*Hale Kıvanç Bökeer
Over eight rounds of talks in Vienna for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), some progress has been noted between Iran and US, the UK, Russia, China, Germany and France, with the coordination and negotiation of the EU, which brought the parties close enough to draft a final text. However, by early 2022, Russia-Ukraine war has drastically changed the agenda and diverted the focus of the world powers. This has limited the cooperation and halted the progress. Adding on the elevated friction between US and Iran on key articles, the agreement is now considered “frozen”.
A brief history of JCPOA
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a detailed, 159-page agreement with five annexes. It was signed on 14 July 2015 by Iran and China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (the group known as the P5+1). This nuclear deal was then endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, adopted on 20 July 2015. Iran’s compliance with the nuclear-related provisions of the JCPOA was to be verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in accordance with certain requirements outlined in the agreement.
By November 2016, in less than a year, IAEA reported that Iran was breaking the terms of the deal. Although the Iranian government promised not to continue with its path for developing a nuclear weapon, it raised concerns with the international community, when a classified report by the UN nuclear watchdog proved that Iran has trespassed the articles, undermining the JCPOA.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal of 2015, was abandoned by the US President Donald Trump and US unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA on 8 May 2018, and subsequently re-imposed all US sanctions on Iran lifted by the accord. UN Security Council Resolution 2231 still names the United States as a participant because the text was never amended to reflect US withdrawal from the deal in May 2018.
The JCPOA aimed to rigorously restrict Iran’s nuclear program, in return for removingthe sanctions. However, in 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal, due to reports showing Iran not reducing its missile program and regional influence. The JCPOA agreement said that Iran would dispose of its medium-enriched uranium, reduce the low-enriched uranium by 98%, and reduce the number of its gas centrifuges by about two-thirds for 13 years. If this agreement had been signed in 2018, Iran would have only developed uranium up to 3.67% in the following 15 years. This proposed deal would have limited Iran from advancing its nuclear program until 2031. However, after a year from Trump’s withdrawal, Iran chose to ignore the limitations on its nuclear program and continued to accelerate enriching its uranium which suited the regime.
On September 2020, the US announced that all UN sanctions lifted in accordance with the nuclear deal were re-imposed on Iran. The Trump administration subsequently threatened to penalize any individuals or states that failed to enforce the re-imposition of sanctions. However, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and many UN member states, including the other parties to the JCPOA, disregarded the US call to re-impose sanctions, citing the US withdrawal from JCPOA in 2018 and therefore not recognizing US entitlement to trigger any further UN sanctions on Iran to be re-imposed. Then the newly inaugurated President Joe Biden administration formallyrescinded Trump’s restoration of the UN sanctions on Iran on 18 February 2021. This announcement was considered to help US move forward with 2015 nuclear agreement that aims at oversighting and influencing Iran’s nuclear program.
Since 2021, there have been several attempts for the revival of JCPOA by the parties involved. A diplomatic solution is still in the interest, however for the moment it is hard to see how the tension between Washington and Tehran regarding the issue can be lowered. The only hopeful perception is that none of the parties involved, including the United States, Iran, and the European countries, is in favour of declaring the collapse of the negotiations. From the perspective of the US administration, the interest still remains as achieving a diplomatic solution to control Iran advancing its nuclear program.
Despite the intentions to find ways to create a platform for a compromise, no quick solution is on the horizon for now, especially, with the upcoming US congressional elections on 8 November 2022. The US administration is putting off dealing with this issue, due to the increased pressure of the opposition formed within the Democratic Party. Even after the midterm elections, the Biden administration will primarily focus on the increasing domestic problems such as its economy, its socially polarized society due to the income inequality, real-estate fluctuations and beyond. Needless to say, the war between Russia and Ukraine and dealing with China remain as the external threatening challenges.
Increasing worries over Iran’s unchecked activities
Returning to JCPOA, this current picture is now urging the parties involved to come up with, at least, an interim agreement, to mitigate or eliminate the risk of any armed confrontation that may arouse from the region.
On 2 December 2020, Iran’s Guardian Council passed a new legislation entitled “Strategic Action Plan to Lift Sanctions and Protect Iranian Nation’s Interests”, mandating Iran to significantly increase its nuclear activities. This legislation explicitly outlines a series of phased measures to be taken in the months following the approval of the law. Under the new law, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) is obligated to boost enrichment levels to 20% uranium-235, and store at least 120 kilograms of 20% enriched fuel annually. It is also required to start enrichment and Research and Development activities with at least 164 IR-6 centrifuges and increase the number of centrifuge machines to 1,000 within one year after the ratification of this law.
On 23 February 2021, reports indicated that Iran was in the process of installing one cascade of 135 IR-6 centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility, which was transferred from the pilot fuel enrichment plant. According to the IAEA’s report of 3 March 2022, installation of the IR-6 cascade was planned but had not begun. Iran has already been accumulating enriched uranium from a cascade of 164 IR-6 centrifuges, along with several smaller IR-6 cascades, at the Natanz pilot fuel enrichment plant, amounting up to about 200 machines. Iran has also installed two cascades of 166 IR-6 centrifuges at the Fordow facility but only one was operational.
Iran claims that all its activities initiated are in accordance with their new law. However, it also declared that these activities along with all other breaches of the JCPOA, could be fully reversed, should the sanctions be lifted. However, based on these developments, the disagreement between Iran and the US over the mutual commitments still disable a full return to the nuclear agreement.
On 10 September 2022, a joint statement by the UK, Germany and France indicated serious concerns on the intentions and commitments by Iran to pursue a successful outcome for the JCPOA. Iran has demanded that IAEA should conclude their investigations before the re-implementation of the agreement (120 days after the signing).
EU continues to hold its clear and firm position emphasizing the urgent need for Iran to cooperate, in good faith, by providing satisfactory explanations to the IAEA’s concerns on the declared and undeclared locations of all its nuclear material within Iranian borders. EU statement also indicates that Iran cannot evade its legal obligations to Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by using JCPOA as an excuse.
The US administration and the EU countries involved have claimed that IAEA investigations are not related to the nuclear agreement and therefore, Iran cannot make this conditional to a return to the agreement. On the other hand, IranianPresident Ebrahim Raisi has said that it is meaningless to return to the agreement without resolving the open investigations of the IAEA. As a response, Rafael Grossi, the Director-General of IAEA clearly stated that until Iran provides satisfactory and credible explanations regarding the evidence found, IAEA would continue its investigations.
In response to this, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran declared that this attack is driven by international pressure and political interests, and blamed mainly Israel.However, since Trump’s withdrawal, Iran chose to ignore the limitations on its nuclear program and continued to accelerate enriching uranium. This allowed Iran to accumulate more on its stockpile and experience. In addition, Iran slowed down cooperation with IAEA, which makes it difficult for IAEA to further monitor the diversion of the enriched material and continue its effective supervision on the ground.
The Institute for Science and National Security (ISIS) in Washington, also reported that the current stock of uranium in Iran would suffice to produce several bombs in a short time. This news has alerted especially Israel to formulate a new concealed regional security strategy with the cooperation of the regional powers along with USsupport.
Current US administration is not interested in intervening into any wars, especially in the Middle East. The administration is more focused on diverting the resources towards the consequences of the war in Ukraine and their alertness for China. This reduces the likelihood of building an effective coalition against Iran. The US doesn’t seem to have any organised strategy apart from rather generalized statements for a scenario of a final collapse of reviving talks with Iran. This may be perceived as a major achievement for the parties opposing the agreement in the short term.
However, Iran’s accumulation of high-grade enriched uranium and its continued progress on the development of its other capabilities with its nuclear program,especially its collaboration with North Korea is one that needs to be addressed strongly. China’s critical role in supporting access to its airspace and ports for the transport of arms to Iran, including ballistic missiles, needs to be addressed. Another point of concern is its facilitation of the exchange of the Hwasong-12 missile from North Korea to Iran in return for oil as a part of its 25-year military/security partnership with Iran. This supports China to supply enough oil to North Korea, which returns as a big threat to the global security.
US should work more closely with China to control the sea and air procurement routes that North Korea and Iran are enjoying with very little or no interference. The flightroute between Pyongyang and Tehran with a stopover in Beijing, should have a control mechanism for the possibility of illicit nuclear materials or undeclared sums of cashbeing carried. There is also tendency for Iran to seek civilian aviation support to establish undercover transport for the nuclear and ballistic missile components and technologies.
Iran uses its strategic cooperation with North Korea in the development of ballistic missile technology as an essential component to achieve regional dominance and to destabilize the Middle East. In violation of Resolution 2231, Iran kept the ongoing transfer of arms to its proxies like the Al-Ashtar Brigades in Bahrain, to the Houthis in Yemen, the Assad regime and potentially Hezbollah and other Shiite militias on the ground. Despite the JCPOA, Iran retains a pathway to nuclear weapons capacity through its ties with North Korea, threatening the deal’s efficacy.
Iran is currently enjoying the luxury of the unclear situation of the agreement, which enables further progress for its nuclear program, without any pressure applied. In the meantime, Iran is using Oman and Qatar to signal to European partners that if sanctions are removed, they would volunteer to provide EU with natural gas supply, but Russia would not be pleased with an alternative source of natural gas flowing into the market. On the other hand, the other two partners of the JCPOA, Russia and China, are in a “honeymoon” with Iran, without stating any major concerns over Iran’s nuclear program progress. They also don’t seem to be too concerned about US/Biden administration achieving any success for an agreement to return to the table. Having said all this, the European partners are already preoccupied with their domestic economic issues due to the advancing Ukraine war. They are trying to avoid declaring that the negotiations are over, in order to avoid any confrontation or a furtherdeterioration, due to Iran’s continued progress in accumulating high-grade enriched uranium, or due to the continued development and advancement of the other capabilities of the nuclear program.
Turning eyes to the Middle East and Israel, the worst scenario for Israel is the continuation of the current situation, where Iran is accumulating enough fissile material for weapons-grade enrichment for several nuclear facilities, which increases the temptation of a sudden nuclear breakout. It would be best for Israel to maintain a discreet dialogue to get the support of the US administration to focus on advancing the military and strategic needs, including developing an effective cooperation with the regional neighbouring countries. Israel needs the US for this and is well aware that even if the Biden administration does not win a majority in both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, they still have two more years in power, and maintaining a good relationship with the administration over the regional political and military developments is a must. The current state of the negotiations, is also likely to have major implications on Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid in his forthcoming election campaign in Israel, particularly against opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who keeps attacking the current government on the issue. (However, there is also a lot of criticism on how Netanyahu tackled this issue with the Congress in the past.)
Keeping a nuclear Iran in check
In the case of a return to the deal with sanctions being lifted, there will be some new emerging regional military partnerships and financial sponsors that may support Iranto widen its regional military infrastructure, such as garrisons, tunnel networks, and arms manufacturing plants; and transfer some game-changing military hardware such as missiles, drones, and other air defence systems. But even if all these scenarios were to materialize, in the event of a full-scale military conflict between Israel and its neighbours, Israel seems confident to maintain almost full dominance within its borders at all fronts; land, sea and air.
Last week during UNGA, Iranian officials were asked by the US officials to have direct talks, however, Iran wants these talks to have substantial gain for their side. Iran also stated that they would not reject this initiative, even if these talks were to be arranged by EU partners. Iran declares their deep concern as having to continuously face accusations created by third parties and that IAEA is influenced by regional political pressures despite Iran’s cooperative approach.
Reaching an agreement currently seems like a rocky road, but having the sides still declaring their wish to find common path to continue with the deal signals a possibility for light at the end of the tunnel. If the agreement is renewed and implemented, the main achievements will be less enriched uranium within Iranian borders, a reduced level of enrichment, freezing the process of installing advanced centrifuges, which would mean reduced concern of a nuclear breakout. This would also mean revisions will be made on the IAEA supervision on the ground. From a different angle, based on previous experiences, lifting sanctions off Iran, would allow billions of dollars to free flow into Iran. This may be perceived to increase support for the regional terrorist groups said to be supported by Iran, including Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It could also help accelerate the vision of a “Shia crescent” stretching from the Iraqi border to the Mediterranean, including the Houthis in Yemen and pro-Iranian militias in the region. This scenario could be a strategic regional disaster. Along with this comes the reality of the extensive nuclear knowledge already accumulated in Iran. The advanced centrifuges remaining in Iran will always have the potential for Iran to quickly return to its enrichment program, especially with the free flow of its frozen funding of millions of dollars outside its territory and with the gained profits from its oil and gas exports.
This is the bottom line and it is the grave reality. At the end of the day, sky is the limit for possible scenarios concerning nuclear capabilities. It is actually not a matter of returning to the JCPOA table to continue with the deal or not. The picture is much bigger than JCPOA itself. What Iran has accumulated in terms of its nuclear expertise, its stockpile and its self-justified reactions against sanctions structured the inevitable reality of today. Underestimation could be a big mistake for the West. This requires all the parties involved to originate a new strategy to deal with Iran, its potential regional power and its wider powerful connections. It is a matter of the spur of a moment for Iran to ignite another crisis. Before it is too late and while Iran is still at a negotiable mood, the world powers and experts should come up with a stronger, wiser and longer term culture to deal with Iran that will potentially serve the global peace.
Hale Kιvanç Bökeer is a Ph.D.student and she has a Master of Arts Degree at the Human Relations Department of the Institute of Social Sciences at the Ankara University. Hale has a Bachelor of Arts in IAED from the Bilkent University, Ankara and graduated from the British International School in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.