sanctions are reimposed.
Also at issue is an IAEA investigation, launched in 2018, into alleged Iranian nuclear activities at undeclared locations. Tehran wanted that investigation shut down, but the Biden administration cannot force the IAEA’s hand, as it is an independent agency that does not answer directly to Washington. Iranian negotiators also wanted Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps removed from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Tehran has reportedly rejected this request. Israel, a close US ally and client, has been maneuvering to prevent a new deal altogether, or at least to pressure the Biden administration not to soften its negotiating positions to get the deal through the final stretch.
Israeli leaders fear that the traditional nuclear deterrent would not work against Iran. The Obama administration’s decision to move forward with a deal has opened a rift between the two countries, and President Biden, whose party is seeking to overcome history in November by holding one or both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, can hardly afford an electorally disastrous public brouhaha with Jerusalem. But concerns about a conflict with Israel must be balanced against the possibility that a deal, and the re-emergence of Iranian oil supplies on the world market, could further push US natural gas prices just in time for the election.
What will a new agreement contain?
All publicly available reports indicate that what has happened in the last 17 months revolves around the boundaries of the 2015 agreement. In all likelihood, a small number of provisions will be added to the original text of the JCPOA. What is unclear from today’s vantage point is whether the original sunset provisions will remain or whether that timeline will be pushed forward seven or eight years. The US will not lift sanctions related to other Iranian activities in the region, but will unfreeze some Iranian assets. Iran, for its part, has reportedly released Western hostages held in the country.
The US sent its response to Iran’s comments on the draft on Wednesday, and if Iran agrees to those terms, a deal could be reached quickly. If, on the other hand, Iranian negotiators introduce new demands or refuse to budge from US red lines, the whole thing could collapse without a deal and Iran could move dangerously close to being able to produce a nuclear weapon. This makes the events of the next few days and weeks particularly important. If a deal is not reached soon, talks may not resume until after the US midterm elections – by which time Iran may have already built a nuclear weapon.
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