As the eighth round of talks to restore the 2015 nuclear deal continues in Vienna, negotiators are struggling to contend with one of Iran’s most difficult demands: a guarantee from Washington that the United States will not withdraw from the deal and reimpose sanctions, as former President Trump did in 2018.
Delegations from Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom have gathered in Vienna for eight rounds of talks since April 2021, under the chairmanship of the European Union. The U.S. team is also in Vienna with an aim to negotiate U.S. re-entry to the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in exchange for Iran’s mutual return to compliance.
But if the United States does re-enter the JCPOA and lift sanctions on Iran in return for its nuclear rollback, a senior Iranian official told Reuters Jan. 12 that, “Americans should give assurances that no new sanctions under any label would be imposed on Iran in [the] future.”
U.S. officials have reminded that the U.S. legislative system prohibits offering a legal guarantee against withdrawal without the backing of two-thirds of the Senate and ratification of a binding treaty—and even then, treaties are not invulnerable to U.S. domestic political turmoil. Washington has instead called for the ongoing talks to focus on restoring the JCPOA as it was negotiated in 2015.
According to The Wall Street Journal, U.S. and European negotiating teams are exploring options to demonstrate to Iran their commitment to the deal, including possible letters of assurance from the U.S. Treasury Department endorsing sanctions removal or offering protections against the economic fallout of future sanctions re-imposition. It is not clear whether assurances short of legal guarantees will prove sufficient for Tehran.
Issues of guarantees aside, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, shared his impression Jan. 17 that the parties have made progress negotiating solutions to the issues that go beyond the original JCPOA text but are imperative for the accord’s restoration, like how sanctions will be lifted, how Iran will revert its nuclear activities back to the deal’s limits, and how each sides’ commitments will be implemented to facilitate a mutual return to compliance with the deal.
EU Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell also expressed optimism Jan. 14 that a deal could be struck within “the next few weeks.” U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price also said Jan. 5 that talks had made “modest progress,” as did Russia’s Envoy to the talks, Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov.
But Iran has so far neglected to meet with the United States directly in Vienna, and time left to sort out the negotiating parties’ differences appears limited.
“We’re very, very short on time,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated Jan. 14, noting that “Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.”
The United States has implicitly set an unspecified but impending deadline of late January or early February 2022 for talks to make significant progress before Washington is forced to reconsider negotiations.
According to a U.S. official cited by journalist Laura Rozen in her blog Diplomatic Dec. 7, “the concern is that in the first quarter of next year, Iran[‘s] breakout will start to approach the margin of error,” which is generally thought to be about one week. The official added that “the [International Atomic Energy Agency] only visits in person about once a week. Iran is not good about keeping cameras on. We could get to a period where essentially they get within the margin of error to configure things and rapidly get one bomb’s worth of [highly enriched uranium].” A second U.S. official warned, “we have never been this close.” (For more on “breakout time,” see below).
A U.S. official told Foreign Policy Jan. 9 that “the pace at which talks are progressing is not catching up with the pace of Iran’s nuclear advances,” which have accelerated amid the ongoing negotiations. That official said if talks in Vienna continue at the current pace, Washington may have to “decide on a course correction.”
“If we don’t reach an understanding soon—a mutual return to compliance—we will have to consider a different path forward,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki affirmed Jan. 14. She noted that “our preference is always diplomacy,” but that U.S. President Joe Biden had asked his team several weeks earlier to prepare “a range of options” to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and “they have done that.”
For now, the United States remains hopeful that diplomacy will prevail. Asked about the outlook of the Vienna talks, Biden told reporters Jan. 19 that “there is progress being made,” and “it’s not time to give up” on negotiations.
It is also possible the United States could try to pursue a less ambitious interim agreement that partially restores compliance with the JCPOA, should talks fail to make sufficient progress by late January or early February.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said he raised the prospect of an interim deal with his Israeli counterpart in November 2021, suggesting Washington is open to a short-term deal to buy more time for negotiations. If jointly agreed upon, an interim deal could trade the removal of certain sanctions for a freeze or rollback of certain Iranian nuclear activities.
But for now, the possibility appears moot, given that Tehran has denounced the concept of an interim deal.
Khatibzadeh said Jan. 10 that “we all need to make sure that the return of the United States [to the JCPOA] is accompanied by verification and the receipt of guarantees, and that a lifting of sanctions must take place.” Tehran is “looking for a lasting and credible agreement, and no agreement without these two components is on our agenda” he added. “These are not achieved by any temporary agreement,” he said. --- JULIA MASTERSON, research associate
Warnings of Iran’s dwindling breakout window dominate headlines on the slow pace of negotiations in Vienna, but how long would it actually take for Iran to develop a usable nuclear weapon? Years.
The term “breakout” refers to the length of time it would take for a country to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb, but it is often a misrepresentation of risk, given that fissile material production is only one of several steps necessary to build a viable nuclear weapons capability.
Iran’s breakout time was greater than one year when the JCPOA was fully implemented. Today, it is estimated to be about three weeks, though U.S. officials have warned it could shrink to less than one week by late January or early February if Iran continues to bolster its enrichment capacity and enriched uranium stockpile.
Iran has proven it can produce highly enriched uranium (HEU)—material enriched above 20 percent uranium-235—and it is likely Iran could quickly rachet up to weapons-grade purity if officials in Tehran decide to do so. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s last monitoring report, issued Nov. 17, Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile totals to about 2,490 kilograms, 113.8 kilograms of which are enriched up to 20 percent uranium-235 and 17.7 up to 60 percent.
But even if Iran amasses a significant quantity of weapons-grade HEU—about 25 kilograms of uranium enriched above 90 percent uranium-235—it would take additional time, perhaps years, for Iran to learn and master the process to convert the material into powder form, fabricate a metallic core from that powder, assemble other weapons components, and integrate the weapons package into a delivery vehicle. Iran will also need to conduct multiple nuclear test explosions and missile flight tests to ensure the viability of the weapon.
The IAEA concluded that Iran acquired “sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable” device when Iran had a nuclear weapons program, before 2003, but current estimates for the time it would take for Iran to resurrect that research and build a nuclear bomb still range upward of two years.
These additional steps are technically sophisticated and time-intensive and are often omitted from discussions of Iran’s nuclear advances that conflate nuclear breakout with weapons production. Using Iran’s dwindling breakout as a metric by which to judge whether to move forward with talks to restore the deal risks upending diplomacy and further limiting international insight into Iran’s nuclear activities.
For more on Iran’s breakout time, see: “The Limits of Breakout Estimates in Assessing Iran’s Nuclear Program, How Quickly Could Iran Get a Nuclear Bomb?” and “How Close is Iran to Getting a Nuclear Weapon?”
Iran Conducts Satellite Launch
Iran launched a rocket carrying three devices into space Dec. 30. Ahmad Hosseini, an Iranian defense ministry spokesman, confirmed the Simorgh satellite launch vehicle (SLV) was used to send the devices 470 kilometers into space. It is not clear whether any of the objects entered Earth’s orbit.
The commander of the Iran Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s Aerospace Division, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, said Jan. 13 that the Dec. 30 test was Iran’s first SLV launch using solid fuel. He elaborated, “during the past two years, all Iranian satellite carriers, [were] tested, operated on liquid fuel. But in this test, we succeeded to use [a] solid-fuel engine.”
The Simorgh was last tested in February 2020, although the launch failed to place a satellite in orbit. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leads a space program parallel to the country’s civilian program, and successfully launched a satellite into orbit in April 2020.
Previous Iranian SLV launches have escalated tensions between Iran and the United States, given the implications that an advancing SLV capability could have for Iran’s future long-range ballistic missile development. Iran’s evolving space program provides a credible, non-military reason to test an SLV, but the technology closely resembles that which is used to build long-range ballistic missiles.
The United States has repeatedly claimed that Iran’s SLV development violates United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which prohibits Iran from developing ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Iran’s successful solid-fuel SLV launch may further those concerns, given that ballistic missiles with solid-fueled engines are generally considered to be of higher strategic value because they can be stored in a ready-to-launch configuration and therefore have a shorter launch time.
The Simorgh was launched Dec. 30 against the backdrop of indirect talks between Iran and the United States in Vienna to restore compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. Hosseini said the Dec. 30 test was an “initial” launch, suggesting more SLV tests could follow.
Iran Sanctions 51 U.S. Officials
Iran imposed sanctions on 51 Americans for their involvement in the U.S.-led assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, days after the two-year anniversary of his death. Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie were among those sanctioned by Tehran.
Soleimani was killed Jan. 3, 2020, in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad, Iraq.
In a statement released Jan. 8, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the newly sanctioned individuals of having “taken part in decision-making, organizing, financing, and carrying out the terrorist attack” against Soleimani, referring to his assassination, “or have otherwise justified terrorism which is a threat to international peace and security.”
The move mirrored a similar decision by Iran to sanction U.S. officials—including former President Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo—in January 2021. Like those imposed last year, the sanctions announced Jan. 8 are merely symbolic, given that the U.S. officials designated by Tehran do not hold assets in Iran.
Nevertheless, the United States responded to Iran’s effort to impose sanctions on American officials by warning that “should Iran attack any of our nationals, including any of the 51 people named [Jan. 8], it will face severe consequences.”
“Make no mistake,” U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Jan. 9, “the United States of America will protect and defend its citizens,” adding that “we will work with our allies and partners to deter and respond to any attacks carried out by Iran.”
Washington granted Seoul permission to bypass U.S. sanctions and pay damages to an Iranian investment group, marking a potential signal of good faith from the United States to Iran amid indirect talks in Vienna.
According to South Korea’s foreign ministry, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued a “specific license” Jan. 6 to allow Seoul to make the payment to the Dayyani Group using the U.S. financial system. Without that license, South Korea would face a penalty for engaging economically with an Iranian entity.
The group filed a complaint against South Korea in 2015 for its failure to repay a deposit from a failed investment scheme. The World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement and Investment Disputes ordered South Korea to repay the Dayyani Group in 2018, but Seoul was unable to, given U.S. sanctions on Iran that were imposed when the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018.
South Korea has an estimated $7 billion worth of Iranian assets frozen in its banks but is unable to release those funds without approval from OFAC, akin to the specific license issued Jan. 6. South Korea’s vice foreign minister Choi Jong Kun traveled to Vienna Jan. 6 to meet with U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley, Deputy Secretary-General of the European External Action Service Enrique Mora, and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani to discuss the potential release of frozen Iranian assets along the sidelines of negotiations to resurrect the nuclear deal.
Choi’s visit to Vienna raised speculation that an interim deal trading the release of South Korean-held Iranian funds for an Iranian nuclear concession could be up for debate, but a source close to Iran’s negotiating team retorted Jan. 7, “an interim agreement is NOT on the agenda.” Bagheri Kani said “regardless of the outcome of the Vienna talks, the South Korean government is obliged to releasing Iran’s frozen funds, [and] unilateral U.S. sanctions cannot justify non-payment of debts to Iran.”
Ahead of the meeting, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price affirmed that U.S. sanctions on Iran will remain in place until the deal is restored. It is not clear how or under what conditions OFAC issued the specific license for Seoul to repay the Dayyani Group.
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