Iran Nuclear Deal Negotiations: A Diplomatic Stalemate or Failure?

Sarabjit Kaur
10th April 2022

Picture Courtesy: AP

The negotiations between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) countries and Iran to revive the historic deal, popularly known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have reached a diplomatic stalemate over last minute Russian demand. Moscow demanded a written guarantee from the US that Western sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine will not obstruct Moscow from trading and cooperating with Tehran. However, US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken rejected the Russian demand as he said that the sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine “have nothing to do with the Iran nuclear deal.” The negotiations between the two sides are being held from past one year and have still not reached a conclusion. The negotiations have reached yet another impasse while the deal was said to be almost concluded by the parties. The impasse has further created doubts and raised the question, if this deal is a diplomatic failure.

The Iranian nuclear deal was endorsed in 2015 after a successful interim deal (also known as Joint Plan of Action) signed in 2013. The deal was unanimously adopted by Iran and P5+1 to limit Tehran’s nuclear ability in return for comprehensive lifting of international sanctions. These negotiations were held under former US President Barack Obama to ensure a peaceful nuclear program, aimed at persuading Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent and exporting its stockpile of highly enriched weapons-grade uranium, and in return they offered Iran further sanctions relief.

However, the deal lasted briefly as former President Donald Trump thereafter triggered the snapback with the highest level of economic sanctions. In 2018, Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear deal as he argued that the deal only limited Iran’s nuclear activities for a fixed period and had failed to stop the development of ballistic missiles, calling it defective to its core. Trump’s reinstatement of sanctions was condemned by the European nations (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) involved in the deal. His decision was celebrated by Iranian hardliners that were against any sort of agreement with the US. President Rouhani’s second term signaled public support and reinforced his belief in improving Iranian standard of living through better relations with the West.

The world powers were optimistic, as President Biden assumed office promising the revival of JCPOA if Iran comes back in compliance with the nuclear deal. Apparently, there remained certain contentious issues restraining the revival of the deal. From the US standpoint, preventing Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons is one of the challenges in the region. The US is coherent that Iran’s compliance to the deal and follow-on negotiations on other issues are necessary to clinch a deal, despite America’s Middle East allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia being inimical to the accord.

The US’ immediate abandoning of the deal fostered trust issues for Iran to adhere to the norms of the deal and insists that they need a promise that any future US President would not pull out of the deal. While US special envoy to Iran, Rob Malley, maintains that it would be difficult for any US president to make this pledge to remain in the agreement, he assured that US would not leave the agreement for frivolous reasons.

One of the primary concerns influencing the revival of the deal is uranium enrichment. Under the JCPOA, Iran could enrich 3.67 percent of uranium, however the present status of Iranian nuclear program has reportedly reached 60 percent enrichment, not far off from the 90 percent required to develop a nuclear weapon. Consequently, this has affected the negotiations to revive the deal as Iran accelerated its production of enriched uranium and Antony Blinken further announced that negotiations for the revival cannot go indefinitely. Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Raphael Grossi, highlighted that Iran has the sovereign rights to develop a peaceful nuclear program but also noted that the enrichment level Iran has reached raises serious concerns.

The deal which was close to an agreement seems to have to come to a stalemate after substantial progress. Both sides seemed willing to rejoin the deal, especially as talks resumed after President Biden assumed office and the new Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, continued negotiations despite holding different views regarding the deal. However, returning to the deal is not as easy as it seems till the contentious issues remain and both sides do not come to a consensual point of agreement to move ahead. As the draft under consideration says that, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

The newly found traces of origin of decades old uranium by IAEA inspectors in Iran has been another hindrance in the revival of the deal. Though Tehran has agreed to provide IAEA with the necessary documents, it wants to ensure that the matter is closed permanently. However, it seems difficult to reach a nuclear deal amidst the pause in the negotiations after making substantial progress, with Russia threatening to collapse the nuclear deal by demanding guarantees that the Western sanctions following its invasion of Ukraine would not affect its trade with Iran. The US continues to demand Iran’s commitment to limiting its enrichment activities and once again adhering to the deal, Iran on the other side insists on “economic guarantees” in case a future US President abrogates the agreement, as the previous US President notably did. It would be better if a new deal is framed keeping in mind the current status of the deal which suits the interest of all parties. As both primary parties face difficulty in building consensus on exact terms that will revive the JCPOA, an interim deal similar to the 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) could be signed for paving the way forward towards reaching the goals stipulated in the new deal.

*The Author is a Ph.D Research Scholar at the Amity Institute of International Studies, Amity University (Noida)

Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are of the Author