After the last round of indirect negotiations between the United States and Iran, EU High Representative Josep Borrell circulated a draft agreement to restore the 2015 nuclear deal that he referred to as “final.”
In an Aug. 8 tweet, he said “what can be negotiated has been negotiated,” and that it is time for political decisions to be made in the capitals. If the “answers are positive, then we can sign this deal,” he said.
Borrell’s decision to end the talks and table a final text appeared to take Iran by surprise. While Tehran rejected the description of the draft as “final,” the Iranian negotiating team did provide a response to the EU by the Aug. 15 deadline.
Although Borrell had said there is no further room for compromise, Iran raised several issues with the text in its Aug. 15 response. Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said that Iran’s concerns were focused on sanctions guarantees and called for greater U.S. flexibility on the issue. He said Iran needs to see a “realistic approach” from Washington.
The issue of sanctions guarantees has been central to Iran’s concerns about a restored JCPOA since talks to revive the accord began, as Tehran wants to ensure that Iran will continue to benefit from complying with the JCPOA even if a future U.S. president withdraws from the deal. The U.S. political systems, however, makes it difficult for President Joseph Biden to provide much in the way of guarantees beyond his term.
Comments from other officials in the Raisi administration characterizing the United States as having “retreated” on several issues may be an indication that Tehran is laying the groundwork domestically to sell a return to the nuclear deal. Amirabdollahian said Aug. 15 that “what the people want from us is an outcome from these negotiations.”
However, it remains unclear if the sanctions assurances that Iran is seeking are reasonable and can be agreed to by the United States and P4+1 parties to the accord (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) or if Iran might raise additional issues down the road—a negotiating tactic it has used in the past.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in an Aug. 16 press briefing that the Biden administration is “in the process of studying” Iran’s comments, but he also reiterated that the United States agrees with Borrell’s assessment that “what could be negotiated over the course of these past 16, 17 months, has been negotiated.”
EU spokesperson Nabila Massrali said the EU is reviewing Iran's response and consulting with the United States and the other JCPOA participants. In comments to the press, unnamed European officials gave mixed assessments of Iran's response. One was quoted as saying Iran’s asks were “tricky,” while others described the response as encouraging and said it contained no significant objections.
The United States has not publicly discussed its position on the final text, but Price confirmed on Aug. 15 that the United States would provide its response to Borrell by his requested deadline. U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley said in an Aug. 12 interview with PBS News Hour that the U.S. team is “considering the text very carefully to make sure that it lives up to the president’s very clear guidance” that the deal is “consistent with U.S. national security interest.”
U.S. officials had said that the Biden administration was ready to accept the draft Borrell tabled at the Doha talks in late June, but the new Aug. 8 text included several substantive changes, including a reference to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into Iran’s failure to declare nuclear materials and activities, as required by its legally binding safeguards agreement with the agency. While that investigation is separate from the JCPOA, Tehran insisted on tying the two processes together during the most recent round of talks in Vienna.
The Iranian response to the EU did not mention the language Borrell included to try and address Tehran’s demand that IAEA’s investigation be closed prior to reimplementation of the JCPOA, suggesting that Iran may have accepted Borrell’s proposed wording (see below for details.)
While both the Biden and Raisi administration continue to profess support for the JCPOA, officials from both countries are previewing planned steps if efforts to restore the nuclear deal fail.
Price said on Aug. 15 that the United States will continue “vigorous enforcement” of sanctions on Iran and pressure the country diplomatically. Amirabdollahian said on Aug. 15 that “we have our own Plan B” if talks fail. While he did not provide specifics, Iran is likely to take steps to further advance its nuclear program. Iran has threatened recently to ratchet up enrichment to 90 percent uranium-235, a level considered weapons grade. —KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
Iran Pushes for Safeguards Reference in JCPOA Talks
Iran said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) must close its safeguards investigation prior to Tehran and Washington taking steps to return to compliance with the JCPOA.
Since 2018, the IAEA has been investigating evidence that Iran failed to declare all nuclear materials and activities from its pre-2003 program. As a member of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Tehran is legally required to declare to the agency and place under safeguards all of its nuclear matierals. Iran has yet to provide technically credible answers for the traces of undeclared uranium that the IAEA found at three sites outside of the country's declared nuclear program, despite reaching an agreement with the agency in March on steps to close the probe.
According to an Aug. 11 report from The Wall Street Journal, EU High Representative Josep Borrell included, for the first time, a reference to the safeguards investigation in the draft agreement that he circulated to Iran and the United States on Aug. 8. Tehran made clear its demand that the safeguards issue be referenced in the draft JCPOA restoration agreement ahead of the August Vienna talks and Iranian officials said that there would be no deal if the investigation is not resolved.
The language Borrell drafted references Iran’s desire to close the investigation prior to taking steps to return to compliance with the JCPOA and said Tehran would respond to the IAEA’s questions with “a view to clarifying them.” If the IAEA is satisfied with Iran’s answers, the United States and the P4+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom) would urge the IAEA Board of Governors to close the probe, according to The Wall Street Journal’s reporting.
A similar process was included in the JCPOA to address Iran’s failure to fully comply with the IAEA’s investigation into the military dimensions of Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran was required to take steps previously agreed upon with the agency to address the IAEA’s concerns, prior to the JCPOA’s implementation (See JCPOA, Annex I, Section M). After the IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano issued a final assessment in December 2015, the IAEA’s Board passed a resolution closing the file.
Iran appears to be pushing for a conclusion to the investigation for several reasons. First, Tehran has expressed concern that the IAEA will use the safeguards probe to reopen the military dimensions file closed in 2015, despite the fact that the agency’s reporting and statements demonstrate it is focused on nuclear material accountancy. Second, Iran appears concerned that if the safeguards issue is not resolved, it could be used by the United States in the future to reimpose sanctions at the UN Security Council, using the so-called snapback mechanism established by Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA.
While statements from U.S. officials, including one from Ambassador to the IAEA Laura Holgate at the June meeting of the IAEA’s Board, have made clear that the United States will support concluding the safeguards investigation if Iran provides technically credible responses that satisfy the IAEA, including a reference to the probe in the JCPOA restoration text could raise problems down the road. The United States and the P4+1 cannot be perceived as pressuring the IAEA, which must maintain its independence. U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley highlighted that point in an Aug. 12 interview with PBS NewsHour when he said the United States is “not going to put any pressure” on the IAEA to close these issues. When the “agency is satisfied, we will be satisfied, but not before,” he said.
Additionally, if Iran does not provide timely and credible cooperation, it could delay JCPOA restoration and put that process at risk.
IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi has expressed his willingness to continue engaging with Iran on view to closing the investigation. In his Aug. 2 address to the NPT Review Conference, however, he offered a warning against attempting to politicize the agency’s work, saying that those who “truly favour effective safeguards, would never use their cooperation as a bargaining chip, or IAEA inspectors as pawns in a political game.”
He also said that the “lack of progress in verifying the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme will have consequences on the regional security landscape.”
For more on the safeguards issue, see, “Iran needs to cooperate with the IAEA. That isn’t negotiable.”
Iran Expands Enrichment
The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report Aug. 3 detailing the installation and operation of additional centrifuges at Natanz’s main enrichment facility.
The Aug. 3 report noted that Iran completed the installation of three IR-6 cascades at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant. While Iran had announced plans for the IR-6 cascades, none of the three had been installed as of the IAEA’s May 30 report. Iran has now installed six cascades of IR-6 centrifuges, which equates to about 1,000 machines. Iran’s December 2020 nuclear law required the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran (AEOI) to install and operate 1,000 IR-6s by the end of 2021. Attacks on Iran’s centrifuge production facilities may account for the delay in meeting that goal.
The IAEA verified on Aug. 2 that the IR-6 cascades were installed and under vacuum but not yet enriching. AEOI spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said the order to begin feeding the IR-6s was given later that evening.
According to the report, Iran began feeding uranium into two additional cascades of IR-1 centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant on Aug. 2 and intends to produce uranium-235 enriched to 5 percent. The cascades were installed previously but had not been used for enrichment. Now, Tehran has used all 36 of its IR-1 cascades at the Natanz for uranium enrichment. Under the JCPOA, Iran is limited to 30 cascades of IR-1s at that enrichment facility.
The reported also reflected that Iran notified the IAEA that it intends to install an additional six cascades of IR-2 centrifuges, which would bring the total number of IR-2s at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant to about 2,000. The IAEA verified that installation of these machines had not begun as of Aug. 2.
Iran also announced its intentions to build a new research reactor at the Esfahan Nuclear Technology Center. The head of the AEOI, Mohammad Eslami, said on July 28 that construction on the reactor will commence “in the coming weeks.” The reactor will be used to test nuclear fuels. Eslami said the reactor will “complete the chain of research, evaluation, testing and assurance of our nuclear power production.
U.S. Announces New Sanctions Against Iran
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States sanctioned six entities for “facilitating illicit transactions related to Iranian petroleum as well as petroleum and petrochemical products,” according to an Aug. 1 press statement.
On the same day, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions targeting four companies involved in the illicit sales of Iranian petrochemicals in East Asia. In an Aug. 1 press release, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson said that until Iran is ready to return to its commitments under the JCPOA, the “will continue to enforce sanctions on the illicit sale of Iranian petroleum and petrochemicals.
New Polls Test Support for JCPOA in US, Iran
A new poll from Data for Progress reports that a majority of Americans prefer the use of diplomacy over military force to address the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program and would support an agreement to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
According to the poll, two-thirds of likely voters would strongly support, or somewhat support, a deal that would bring Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA. Support for diplomacy amongst likely voters was even higher, with 74 percent saying that signing a nuclear agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons was preferable to going to war with Iran. Only 8 percent of voters preferred military action.
While support for diplomacy and restoration of the JCPOA remains high in the United States, the Iranian public is split over the JCPOA and whether it will be restored, according to new polling released by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.
When asked if they approve or disapprove of the JCPOA, 47 percent of Iranians said they strongly or somewhat approve of the deal and 47 percent said they somewhat disapprove or strongly disapprove, similar to results when the same question was asked in February and September of 2021. By comparison, in January 2016, when the JCPOA was implemented, 71 percent strongly or somewhat approved of the deal.
Forty-four percent said it is very likely or somewhat likely that the United States and Iran will reach an agreement to restore the accord, down from 50 percent in September 2021.
Just over half of Iranians surveyed said Iran should stick to its positions and get the United States to show more flexibility in efforts to restore the accord, while only 25 percent said both sides should be flexible.
The full questionnaire and results are available here.
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