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Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Program
Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Program
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Bringing the U.S. and Iran out of Suspended Animation
Bringing the U.S. and Iran out of Suspended Animation

Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Program

The announcement on 21 October 2003 of an agreement between Iran on the one hand and Britain, France and Germany on the other, is an important and welcome step in resolving the controversy surrounding Tehran’s nuclear program.

Executive Summary

The announcement on 21 October 2003 of an agreement between Iran on the one hand and Britain, France and Germany on the other, is an important and welcome step in resolving the controversy surrounding Tehran’s nuclear program. But it would be wrong to assume that it ends it. The challenge now is to use the breathing space provided by the agreement to tackle the questions – about its implementation, the future of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities and Iran’s own security concerns – that, for the time being, it has deferred.

The evidence of Iran’s putative military program is mixed but disturbing, and by no means to the U.S. alone. Both the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and European countries that have maintained close ties to Tehran have echoed Washington’s views. Iran did not disclose the existence of several nuclear facilities. When it finally did declare these facilities, it under-declared, downplaying what turned out to be extensive and sophisticated plants. It failed to report the importation from China of natural uranium over ten years ago. Most disturbing, there are indications that it introduced enriched uranium into a nuclear site without first notifying the IAEA.

Concerns about Iran’s capacity are matched by concerns about its intentions. While none of the above actions necessarily is a violation of Iran’s obligations, and while all would be consistent with a purely peaceful enterprise, Tehran’s pattern of behaviour is cause for unease. In many instances, Iran simply failed to explain its actions. When it did, those explanations were inconsistent or shifting. The IAEA has documented examples of lack of cooperation and candour. Iranian officials have placed hurdles in the path of nuclear inspectors and, in some cases, denied access. Its economic justifications for developing a nuclear energy program, while not implausible, are not fully convincing either.

Tension over Iran’s nuclear program is further aggravated by deeply-entrenched mistrust between Tehran and Washington. The U.S., alarmed at Iran’s support for groups engaged in terrorist acts and hostility to the Arab-Israeli peace process and persuaded that it is determined to develop a bomb, has grave reservations about allowing Tehran to develop any nuclear program at all. Iran believes it has a right to a peaceful nuclear program and is determined to be treated fairly as a member in good standing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Powerful circles within the country, concerned about increasing encirclement by hostile or potentially hostile countries, fearful that the U.S. intends to change its regime by force, and deeply marked by the experience of its war with Iraq, when Iran was virtually abandoned by the international community, do not appear willing to forsake the possibility of a military nuclear program. Prospects for a durable deal on the nuclear issue are complicated by divisions within the U.S. administration and the Iranian regime alike that hinder clear-cut decision-making.

Ultimately, the nuclear problem will remain an issue of contention between Washington and Tehran at least until they are in a position to strike a grand bargain that addresses their wider and more fundamental dispute. But it would be foolhardy to bank on such an outcome, and in particular on the remote possibility of a change in regime in Iran.[fn]See ICG Middle East Briefing, Iran: Discontent and Disarray, 15 October 2003.Hide Footnote  A nuclear-armed Iran could encourage similar efforts by neighbours, from Egypt to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and deal a deadly blow to the entire NPT regime. The combination of a bomb and Iran’s newly developed longer-range missile, the Shahab-3, could be perceived by Israel as a threat necessitating a military response. Conversely, a U.S. or Israeli pre-emptive strike to forestall development of a bomb could provoke deadly retaliation by Tehran in a variety of asymmetric or non-conventional ways. Moreover, should such a strike not wholly wipe out the program (as is likely), Tehran would remain with a wounded capacity to develop a bomb and a greatly enhanced determination to do so.

For these reasons, the initiative of the three EU countries should be embraced by the international community, including the U.S. On paper, the 21 October agreement signals Iran’s acceptance of the IAEA’s core demands. According to the joint statement it issued with the three EU foreign ministers, Iran will answer all the IAEA’s outstanding questions and clarify remaining gaps, discrepancies or inconsistencies in its previous explanations; sign the NPT’s Additional Protocol and commence ratification procedures; and suspend all uranium enrichment and processing activities.

Iran’s positive decision will avoid a collision with the international community and referral of the matter to the United Nations Security Council in the short run. It shows that Europe’s policy coupling pressure and engagement can produce results. But in order for the agreement to be more than a short-lived reprieve, it needs to be vigorously followed up and strengthened through the following:

  • Immediate and unconditional implementation by Iran of the steps to which it has agreed. Iran will be judged on deeds, not on words. That means, in particular, quickly providing the full transparency it promised and ensuring accelerated ratification and implementation of the Additional Protocol.
  • Indefinite suspension of all uranium enrichment by Iran or, at a minimum, its resumption only under rigorous and intrusive international monitoring. Iran’s decision to suspend all uranium enrichment is a very important element of the 21 October deal. But it also is the most fragile. Iran made clear both before and after the agreement that it reserves the right to enrich uranium and has pointedly refused to specify how long its suspension would last. This issue needs to be nailed down lest it unravel the entire agreement. Ideally, Iran’s peaceful nuclear program would not include indigenous enrichment, but if Iran is otherwise in compliance with NPT, including Additional Protocol, requirements, it will be difficult to make that case. The key is to remain focused on the ultimate goal: preventing Iran from possessing an unfettered capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium. At a minimum, therefore, Iran should state that while it reserves its right to enrich uranium, it will not exercise that right without agreeing to measures – such as intrusive, permanent international monitoring and perhaps joint Iranian/international management of its enrichment facilities – beyond those demanded by the NPT and Additional Protocol.
  • Pending establishment of a solid track record of transparent behaviour, a halt by Iran of any effort to build a heavy water reactor and a pledge not to put any such reactor into operation without reaching agreement with the international community on appropriate arrangements. While there is nothing in the NPT that requires such a step, there is much in Iran’s heretofore evasive behaviour that warrants it. Absent the requisite confidence that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapons program, a decision to proceed with its declared intent to build a heavy water reactor would have to be strongly resisted by the international community.

If Iran responds satisfactorily, along the lines indicated, the international community should respect its right to develop a peaceful nuclear program and provide it with the necessary technology and materials. It would be helpful at the same time to develop a set of confidence-building measures – such as a U.S. commitment not to use force against Iran and the establishment of a regional security forum – to reassure Iran about its own security concerns and to encourage it to become a fully participating, responsible international player. In all these respects it will be important to develop and maintain a strong international consensus, in particular between the U.S., EU and Russia, which will require adjustments in the positions of all parties.

Amman/Brussels, 27 October 2003

The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi meets Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Tehran, Iran on 25 August 2020. Twitter

Bringing the U.S. and Iran out of Suspended Animation

The 2015 Iran nuclear accord is at grave risk of collapse. Despite the new U.S. administration’s pledge to rejoin it, Trump-era sanctions remain in place as Washington and Tehran go around in circles as to who should move first. The EU should break the deadlock.

On two principles Iran and the new U.S. administration agree: first, the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy aimed at Tehran was a failure and, secondly, reviving the promise of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a strategic imperative. The two sides have correctly diagnosed the problem and identified a remedy satisfactory to them both, so one would think that the hard part would be over. Yet Washington and Tehran remain locked in an avoidable diplomatic stalemate, each insisting that the other take the first step. To escape the impasse, and prevent the JCPOA’s collapse, they need to act swiftly and decisively. The best path would be quiet, direct negotiations. But if that is not possible, the European Union can mediate by encouraging both sides to make initial good-will gestures that will pave the way for direct multilateral talks. Once at the table, all sides can focus on establishing an interim arrangement that stops the standoff from worsening further, followed by an agreement on synchronised steps that bring Iran and the U.S. back into compliance with the deal. The parties should then build on the JCPOA to create a stronger and more stable follow-on accord that addresses broader concerns. 

President Joe Biden took office rightly critical of his predecessor’s Iran strategy. The Trump administration declared in 2018 that by unilaterally exiting the nuclear agreement and pursuing a sanctions-driven policy of economic coercion, it would force Iran back to the table and deliver a stronger nuclear deal that would also blunt Iran’s power projection in the Middle East. The strategy failed spectacularly, producing the opposite of its intended effects. It exacerbated regional tensions and damaged transatlantic unity while eroding the deal’s non-proliferation gains. 

Almost three years on, having methodically reduced its JCPOA compliance in response to Trump’s economic siege, Iran is enriching uranium at pre-deal levels, expanding its stockpile of enriched uranium to more than fourteen times the deal’s 202.8kg limit, deploying advanced centrifuges alongside the first-generation models to which the deal largely restricted it, and manufacturing uranium metal, which the JCPOA banned it from producing until 2031. As a result, the “breakout time” that Iran would need to produce a bomb’s worth of fissile material has dropped from a year to around three months. Meanwhile, Iran has curbed the indispensable verification and monitoring authorities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by suspending in late February provisional implementation of the Additional Protocol and transparency provisions outlined in the JCPOA. These remain in jeopardy of further degradation if Tehran adheres to the letter of a law the Majles, or parliament, passed following the November 2020 assassination, allegedly by Israel, of a top Iranian nuclear scientist.

The [Biden] administration’s conciliatory moves have been overshadowed by more hawkish ones.

The new administration in Washington brought an opportunity to turn the page. Despite its violations of the agreement’s nuclear provisions, Iran has remained a JCPOA participant. It has declared these steps to be reversible and has pledged to resume full compliance with its obligations if and when the deal’s other parties deliver on theirs, in the form of economic reprieve envisaged by the agreement and undone by U.S. sanctions. For its part, the Biden administration has, since coming to office, taken a series of actions to signal its interest in diplomatic re-engagement. It has appointed Obama-era JCPOA negotiators to its senior diplomatic ranks, eased travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats in New York and rescinded the Trump administration’s (widely dismissed) claim of having snapped back pre-JCPOA UN sanctions. It also issued a joint statement with its European counterparts (the UK, France and Germany, known as the E3) to clarify that its aim is to resuscitate the JCPOA before trying to build on it. It readily agreed to join an informal meeting of JCPOA participants that the EU offered to host. 

Yet the administration’s conciliatory moves have been overshadowed by more hawkish ones. Pressured by JCPOA opponents in Washington and the Middle East, it has adopted tough rhetoric on Iran. It has triggered an unnecessary public feud over who should move first to return to compliance and signalled that it would just as soon play the blame game as embark on serious diplomacy. Most importantly in Tehran’s eyes, it has failed to lift any of the sanctions that Trump levied against Iran, which in Tehran’s view amount to collective punishment of the Iranian people amid a deadly pandemic. Nor has Washington taken limited actions that would have signalled serious intent without rolling back sanctions. These might have included facilitating an IMF emergency loan or the transfer of frozen Iranian assets held abroad – steps justifiable on humanitarian grounds and that could have been made subject to strong due diligence in order to ensure appropriate disbursement. The Biden team baulked at even these measures, loath to make what anti-JCPOA advocates in the U.S. would have seen as tantamount to down payments on sanctions removal and Tehran could have perceived as U.S. concessions to its pressure tactics.

Iran rejected the EU’s offer of an informal meeting of JCPOA participants. It did so primarily because the U.S. has not meaningfully redressed what Iran sees as the original sin that led the parties to this situation, namely the U.S. “maximum pressure” policy and accompanying sanctions architecture. From Iran’s perspective, Washington may have jettisoned the Trump-era strategy in word, but it is continuing that approach in deed. A senior Iranian official assessed the situation as follows: “If we wanted to negotiate with the enforcers of ‘maximum pressure’, we would have talked to Trump”.

Iran and the U.S. both entered the post-Trump period with inflated expectations [...], and now both could overplay their hand.

The diplomatic deadlock is indicative of an uncomfortable truth: Iran and the U.S. both entered the post-Trump period with inflated expectations, overestimating their leverage, and now both could overplay their hand. Tehran believed that Washington would re-enter the JCPOA unilaterally and afford significant up-front sanctions relief even while Iran was ratcheting up its nuclear program and possibly greenlighting its allied Iraqi militias’ attacks on U.S. troops and interests in Iraq. For its part, Washington believed that Iran was so desperate for sanctions to be lifted that it would eagerly concede to negotiations without foreknowledge of deliverable returns, and that strikes on Iran-backed militias in the region would dissuade Tehran from imposing a new cost on the U.S. Both sets of notions turned out to be unrealistic.

As a result, the fundamental dynamics between Tehran and Washington remain only marginally different from those before 20 January. True, where previously the two sides were talking at and over each other, now they are at least talking about talking to each other. But they are not yet negotiating directly. The E3, for their part, by increasingly siding with Washington instead of pushing both sides to live up to their JCPOA obligations, are frittering away the political capital they accumulated through their strong support for the deal during the Trump presidency. Iran increasingly suspects that the West is intent on using U.S. sanctions as leverage – not to revive the JCPOA as previously negotiated, but to coerce Tehran down what it sees as a slippery slope of concessions on Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities and regional power projection. 

If the parties stay the course, with each side waiting for the other to blink first and in the meantime insatiably seeking more leverage, they will find themselves in an increasingly grim place. For Iran, it will mean watching the country’s finances buckle under the weight of U.S. sanctions, while Washington works to close ranks with the E3 to show the Islamic Republic a reunified Western front. For the U.S., it will mean facing the further erosion of Iran’s breakout time as JCPOA breaches and regional tensions surge – amply illustrated in recent incidents in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf of Oman. All of these incidents have happened while there is still hope for the JCPOA’s revival. If that hope is dashed, it will become more difficult to restrain hawks on both sides who have been pushing for bolder and more perilous escalation. 

Where to go from here? If, as President Biden and top U.S. officials argue, the destination is the revival of and mutual compliance with the JCPOA as a stepping stone toward negotiations over a better-for-better nuclear deal and addressing broader concerns, the parties can chart an alternative path. 

In the past few days, they have given signs of preparedness to salvage the deal. Iran signalled good-will by working around the Majles’ action forcing it to restrict international oversight of its nuclear program. Rouhani did so by negotiating a temporary technical agreement with the IAEA on 21 February that extended much of its oversight capability. The agency’s director-general, Rafael Grossi, stated that this understanding makes it possible “to continue to monitor and to register all the key activities that are taking place” over the next three months. The temporary agreement prompted a majority of Iranian lawmakers to lodge a legal complaint against the Rouhani government. For their part, the U.S. and the E3 treated this gesture as conciliatory and reciprocated by deciding not to press ahead with a censure resolution at the IAEA’s Board of Governors this week that would have condemned Iran’s suspension of the Additional Protocol and failure to respond to outstanding IAEA questions about its past nuclear activities. 

An immediate step out of the stalemate could be an agreement on an initial exchange of gestures that could break the deadlock. Such an agreement would require either quiet U.S.-Iran discussions or third-party mediation. The EU, which coordinates the JCPOA’s implementation and maintains lines of contact with all stakeholders, is perhaps best placed to play intermediary between the Biden administration and Tehran, indirectly orchestrating initial steps that could make convening the informal meeting possible. Such initial steps might include, for example, the U.S. facilitating Iran’s access to some of its frozen assets for humanitarian imports in return for Iran halting one of the proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities it is now pursuing. Once at the table, the parties should negotiate an interim arrangement designed to prevent a further worsening of the situation, followed by a timetable for simultaneously reversing Iran’s nuclear breaches and U.S. sanctions.

The longer the diplomatic stalemate continues, the more it is likely to be filled with the kind of brinksmanship that could jeopardise what remains of the nuclear deal.

Time is of the essence. While it is possible to roll back Iran’s nuclear program amid the country’s presidential campaign, which begins in mid-April and culminates in the 18 June election, negotiations are bound to become more difficult if the parties do not build significant momentum by then. It is equally risky to postpone Washington’s JCPOA re-entry until a new Iranian president comes to office in August, as restoring the agreement with its strongest proponents in Iran would be easier than with their critics, should they win. The longer the diplomatic stalemate continues, the more it is likely to be filled with the kind of brinksmanship that could jeopardise what remains of the nuclear deal and further inflame regional tensions. 

The Iran-U.S. impasse of the Biden administration’s early days could turn out to be a blip before reason prevails on both sides. Thus far, however, it risks being a waste of precious weeks marked by posturing or, worse still, the trigger of a dangerous regional standoff. The same logic that brought Iran and world powers to fashion the JCPOA, and which led its remaining signatories to preserve it after Trump withdrew, holds today. The alternative – a race between sanctions and centrifuges that could culminate in Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb or being bombed, or both – would be immeasurably worse. That outcome still can and should be avoided.