Negotiators from Iran and six world powers reportedly are close to agreeing on a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), which saw the U.S. and Europe roll back sanctions on Iran in return for limits on Tehran’s nuclear program.
Then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018, calling it the worst deal in history. Since April 2021, U.S. and European negotiators have been trying to revive the JCPOA alongside Iranian counterparts and the European Union, which chairs the talks. A final draft text was submitted earlier this month, although key sticking points remain.
The resurrection of the JCPOA appears to hinge on one key issue: Iran’s past unexplained nuclear activity. The United Nations nuclear monitor, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), found traces of uranium at three undeclared sites in Iran dating to before 2004, and launched what it calls “safeguards” investigations.
At a news conference Monday, Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, said the IAEA investigations must be closed before it will agree to any new deal.
“Without resolving safeguards issues, talking about an agreement would be meaningless,” Raisi said.
The Reuters news agency reported Monday that the United States and Iran had found a way to address the investigations “that allows both to claim victory for now but delays a final resolution,” citing three sources familiar with the matter.
Iran is trying to draw a line under its past nuclear activities, said Peter Jenkins, a former British ambassador to the IAEA.
“The allegation is that some kind of research into nuclear weapons was taking place at that site. It may be less serious than that, but nonetheless, the agency is in no doubt that these traces suggest that nuclear material was at the sites,” Jenkins told VOA.
“The reason I think why they don’t want to account for it now is that it might give the lie to the claim, which they have made for more than 20 years now, that they never conducted research into nuclear weapons.”
The IAEA safeguarding investigations are separate from the political negotiations over the nuclear deal. Iran is trying to conflate the two, says Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran analyst with the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“What the Iranians are trying to do right now is cleverly force the technical track to become a permanent hostage of that political track — and use the momentum and political will created by the potential for JCPOA resurrection for this to be swept under the rug,” Taleblu told VOA.
“It’s quite clear that if there is going to be any kind of diplomatic agreement that grants the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism — where every today-declared nuclear facility used to be an undeclared nuclear facility — that you do have a full accounting of past programs; and you do have a resolution to where undeclared traces of uranium went, how it was produced, when it was produced, who produced it, as well as a full accounting of the regime’s nuclear history,” he added.
Former President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA in 2018 because he said it had failed to halt Iran’s ballistic missile program or its support for terror groups in the region, an accusation Tehran denies.
French President Emmanuel Macron said last week that any new deal would not address those concerns.
“I think that this accord, if concluded in the terms presented today, is useful and is better than no agreement. We are also aware it is also an accord that doesn’t solve everything. Which means the [outstanding] Iranian issues will include discussions about ballistic [missile programs], regional influence and destabilization. And we will have to re-engage,” Macron told reporters.
Iran is seeking economic indemnity clauses in any new deal in case any future U.S. administration withdraws from the agreement. Such clauses reportedly have not yet been agreed upon.
Tehran ramped up uranium enrichment after the U.S. withdrawal from the deal in 2018 and is significantly closer to developing enough material for a nuclear weapon. The IAEA estimated in May of this year that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium had grown to more than 18 times the limit stipulated in the JCPOA.
Former British ambassador to the IAEA, Peter Jenkins, said it’s vital a new agreement is reached.
“I think it’s extremely important to revive the JCPOA because the JCPOA contains provisions for the perpetual safeguarding of nuclear material and activities in Iran at a very advanced level,” Jenkins told VOA.
The JCPOA originally was to expire in 2031, with various sunset clauses in the lead-up to that date. Resurrecting the text in its current form represents a bad deal, argues analyst Behnam Ben Taleblu.
“Given the diminished timeline that exists and given the fact that this deal is going to be weaker and shorter than the JCPOA — because it’s a resumption of that text as if it was never interrupted, or at least that’s the way it’s being reported — you basically are buying less time with more money,” Taleblu said.
Washington says if the JCPOA was resurrected, there would be time to negotiate an extension to the deal, and, therefore, a return to the deal is vital to prevent a nuclear crisis in the Middle East.
U.S. ally Israel is highly critical of efforts to revive the JCPOA.
“On the table right now is a bad deal,” Israeli President Yair Lapid said on August 24. “It would give Iran a hundred billion dollars a year. This money will not build schools or hospitals. This is a hundred billion dollars a year that will be used to undermine stability in the Middle East and spread terror around the globe.
“We have made it clear to everyone if a deal is signed, it does not obligate Israel,” Lapid added. “We will act to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state. We are not prepared to live with a nuclear threat above our heads from an extremist, violent Islamist regime.”
Some of the information in this report was provided by Reuters.