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Iran wants a sustainable nuclear deal. Only the lifting of US sanctions can achieve this

Thanks to Trump’s ill-advised maximum-pressure strategy, Iran is close to being a nuclear-weapon threshold state. This is easily reversed - but only if Iran feels it can trust the West
A meeting of the Joint Commission on negotiations aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna, Austria on 27 December 2021 (AFP)

The eighth round of negotiations between Iran and the five world powers that are trying to revive the tattered 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), resumed on Monday.

At the end of the previous round of talks, Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, said that “good progress” had been made. “Initially, the European participants [France, Germany and the United Kingdom] rejected Iran’s proposals, but they finally agreed to continue the talks based on the Iranian draft,” he stated.

The main lesson that the Iranian people and their rulers have drawn from their JCPOA experience is that Iran can never trust the US

For their part, European negotiators stated that there had been some technical progress on the last day of negotiations, but that this only took them nearer to where the talks stood in June. 

“It’s not going well in the sense that we do not yet have a pathway back into the JCPOA. What is going well is unity with our European partners, greater alignment with China and Russia,” said US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. 

The reality is that the actions of the Donald Trump administration in 2018 - in leaving the JCPOA and making rejoining politically difficult for the US - are the major source of the complications in the current efforts to revive the JCPOA. Moreover, the circumstances have changed significantly compared with 2015, when negotiations on the JCPOA concluded. 

Ferocious economic sanctions

In 2015, the world powers achieved the most comprehensive nuclear non-proliferation agreement ever reached with Iran. When Trump withdrew while Iran was in full compliance with the deal, he also imposed on Iran the most ferocious economic sanctions.

Because these included secondary sanctions on any company doing business with Iran, the other parties to the agreement were also largely prevented from living up to their commitments under UN Security Council resolution 2231 to honour normal trade relations with Iran. Under the JCPOA, the EU and the US were obliged to refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran.

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The main lesson that the Iranian people and their rulers have drawn from their JCPOA experience is that Iran can never trust the US. Even if the US signs an international accord reinforced by the UN Security Council, there is no guarantee that the US would abide by its side of the bargain.

Seen from this perspective, and given the enormous losses to Iran’s economy inflicted by US secondary sanctions -  estimated at $1tn - it is understandable that Iran is asking for assurances from the western parties to the JCPOA that the Trump sanctions will be scrapped permanently, in return for Iran returning to compliance with the deal.

Despite Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018, Iran fully implemented its commitments under the deal until May 2019, hoping that the EU, Russia and China would create a mechanism to bypass the continuing US secondary sanctions so that Iran would receive the economic benefits of the agreement.

When that didn’t happen, Iran too began to break its JCPOA commitments by deploying advanced centrifuges and increasing, in steps, the enrichment level of its uranium from the JCPOA limit of 3.67 percent U-235 to 60 percent, which is weapons-usable if not weapons-grade.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), stated: "We have more than 210kgs of uranium enriched to 20 percent, and we've produced 25kgs at 60 percent, a level that no country apart from those with nuclear arms are able to produce." 

Three scenarios

Thanks to Trump’s ill-advised maximum-pressure strategy, Iran is now close to being a nuclear-weapon threshold state with enough highly enriched uranium to make at least one nuclear warhead. If the JCPOA can be revived, this situation could be quickly reversed - perhaps within a month or two. Blending down or exporting the 60 percent and 20 percent enriched uranium stockpiles and uninstalling the advanced centrifuges could be done quickly.


US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan takes questions at a press briefing at the White House, Washington DC, 7 December 2021 (AFP)

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan at a press briefing at the White House, 7 December 2021 (AFP)

Iran is reluctant to take these actions, however, fearing that the US could impose the same sanctions again under the umbrella of terrorism, human rights, missiles or regional issues. If sanctions related to these issues were imposed, they could kill all the economic opportunities the JCPOA creates for Iran. That’s why Iran wants a sustainable JCPOA. 

Three scenarios can be envisioned going forward. 

The first is what many Israeli officials are advocating: a US military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in case of a failure to restore the JCPOA. I believe that this is a bluff to put more pressure on Iran. The US is in no mood to launch a new war in the Middle East. 

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The second scenario, if the effort to restore the JCPOA fails, is a continuation of Trump’s failed strategy of maximum pressure: namely, full-blown economic, political and cyber wars, with sabotage including continuing Israeli covert attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities and assassinations of its nuclear scientists. In this scenario, the US and Europe would likely push for an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors’ resolution against Iran.

Iran would likely respond by withdrawing from the JCPOA. If the US and Europe then referred Iran’s case to the UN Security Council to revive the six resolutions imposed on Iran during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Iran would likely join North Korea in withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. 

The third scenario, and the most rational, would be to revive the JCPOA through diplomacy. Here, an interesting distinction must be made. While the Trump administration tore down the JCPOA as Barack Obama's legacy, Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi - although an opponent of former President Hassan Rouhani, who presided over the negotiation of the deal - is seeking to revive it.

In summary, the only way out of this crisis is for the US to lift the economic sanctions with which it has been strangling Iran and ensure sustainability of the deal. If it does, Iran, for its part will fully implement its commitments under the JCPOA permanently.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian
Seyed Hossein Mousavian is Middle East Security and Nuclear Policy Specialist at Princeton University, and a former Chief of Iran’s National Security Foreign Relations Committee. His books: “Iran and the United States: An Insider’s view on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace” was released in May 2014 by Bloomsbury, “A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction”, published in May 2020 by Routledge. His latest book: “A New Structure for Security, Peace, and Cooperation in the Persian Gulf” published in December 2020 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.