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  • Sarah Bores

The United States’ Nuclear Deal with Iran

Discussions over the potential revival of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal with the United States have come to the forefront as negotiations grow in complexity and human rights violations continue to rage in Iran. The deal in 2015 was formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and served as a landmark agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program placing heavy restrictions in exchange for sanctions relief. The powers at the center of these negotiations with Iran were China, France, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States (P5+1), which led to outcries from Middle Eastern powers such as Saudi Arabia over exclusion from discussions as they would be most affected by a nuclear-armed Iran.


Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meet in 2016. Source: Council on Foreign Relations


Prior to this agreement, Iran had agreed to forgo their development of nuclear weapons in 1970 as a signatory in the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. However, with the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979, Iranian leaders continued to secretly pursue this technology. Although intelligence has suggested that Iranian work on nuclear weapons stopped in 2003, the gaining of information and technology pertaining to nuclear power has persisted. The P5+1 had also been offering Iran incentives to halt uranium enrichment prior to the JCPOA agreement. Iran sought the JCPOA in order to gain relief from international sanctions which had devastated their economy of more than $100 billion in revenue from just 2012-2014.


Under the terms of JCPOA, Iran agreed to dismantle its nuclear program and open its nuclear facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for inspections in exchange for billions of dollars in sanctions relief. Other requirements included to not produce highly enriched uranium, limit the numbers and types of centrifuges in operation, and abide by specific levels of enrichment and stockpile of enriched uranium sizes. Additionally, the country agreed to maintain civilian work such as medical and industrial research in the cities of Fordow, Natanz, and Arak. The US, in exchange, agreed to lift nuclear-related sanctions and oil exports, but many other sanctions remained in effect. Specifically toward issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile program, terrorist groups, financial transactions that deter international trade with Iran, and human rights abuses, among others. The goal of this program was to break down Iran’s nuclear program so intensely that if Tehran did want to pursue a nuclear weapon, it would take a year, at minimum. The purpose: to give world powers adequate time to prepare in response.


Inspections served to ensure that weapons could not be secretly developed; the IAEA issued quarterly reports to the UN Security Council on Iran’s implementation of its nuclear commitments. It is important to note that many of the restrictions on Iran have expiration dates, meaning in about 10 or 15 years restrictions will be lifted. Those who oppose JCPOA argue that these sunset provisions will only delay Iran building a bomb and sanction relief will only serve to allow the country to underwrite terrorism. However, U.S. intelligence officials have estimated that, without an agreement, Iran has the ability to produce enough nuclear material for a weapon in just a few months. Advocates for the deal stressed its importance for this reason, but they also suggested that in preventing the revival of the Iranian nuclear weapons program, the possibility of conflicts between Iran and regional rivals—Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example—would be significantly reduced.


The agreement was initially off to a smooth start as the IAEA certified in early 2016 that Iran had met its preliminary pledges and sanctions were promptly suspended by the US. The Obama Administration dropped secondary sanctions on the oil sector, which allowed Iran to increase its oil exports to almost reach pre-sanction levels. The US and the EU were able to unfreeze about $100 billion in Iranian assets. However, former US President Donald Trump halted the agreements when he withdrew from the deal in 2018. He said the agreement did not adequately restrict Iran’s missile program or its regional influence, and he worried the sunset provisions would allow Iran to pursue nuclear weapons in the future. The reinstatement of significant banking and oil sanctions and departure of the United State’s from the agreement directly caused Iran to pursue their nuclear agenda once again, abandoning the limitations previously imposed. In an attempt to keep the agreement alive, France, Germany and the UK launched INSTEX, a barter system to facilitate transitions with Iran outside of the US banking system. However, INSTEX only pertained to food and medicine, materials already exempt from USsanctions.


In 2019, Iran began to exceed the agreed upon limits to its stock of low-enriched uranium and enrich uranium to higher concentrations at Fordow. This caused the isotopes being produced there to no longer be usable for medical purposes, suggesting the intended use was for their nuclear program. They began the development of new centrifuges to accelerate uranium enrichment and resumed heavy water production at the Arak facility. The nuclear program’s revival was also in retaliation against the US for the deadly attacks on prominent Iranians in 2020, specifically the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani. Iran announced it would no longer limit uranium enrichment to any degree and began the construction of a centrifuge production center at Natanz. In 2021, Iran went as far as to announce restrictions on the IAEA’s ability to inspect its facilities. This ended the monitoring agreement with the agency and marked Iran’s complete departure from the initial agreements of the JCPOA.


In the wake of the breakdown of the JCPOA agreement, both Washington and Tehran have expressed interest in returning to the original deal, yet disagree on how to reinstate this agreement. The Biden Administration presented Iran with a proposal in early September that would unwind some of the current economic sanctions and provide Iran with about $1 trillion over the course of the agreement. In the closed-door briefing in mid-September, Iran was unable to commit to the proposal and negotiations hit a standstill. Some progress made prior to the proposal made the success of a deal more likely. However, the revamped version of the 2015 nuclear deal seems to be hitting a dead end with Iran.


According to Representative Issa of California, Iran wants a “better deal than they had before, and if you don’t give them a better deal, they don’t want a deal.” He also noted how they are “on the eve of getting a nuclear weapon and don’t want to be talked out of it.” Iranian officials say that the deal proposed by the Biden Administration does not extend far enough in providing Iran with sanctions relief and in promising access to global financial markets and the flow of adequate funds to the region. Iran had also asked for sanctions on several designated terrorist entities to be lifted, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This raises the issue of human rights violations and their impact on negotiating with Iran, making coming to a nuclear agreement increasingly difficult.


The topic of compliance and commitment to a potential new plan has been heavily discussed by President of Iran Ebrahim Raisi in the 77th session of the UN General Assembly on September 21. Raisi asked if Iran could “truly trust without guarantees and assurances that [the US] will this time live up to their commitment.” He underscored that Iran is serious about reviving a deal but questions the United States’ commitment to the accord since it had already “trampled” on a previous deal, alluding to former President Trump’s withdrawal and sanction reinstatement.


Critics of the proposal have accused the Biden Administration of not harshly implementing the sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration stating that there has been a substantial increase in Iranian oil exports to China once Biden assumed office and that this has caused Iran to be more intransigent when discussing a nuclear plan. United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), opposes the revival of JCPOA stating that since the election, China has bought about $38 billion of crude oil from Iran in violation of sanctions. Although the prices charged by Iran are secret and likely discounted, Iran most likely earned close to $30 billion by shipping 350-400 million barrels of crude to China. Despite being far below Iran’s $100 billion annual oil export earnings in 2010, these numbers were sufficient to convince Iran that it can survive financially while negotiating with the Biden Administration. This leaves Washington left with no policy beyond tightening enforcement of the same sanctions. The current unrest in Tehran and violence against their own people exposes the degree in which Iranian leaders are willing to use violence, forcing Biden to impose more new human rights sanctions.


Democrats have also been vocal about their concerns regarding a new deal as Representative Gottheimer of New Jersey led a bipartisan letter with 49 other lawmakers explaining their concern about multiple provisions that may be contained in the final language of any agreement with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Lawmakers feel that it would be unlikely for congress to accept any deal that could possibly dilute the effectiveness of terrorism-related sanctions and provide Iran with a pathway for sanctions evasion. State Department Spokesman Ned Price explained that they have been clear in their efforts to bar Iran from a nuclear weapon but they have not seen the Iranian government make the decisions needed to commit to compliance in the nuclear deal.


The future of the nuclear deal between Iran and the U.S. remains uncertain. Talks of bringing Iran and the US back into the deal have been on and off since April of 2021, but issues such as the election of Raisi as President of Iran, the war in Ukraine and other significant global developments have made it complicated. One of the most critical points of contention between the US and Iran include the IRGC in its designation as a terrorist organization. Washington has warned against any more delays to the negotiations because nuclear advances by Iran in the meantime could make returning to the deal impossible. In response to reports that Iran is close to enriching enough uranium for a bomb, President Biden responded saying the US will use all “elements of its national power” to prevent Iran from creating and acquiring a nuclear weapon.

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