What a New Iran Nuclear Deal Could Look Like

After 16 months of tense negotiations, Iran and the United States are now closer to a settlement to restore 2015’s nuclear accord. Are they close to a deal?

The Obama-era accord formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) lifted multilateral sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on the country’s nuclear program. Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the 2018 deal and reinstated punitive sanction on Iran. This crippled the economy.

In response, Iran sharply accelerated its nuclear activities, enriching uranium to 60 percent—its highest level ever but still short of the 90 percent required to make a bomb—and restricting monitoring access to the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Although Iran claims its nuclear program has been peaceful, experts warn Iran that it could produce sufficient material to create a bomb within days.

Recognizing the failure of Trump’s approach to contain Iran’s nuclear advances, President Biden came into office pledging to rejoin the JCPOA. Iran’s weakening economy amid the pandemic, meanwhile, gave Tehran a clear incentive to negotiate the removal of sanctions. The European Union mediated talks between Iran and the U.S. in the early 2021s. However, successive rounds of negotiations failed to produce a breakthrough as there were still significant differences between them.

In recent days, however, both Tehran and Washington have said a deal is now “closer” than ever.

The E.U. concluded the last round of indirect negotiations in Vienna, August 8. submitted a so-called “final” agreement for both parties to sign off on, reportedly with Washington’s blessing. Iran formally responded to the proposal on August 15 with revisions that the E.U.’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell called “reasonable.”

While Tehran continues to insist on mechanisms to ensure Iran would continue to benefit economically should a future U.S. president pull out like Trump did in 2018—something Biden can’t legally guarantee—it dropped a “non-negotiable” demand that the U.S. remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. Biden had made this a priority.

The Iranian proposal also didn’t address the three-year-old IAEA investigation into undeclared nuclear materials and activities it wants shut down—a decision that is up to the IAEA, an independent body, rather than the U.S.—although it’s still likely to be a precondition for full implementation.

These concessions, while not unambiguous nor irrevocable in nature, resolve many of the major sticking points that prevented an agreement. Encouragingly, they have also been accompanied by stepped-up government efforts to sell a potential agreement domestically—both to a public that’s grown skeptical after years of false starts and to conservative lawmakers who are ideologically predisposed against compromise.

After deliberating with its foreign partners and consulting internally, the White House responded to Iran’s proposal Wednesday. The contents of the response are still to be revealed. On Sunday, President Biden met with leaders from France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, hosted an Israeli counterpart to talk about the negotiations on Tuesday.

A revived agreement would temporarily limit Tehran’s nuclear capabilities and extend its “breakout time” to at least 6 months in exchange for sanctions relief, which would release billions of dollars of frozen Iranian assets as well as oil and gas revenues. Iran would be able to add approximately 1,000,000 barrels of oil per day to the market within a few days of its full implementation. This could at least partially offset the loss of Russian seaborne flows to Europe, and lower global energy prices.

Although the agreement would provide for a rigorous monitoring system to make sure Iran meets its promises, it would not include any physical nukes. The regime would be in effect until the end of time. The deal does not include any Iranian non-nuclear military activities, such as the support of terror proxy forces.

Critics within the U.S. (almost all Republicans and some leading Democrats) and in Israel argue that Iran’s behavior shows it can’t be trusted to comply with its obligations. They also claim that the so-called “sunset provisions” mean the deal would delay but not prevent Iran’s nuclear development, while sanctions relief would bolster the regime’s resolve and ability to conduct malign activities against the United States and its allies.

As a matter of policy, the Biden administration is inclined to reach a compromise despite the shortcomings, believing the alternatives—either allow Iran to become a nuclear state or go to war to stop that from happening—are far more dangerous than even an imperfect deal. It is important to ask whether the Biden administration thinks that the benefits of the JCPOA being reestablished would be greater than the political cost of making concessions about Iran in the midst of the near-term elections.

While foreign policy won’t be a deciding factor for voters in November, Democrats will be wary not to puncture their recent momentum with a deal Republicans will paint as a blunder—something the electorate does punish, as evidenced by the fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal. Especially after the attack on novelist Salman Rushdie and the indictment of an Iranian operative who plotted to kill former national security adviser John Bolton—the latter clearly on the orders of the Tehran regime—and with gas prices falling for the eleventh straight week, the White House may well conclude that the juice is not worth the squeeze at the moment.

Iran is also aware that any Republican president will immediately withdraw the U.S. deal and impose new sanctions. While Iran would certainly benefit from the influx of cash in the meantime, the Supreme Leader might not find it politically worthwhile to support a deal with such a plausibly short runway—at least not until after the 2024 U.S. election. With inflation falling, China-Russia relations improving and oil revenues rising, Iran may be able to delay making its final decision, while trying to get additional concessions from America.

The problem is that the longer that talks drag on without a breakthrough, the more Iran’s nuclear program advances and the closer the U.S. gets to presidential elections, making an agreement less useful for both sides.

Washington and Tehran both want the chance of an agreement to continue, even if it is not in their plans. Biden’s decision to stop negotiations publicly would mean he conceded defeat on a critical foreign policy priority. This would also put pressure upon Trump to enforce the Trump-era Sanctions. It would lead to increased international sanctions for Iran and weaken its economy. There is also a greater risk of a conflict if Iran continues nuclear advances.

Even though neither side wants to close the talks now, its fate remains in doubt.

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