The tricky issues holding up a new Iran nuclear deal


Reviving a historic agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program could pave the way for the lifting of sanctions by the United States and allow Iranian energy exports to return to world markets. The talks have been hampered by a lack of trust as well as Iranian demands that Washington guarantee economic benefits from a new deal and that international observers halt an investigation into Tehran’s past nuclear activities.

1. What guarantees did Iran demand?

In 2018, the administration of former President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the agreement reached in 2015 and reimposed sanctions that drastically reduced Iran’s oil exports. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told diplomats and defense officials at this year’s Munich security conference that the world powers at the negotiating table must provide assurances that the Iranians will not be not have to limit their nuclear activities in order to be caught in the sanctions trap again. Of the previous deal, he said: “It was the Americans who ruined it. It is now up to the Americans to resurrect it.

2. Are such insurances possible?

US officials have scoffed at the idea that they can guarantee that a future president will not walk away from the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. More than 100 Republican members of Congress have pledged to oppose any sanctions relief on Iran by the administration of President Joe Biden, a Democrat. A bipartisan bill introduced in July would require the US government to assess the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran on a quarterly basis. The domestic division over the deal has forced negotiators to try to find creative solutions that satisfy Iran’s demands within the US system of checks and balances. More recently, officials said the parties had made progress on specific indemnities that would guarantee economic returns to Iran, even if a new US administration or act of Congress again nullifies the deal.

3. What’s wrong with Iran’s nuclear infrastructure?

World powers are anxious to seal a return to the deal because, in the absence of any constraints, Iranian engineers have increased the country’s ability to rapidly enrich uranium to levels approaching those that would be needed to manufacture a nuclear weapon. The country has always maintained that its atomic program was peaceful, but the 2015 agreement was made to verify this claim. Iran now operates a higher number of advanced centrifuges – machines spinning at supersonic speeds to separate uranium isotopes – than allowed under the deal, which only allowed 5,060 to be operated. first-generation devices. Under the terms of the original deal, Iran could have partially assembled machines under international supervision, only commissioning completed units from 2025.

4. What was proposed?

Absent full safeguards, Iran wants to leave its advances in centrifugation untouched so that it can quickly reverse course should the United States walk away from the deal again. On this point, the United States opened the door to compromise in February by lifting sanctions on civil nuclear cooperation with Iran. This paves the way for the Persian Gulf country to potentially ship the nuclear fuel and centrifuges to a friendly third country, with the guarantee that ownership will be returned in the event of a further breach of the agreement. Russia and Kazakhstan have emerged as potential facilitators, with the latter named in the initial deal as a potential transit station for Iranian nuclear fuel. However, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council has suggested that the best solution for Iran may be to keep the centrifuges sealed but intact, rather than dismantling them altogether.

5. What’s wrong with nuclear monitors?

A side letter with the International Atomic Energy Agency ahead of the initial deal paved the way for Iran to settle a costly investigation into its past nuclear activities. But after the Trump administration quit the deal, new suspicions emerged. Following an Israeli spy operation that smuggled documents out of Iran, the IAEA has opened a new investigation that has detected traces of artificial uranium at several undeclared sites in Iran. It is this issue that has now emerged as a potential obstacle to the negotiations. Iran has demanded an end to the investigation as part of a larger deal. But countries negotiating with Iran cannot order the IAEA – which acts as an independent auditor – to conclude its investigation prematurely. Parallel talks in search of a resolution have taken place, but so far without tangible results.

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