Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi pledged to pursue “smart engagement” in order to lift sanctions on Iran during his Aug. 5 inauguration speech.
Raisi characterized the U.S. sanctions as oppressive and said his government would support “a diplomatic plan that achieves this goal,” likely referring to efforts to restore U.S. and Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He also said that Iran’s nuclear program is “completely peaceful” and reiterated the official line that “Iran has placed a religious ban on nuclear weapons.”
Talks to restore the JCPOA have remained stalled since Raisi’s election in June but will likely resume in September according to EU officials. EU foreign policy chief and coordinator of the P4+1 group (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom), Enrique Mora, attended the inauguration and met with Raisi’s presumed Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. Mora was criticized for attending the inauguration, due in large part to Raisi’s human rights record, but his office defended the decision, telling Radio Farda Aug. 5 that it is “crucial to engage diplomatically with the new administration” and to directly pass along messages.
Amir-Abdollahian is an experienced diplomat that worked for the Foreign Ministry from 2005-2016. He participated in talks with the United States in 2007 over the situation in Iraq, but it is unclear how involved he will be in future efforts to restore the JCPOA. Iranian news outlets reported Aug. 10 that the nuclear file will be moved from the Foreign Ministry, which handled it during the Rouhani administration, to the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). The SNSC will approach the negotiations on the JCPOA with “new instructions” and “new strategies,” according to news outlets.
The SNSC is a 12-member body that is presided over by Iran’s president and tasked with determining national security policies and aligning domestic policies with national security strategies. The membership includes two representatives chosen by the Supreme Leader. The current secretary, Ali Shamkhani is one of the Supreme Leader’s chosen representatives. Shamkhani also served on the committee that reviewed the progress made by the Rouhani team during the six rounds of talks in Vienna on the JCPOA after Raisi was elected in June.
The SNSC spokesperson, Keyvan Khosravi, said in July that the committee determined that the Vienna talks failed to reach agreement on several key areas because of the “bullying” of U.S. and European parties. Khosravi’s statement is contrary to remarks from former President Hassan Rouhani, who said a deal was possible, if not for Iran’s 2020 nuclear law (see below for details) and will likely inform the Raisi government’s approach.
Rhetorically, the Raisi administration appears poised to take a harder line on the negotiations and may try to leverage its nuclear violations for greater concessions from the United States.
In an Aug. 9 press briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh also said that the Biden administration needs to return to talks in Vienna with a new, “realistic approach” so that a conclusion is reached in the “shortest time.”
The United States has made clear it is willing to return to negotiations but is unlikely to change course. In an Aug. 5 press briefing, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States is waiting to see what approach the new Raisi government takes and hopes Iran “seizes the opportunity now to advance diplomatic solutions.” He said the United States has made very clear it is prepared to resume talks in Vienna and expects that the “seventh round would pick up where the sixth round has left off.”
Price also reiterated the U.S. warning that “this process cannot go on indefinitely” and the timeframe for restoring the JCPOA “won’t last forever.”
The United States has not specified when that window will close, but Price indicated that if the United States does not believe that the nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA can be restored because of Iran’s nuclear advances, the U.S. calculus will change.
It is unclear if, when talks resume, the United States and Iran will meet directly. During the prior six rounds, Mora served as an intermediary during the indirect talks. Raisi is, however, prepared to engage with the European parties to the deal. During an Aug. 9 phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Raisi reportedly emphasized that the United States and the other parties to the JCPOA should honor their commitments under the nuclear deal. He also said that Iran’s “rights and interest” must be ensured in any plan to restore the JCPOA.
Macron told Raisi that France would like to see a resumption of talks as quickly as possible and is committed to finding a solution to restore the JCPOA.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, JULIA MASTERSON, research associate, and SANG-MIN KIM, Scoville Fellow
IAEA Head Voices Concerns About Iran
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program has remained limited as a result of stalled negotiations toward restoring the 2015 nuclear deal. The ongoing hiatus – which began after the sixth round of talks ended June 20 – has left the global nuclear watchdog in an “uncomfortable situation,” its Director-General Rafael Grossi said July 19.
“We still have a number of questions, issues that we are trying to clarify with Iran, and we will have to wait and start anew with the new team when they are in office,” Grossi said, referring to recently elected Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who was inaugurated Aug. 5.
The IAEA’s investigation of possible undeclared nuclear materials and activities from the pre-2003 period also remains stalled, although Tehran’s has failed to cooperate with that process for the past year.
The Raisi administration appears committed to engaging in talks brokered by the European Union toward restoring the nuclear deal but is steadfast in its demand that all sanctions imposed by the United States after its withdrawal from the deal be lifted.
The agency’s access to Iran’s nuclear program relies heavily on the outcome of those talks and on the ultimate restoration of the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
In February, per a 2020 nuclear law, Iran suspended the implementation of the additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement along with other monitoring measures mandated by the deal. The additional protocol, along with the other monitoring measures mandated by the JCPOA, grants the IAEA access and information necessary to assuredly verify the strictly peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.
Averting a crisis, Grossi reached a bilateral three-month arrangement with Tehran before the February suspension whereby Iran pledged to continue collecting and recording certain monitoring data, including video footage, and to release that data to the IAEA upon restoration of the JCPOA. The arrangement was extended for another month May 24 amid productive talks in Vienna toward restoring the deal, but it expired June 24.
It remains unclear whether Iran is continuing to collect and record data for the IAEA in lieu of additional protocol monitoring and pursuant to the temporary arrangement. An unnamed senior Iranian official affirmed to CNN July 2 that Tehran will not share any recorded data with the agency unless the nuclear deal is salvaged, thereby suggesting that data is still being collected, despite the temporary monitoring arrangement’s expiration. But while Iran claims to be preserving that data, Grossi noted his concern that “this assurance is informal in nature and we [the IAEA] don’t know whether this is the case or not.”
While the IAEA still maintains a presence in Iran under Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement, which is required by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a recent standoff over access to the Natanz facility has raised further concerns about agency access. Western diplomats reported July 1 that Iran had limited inspector access to the facility, which houses Iran’s primary enrichment hall, for several weeks, citing security concerns. The status of that dispute – and whether Tehran has since permitted inspectors to re-enter the facility – remains unknown.
Grossi also raised concerns about monitoring Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium, given the reduced access. Iran has taken significant steps over the past six months to rachet up its nuclear activities in violation of the JCPOA in an increased effort to pressure the United States to re-enter the deal and deliver on sanctions relief. These steps have included the enrichment of uranium up to 20 and 60 percent uranium-235 and the production of uranium metal. Since June, Iran has more than tripled its stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium, which now totals 8.9 kilograms. Iran’s sophisticated uranium enrichment program and its uranium metal production could be applied to a nuclear weapons development program if one were so desired.
“We need to verify that all this material at those higher grades is going to remain in peaceful uses,” Grossi urged during his July 19 interview. “The only way to do that is [for Iran] to cooperate with the IAEA,” he said.
Rouhani Blames Parliament for JCPOA Challenges
The Iranian parliament’s provocative nuclear law, passed in December 2020, is to blame for the prolonged restoration of the nuclear deal, outgoing President Hassan Rouhani told his cabinet July 14. The law mandates the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program in violation of the 2015 deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It was passed in an effort to press the United States and other JCPOA parties to deliver on sanctions relief and in response to the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakrizadeh in December 2020.
According to Rouhani, the deal could have been restored as early as March 2021 if not for the significant and escalatory steps taken to advance Iran’s nuclear capabilities in violation of the JCPOA and per the nuclear law. Since January, Iran has grown its stockpile of 20 percent uranium-235, produced uranium metal, and vastly expanded its uranium enrichment program by introducing new and advanced centrifuge machines. The Rouhani administration formally handed over the reins to the administration of newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi Aug. 5, tasking the new president with advancing negotiations and restoring the JCPOA. Raisi will also have to contend with the law’s requirements.
While Raisi has expressed his commitment to resuming JCPOA talks, the hardline cleric may try to leverage Iran’s nuclear violations for more concessions or guarantees from the United States. Raisi also appears less likely to agree to the U.S. demand that Iran commit to follow up talks as part of the JCPOA restoration package. Raisi received staunch warnings about the challenges of engaging with the West – and specifically with the United States – from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In his final July 28 address to the Rouhani cabinet, Khamenei warned that future Iranian “administrations should utterly avoid tying their plans for negotiations with the West, for they’ll certainly fail.”
“This administration too, wherever it relied on negotiations with the West and the U.S., they were unsuccessful,” he reflected, referencing the Rouhani administration’s engagement via the JCPOA, which the United States unilaterally withdrew from in 2018.
Talks toward restoring the deal began in April 2021, shortly after the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. But while Washington repeatedly pledged throughout subsequent negotiations their commitment to reviving the deal, Khamenei warned, “in the recent nuclear talks, the Americans staunchly insisted on their obstinate stance. When making promises and on paper, they said they’ll lift sanctions, but in practice, they didn’t and won’t.”
As part of the talks, Tehran is seeking a commitment from Washington that future U.S. administrations will not withdraw from the JCPOA and re-impose sanctions as the Trump administration did in 2018. For its part, the United States is looking for an agreement by Iran to engage in follow-on discussions aimed to address its ballistic missile program and behavior in the region. Both Khamenei and Raisi appear reluctant to make such a commitment.
As Supreme Leader, Khamenei has the final say with respect to Iran’s posture toward returning to and restoring the JCPOA. Despite his denunciation of U.S. attempts to revive the deal and his skepticism of the West, Khamenei still supports the nuclear accord and efforts to restore the deal.
U.S. Warns of Oil Sanctions If Talks Stall
The Biden administration is considering tightening sanctions on Iranian oil sales to China to deter Tehran from abandoning talks on the restoration of the nuclear deal and incentivize it to rejoin the accord, according to Wall Street Journal’s interviews with U.S. officials and people close to the issue.
Under this option, the United States would impose fresh sanctions on the shipping networks that help export an estimated 1 million barrels a day from Iran to its clients, like China, the officials explained. The action is one of many similar legal actions or new designations that aim to aggressively enforce the current sanction regime on Iran’s oil and shipping industries. Washington would use this plan only if talks to restore the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have failed, according to the officials.
The sanctions would put considerable stress on Iran’s economy as the shipping networks and oil sales bring in critical revenue. From January through March 2021, Iran exported 1.7 million barrels of oil per day through illicit transactions, violating current sanctions. Much of the barrels went to small, independent oil refineries in China for reduced prices, according to data from an energy consulting group, FGE. This is a significant difference from February 2020 when it had exported about 606,000 barrels per day, only 137,000 barrels of which were of crude oil.
Some of the officials, though, recognized the limited range of options available to the United States if talks fail. “There is not much left to sanction in Iran’s economy,” one U.S. official quoted in the Wall Street Journal article said, which underscores the importance and urgency behind coming back into compliance with the deal.
Negotiations in Vienna have been stalled since June 20, and are unlikely to resume until September, when newly-inaugurated President Ebrahim Raisi’s team is in place.
At the end of the day, the United States is assessing whether the deal’s benefits still outweigh the costs of Iran’s nuclear program's ongoing gains. While its desire for further talks indicates Biden’s support for rejoining the deal and that benefits currently trumps cost, the Spokesman for the State Department Ned Price stated July 14, “this process is not indefinite … there will come a point where our calculus will change.”
In Case You Missed It…