Analysis: Rescuing the Iran nuclear deal will take more time, envoys say before new talks

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A view of the Natanz uranium enrichment plant 250 km south of the Iranian capital Tehran, March 30, 2005. REUTERS / Raheb Homavandi // File Photo / File Photo

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By Parisa Hafezi and John Irish

DUBAI (Reuters) – A number of obstacles to the revival of the Iranian nuclear deal remain in place ahead of talks between Tehran and world powers due to resume this week, suggesting a return to compliance with the 2015 deal is still on Far away, four diplomats, say two Iranian officials and two analysts.

Iranian calls for sanctions lifted and Western concerns about Iran’s growing nuclear know-how are among the issues that may require weeks or months of further negotiations, the diplomats and analysts said.

The talks aim to revive a landmark pact in which Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear program in return for lifting international sanctions, paving the way for a brief thaw in the decades-long US-Iran confrontation.

Then-President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018 on the grounds that it was too soft for Tehran and imposed sanctions again. Iran responded by violating the limits of the agreement.

Trump’s successor Joe Biden said he wanted to restore the agreement’s nuclear boundaries and, if possible, expand them to include issues such as Iran’s regional behavior and the missile program. Iran wants all sanctions to be lifted and conditions not to be extended.

European Union envoy Enrique Mora, chief coordinator of the talks, said last week that he expected an agreement to be reached at the upcoming sixth round of negotiations in Vienna, which is expected to resume on Thursday or Friday.

Another boost to move forward is an election in Iran on June 18 to replace President Hassan Rohani, a pragmatist who promoted the original deal. He is widely expected to be followed by a tough successor.

The elections are unlikely to change Tehran’s negotiating position: regardless of who is president, any deal from Iran’s hard-line faction must be approved by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But neither Washington nor Tehran want to start from scratch or further entangle the deal in Iranian domestic politics.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator said last week that the obstacles to reviving the deal are complex but not insurmountable. “The differences have reached a point where everyone believes that these differences are not insoluble,” said Abbas Araqchi.

However, none of the remaining sticking points lends itself to quick fixes, according to diplomats, Iranian officials and analysts on Iranian nuclear issues.

Their assessment is sounded on Monday with sober remarks from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said Washington still does not know whether Iran is ready to comply with the agreement again.

“I doubt the next round will be the last … The parties are still far apart on key issues,” said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.

And if, or if differences of opinion are resolved, further discussions about so-called sequencing are necessary – the delicate question of which side takes what when, in return for mutual steps by the other side, said the diplomats.

Negotiations have made significant progress but are the toughest now as key decisions remain to be made, said a European diplomat, briefed on the talks that began in April.

‘THE CORE OF THE MATTER’

The talks had reached the “core of the nuclear dimension”, said a second European diplomat.

A senior Western diplomat said he “naturally” hoped the next round would result in a deal, but he cautioned cautiously, saying, “Until we are able to solve the important problems that remain, we will do not know.”

An Iranian official said: “Everything depends on Washington. If the American side agrees to lift all sanctions, Iran will once again fully comply with the agreement.”

Tehran is not only calling for the Trump-era sanctions to be lifted, but also wants Washington to remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guards from a blacklist of terrorism that can exclude Iranian companies from the international financial system. She wants Europe to guarantee the return of foreign investors and assure Washington that the deal will not be abandoned again.

But from the perspective of Washington and its European allies, it would no longer be enough to revert to the nuclear restrictions of the original agreement, which at the time were aimed at preventing Iran from building a bomb in less than a year.

In the months that Iran exceeded the limits, it has made technical advances that have overtaken the original restrictions. Vaez noted that Iran has begun deploying advanced centrifuges known as IR9s that are 50 times more efficient at producing enriched uranium than those covered by the agreement, known by the initials as JCPoA.

OUTBREAK TIME

“If Iran refuses to destroy these machines, its breakout time will be shorter unless it agrees to dismantle an appropriate number of IR1 machines. This is viewed as humiliating by Iran and is beyond the scope of the JCPoA, ”said Vaez.

The Iranians have acquired knowledge and skills that they did not have before, said the European diplomat, briefed on the talks, referring to Iran’s first production of uranium metal, a material that can be used to make the core of an atomic bomb .

The development reported this year by the International Atomic Energy Agency is not the subject of the 2015 agreement and any revival of the pact must take this newfound capability into account, Vaez said.

Bob Einhorn, a former senior State Department official and nuclear negotiator with Iran, thought it highly unlikely that an agreement would be reached before the presidential election, but it is conceivable that they will be the “lame duck” in the transition period before taking office of the new president is met.

Einhorn, now at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, said that an interim deal could have a political advantage for the new Iranian president.

A new president could criticize any concessions made by President Hassan Rouhani’s current Iranian government and then later acknowledge any economic boom the deal has brought, he said. “With that you could see a kind of logic.”

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