Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Amin Saikal  |  08 October, 2021

The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal Hangs in the Balance

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This article was first published in The Strategist and is reproduced with permission.

The diplomatic tug-of-war between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States over restoration of the Iran nuclear agreement (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) seems almost perennial. The two sides have engaged in brinkmanship, seeking to score maximum benefit against one another. But the process has to come to a head for contrasting mutual interests: Tehran wants to see the end of the crippling US sanctions and Washington wants to focus more on deterring two global adversaries – China and Russia.

The US-Iranian indirect negotiations commenced in April after President Joe Biden’s administration expressed a clear willingness to reach an accommodation with Tehran as early as possible. Iran’s outgoing government of moderate President Hassan Rouhani, which had concluded the July 2015 JCPOA, responded positively despite serious differences between the two parties.

Biden’s anti-Iran predecessor, Donald Trump, had pulled the US out of the nuclear deal in May 2018 and imposed unprecedentedly harsh sanctions on Iran. The Rouhani government retaliated by rescinding some of Iran’s commitments to the agreement. It has installed more advanced centrifuges, raised its uranium enrichment levels from 3.67% under the JCPOA to 20%, with a small quantity enriched up to 60%, and halted inspection of its nuclear installations by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Even so, by June 2021, Washington and Tehran still sounded optimistic about the chances of reaching an agreement. Yet, since then there has been no further negotiation.

Two factors more than any other account for this. The first is the change of the Iranian presidency from Rouhani to Ebrahim Raisi, prompting Tehran to hold back negotiations until Raisi had taken office in early August. In contrast to Rouhani, Raisi hails from the hardline faction in Iranian Islamic politics. He is as distrustful of the US as the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while favouring resumption of the nuclear talks as mediated by the European Union, whose two members France and Germany (plus Britain, Russia and China as the other signatories to the JCPOA) have been keen to see the revival of the deal as an important international security measure.

In early September, Raisi’s newly appointed chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mohammad Eslami, a US-trained engineer with ties to the Iranian military industry, and the director-general of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, decided to engage in enhanced cooperation. Eslami agreed to permit IAEA inspectors ‘to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media’ that keep an eye on Iranian nuclear facilities – something which was well overdue. But the IAEA has lately claimed that its inspectors haven’t been allowed to do their job in one critical facility, the TESA Karaj complex that produces components for centrifuges, inviting criticism from the US and the European signatories.

However, no date has been set for resumption of negotiations. The US and the European powers have raised concerns about the delays by Tehran and suspected it of buying time to enrich higher grade uranium for atomic weapons, despite Tehran’s continuing insistence that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Washington has said that the door for a negotiated settlement won’t be open indefinitely.

The second factor is that from the beginning of the negotiations, the two sides haven’t been able to reach a compromise on each other’s fundamental demands. Washington has conditioned its lifting of sanctions on Tehran’s restoring all its commitments to the JCPOA, while Tehran has demanded an end to all sanctions as a prerequisite to progress towards a final settlement. It has argued that, since the US withdrew from the agreement, it’s up to the Biden administration to build trust by acting first. These contrasting positions have become a real sticking point.

The two factors are now playing out against the backdrop of the US and allied defeat in Afghanistan and Washington’s resolve to withdraw all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2021. Tehran couldn’t be more pleased to see the back of the US military presence in the region. In addressing the UN General Assembly last month, Raisi made it clear that the US didn’t withdraw from Afghanistan but rather was driven out of the country. This, together with Iran forging close strategic ties with China and Russia to counter the US, has emboldened Raisi’s administration to drive a harder bargain over the nuclear issue.

There are now two important questions. Will Washington opt for lifting some of its core sanctions to reach a deal on the JCPOA or let Tehran continue with higher grade uranium enrichment? And will it restrain Israel, which has said that it will not tolerate a nuclear Iran under any circumstances, from attacking Iran and igniting a regional inferno? Watch this space.


Amin Saikal is Visiting Professor at Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is author of Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival (2012), and co-author of Islam Beyond Borders: The Umma in World Politics (2019), and The Spectre of Afghanistan: The Security of Central Asia (2021)