In my previous article, “What Would a Bad Iran Deal Look Like?”, I created a scorecard to track elements of a potential deal that might make it worth rejecting, even according to the standards originally put forward by the Biden Administration.
In June, the sixth round of the Vienna talks aimed at a return to the JCPOA concluded, and we have some new data to evaluate. The scorecard examines intolerable elements of the deal that may be replicated in the new one, as well as new concessions that are being made to Iran, that were not present in the original JCPOA. The scorecard enables us to track how recent developments match up to the benchmarks established in my earlier article. Let’s take a look.
Intolerable Elements in the Original JCPOA
- Sunset Clauses
One of the most significant defects of the original JCPOA is that when its sunset clauses expire, Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear weapon drops to zero (as President Obama noted). For this reason, a sticking point in the previous round of the Vienna negotiations was a US demand for a written Iranian commitment to extend the length, strength and scope of the deal. The US has made the debatable claim that Iran would have the incentive to agree to further limitations after returning to the JCPOA because it wants more economic relief than the original deal provided. JCPOA opponents countered that once sanctions relief is delivered, the US will have no leverage to get Iran to negotiate about anything else. Recently, however, the Biden administration officials seems to have backtracked from even the face-saving gesture of requiring the Iranian side to commit in writing to conducting future negotiations.
- Oversight and Inspection
The JCPOA required Iran to give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to relevant nuclear sites in order to ensure it was complying with the deal’s limitations. When the US pulled out of the agreement, Iran ceased providing the access promised. IAEA head Rafael Grossi negotiated a temporary agreement whereby Iran would store the recordings and other data about the sites and which it would later give them to IAEA, if, by June 24, 2021, a return to the deal could be concluded. Following the deadline’s expiration, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, speaker of Iran’s parliament said, “The agreement has expired… any of the information recorded will never be given to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the data and images will remain in the possession of Iran”. A Biden administration official noted that this development would “at a minimum, severely complicate” the negotiations. As a result, Grossi noted that the IAEA’s monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program is “on a ventilator”.
- Ignoring Iran’s Previous Nuclear Weapons Efforts
The US missed an opportunity to gain a full accounting of Iran’s military nuclear program when, as a concession to the JCPOA, it encouraged the IAEA to close its investigations into previous Iranian violations of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory. In the last few years, the IAEA has tried to investigate new evidence of undeclared nuclear material discovered in three separate locations in Iran. These would represent new NPT violations, unconnected to the restrictions of the JCPOA. Iran has continued to stonewall the IAEA’s attempts to get explanations and IAEA head Grossi said that Iran’s refusal to answer his questions “seriously affects the ability of the Agency to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme“.
One of the JCPOA’s claims is that it blocked all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon. These unexplained discoveries, that precede the US decision to withdraw from the deal, and which would represent a violation not just of the JCPOA but also the NPT, put this claim to lie. A resolution to these issues and the implementation of a system that would prevent Iran from stymying the IAEA in the future, would appear to be pre-requisites to a return to the JCPOA.
- Missile Development
US President Joe Biden and members of his administration have consistently advocated for a return to the JCPOA, immediately followed by negotiations on a “longer, stronger and broader” deal. Seemingly, this strategy represents a recognition that the original JCPOA did not address issues important to US national security such as Iran’s violently destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and the development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. Iran’s election of President Ebrahim Raisi makes such an extension of the agreement extremely unlikely. In his first press conference, Raisi declared, “Our missile program and regional issues are non-negotiable”.
New Concessions to Iran Not Present in the JCPOA
- Repealing All US Sanctions on Iran, Even Those Not Connected to the Nuclear Deal
President Obama claimed that the original JCPOA relieved only those sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program. However, reports from Vienna indicate that the US is willing to relieve sanctions that the JCPOA left on the books, as well as more recently implemented, non-nuclear sanctions, against Iranian governmental bodies and individuals.
Mahmoud Vaezi, chief of staff of outgoing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, indicated that the two sides are discussing relieving some pre-2015 sanctions that the US chose to maintain when the JCPOA was originally negotiated. This would definitively undermine the principle of compliance for compliance that the Biden administration claims to uphold.
Throughout the current negotiations, the Iranian side has been demanding the removal of all sanctions imposed since the deal began in 2015, including those instituted because of Iranian sponsorship of terrorism and violations of human rights, unconnected to the nuclear issue. It appears that they will get their way.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated during his confirmation hearings in January 2021 that, even with a return to the JCPOA, he supports maintaining sanctions on Iranian official bodies, such as the Central Bank of Iran and National Iranian Oil Company, that were imposed due to their support for terrorism (https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2021/jan/21/antony-blinken-iran ). These are some of the most significant companies in Iran’s economy. When asked explicitly by Senator Susan Collins at the beginning of June if he is still committed to maintaining sanctions on these critical Iranian financial institutions (as long as the State Department maintains that they are involved in terrorism), Blinken demurred. He said the US would remove all sanctions, “inconsistent with the JCPOA”, presumably even those imposed on Iran’s Central Bank and National Oil Company, due to their support of terrorism.
Another indication that the US is willing to relieve non-nuclear sanctions relates to Iran’s newly elected President Raisi. In 2019, the Trump administration’s Justice Department levelled non-nuclear sanctions against Raisi for serving as a chief judge “on the so-called ‘death commission’ that ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.” It is estimated that at least 5,000 Iranians were executed as part of this purge. Mahmoud Vaezi, the outgoing Presidential chief of staff, noted that an agreement is forming to lift sanctions on individuals connected to the Office of Iran’s Supreme Leader, possibly including Raisi.
Suffice it to say that if the return to the JCPOA includes relief for these non-nuclear-related sanctions, the deal can be viewed as a failure.
- Guaranteeing that the US Won’t Abandon the Deal
A persistent Iranian demand has been finding an administrative way to prevent the US from withdrawing from a future agreement. The Biden Administration does not have the votes to get the JCPOA ratified as a treaty by Congress, a move that would more forcefully lock the US into a new deal. Possibly as a result, in the most recent round of negotiation, the Iranian side has insisted on “verifying” US intentions, which it defines as “easing of U.S. sanctions, Iran’s export of some of oil and its payment through an international bank” before it agrees to come back into JCPOA compliance. The Biden administration has consistently insisted on simultaneously compliance with the JCPOA. If this principle is violated, the deal can be seen as unworthy.
- Allowing Iran to mothball and not destroy the advanced centrifuges (and other technical advances) it made in violation of the JCPOA
The Wall Street Journal notes that “Iran’s nuclear program has advanced much further than the JCPOA accounted for. The original deal has no provisions regarding Iran’s extra enrichment and centrifuge manufacturing facilities, nor the irreversible know-how Iranian scientists have gathered from operating advanced centrifuges in violation of the deal”. In this light, IAEA head Rafael Grossi noted, “Linear return to 2015 is no longer possible.” This aspect of the deal has become even more problematic because, according to reports from Vienna, Iranian negotiators are demanding the right to continue using the advanced centrifuges developed in violation of the JCPOA’s limits. The US position is that these centrifuges need to be destroyed.
In conclusion, the data that has come in over the last two weeks indicates that the impending return to the JCPOA will maintain many of the aspects of the previous agreement that the Biden administration noted were intolerable to US interests, and in addition, will include new concessions to Iran not present in the original deal. As such, the scorecard shows that even by the standards initially put forward by the Biden administration, it is a deal not worth rejoining.