Iran N-deal: A road map before time runs out
The seventh round of talks in Vienna, Austria, to restore Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal ended on December 17 with no concrete agreement in sight. While both parties claimed progress and exuded hope, a viable deal looks difficult as long as both parties hold vastly diverging positions on its basic tenets.
The Iran Nuclear Deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in July 2015, put strict and crippling restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme. On January 16, 2016, designated as Implementation Day, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified that Iran had met all its nuclear-related commitments, triggering the lifting of sanctions. But Iran could hardly benefit from it as the United States (US) elections in November 2016 brought in Donald Trump, who strongly opposed the deal and promised to impose “the highest level of economic sanctions” on Iran.
Following up on his threat, on May 8, 2018, Trump pulled the plug on the nuclear deal. After that, Mike Pompeo, then US secretary of state, on May 21, announced a list of 12 demands for inclusion in any future agreement with Iran, to ensure that Iran is prevented from developing nuclear weapons “in perpetuity”.
Surprisingly, of the 12 demands, many of them had no direct connection with the nuclear deal. Some of these demands included Iran to end its support to “terrorist” groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, stop interference in Iraq, end its military support to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, withdraw all forces from Syria, end support for the Taliban and other “terrorists” in Afghanistan, end its threats to destroy Israel and its firing of missiles at Saudi Arabia, among others.
Former US President Barack Obama described Trump’s violation of the agreement as a serious mistake, stating that without the JCPOA, the US could eventually be left with a losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran Wor another war in West Asia.
The election of Joe Biden as US president, an important figure in the signing of the JCPOA, offered hope. However, seven rounds of talks in 2021 have not yielded the expected results.
Meanwhile, the Iran nuclear programme has progressed at a rapid pace. On April 13, after a cyberattack on the Natanz nuclear plant, Iran declared uranium enrichment to 60%. In November, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran spokesman announced that the country has more than 210 kilogrammes of uranium enriched to 20% and 25 kilogrammes at 60%, a level that no country, apart from those with nuclear arms, are able to produce. With IR6 centrifuges rapidly enriching uranium, time is fast running out to salvage the deal.
For any future roadmap, some questions need clear answers. Can Iran be coerced into a deal using the threat of military action? The answer is clearly, no. Iran is too big a military power with one of the largest armies in the region, especially when the military might of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its militia groups are added to it.
Will Iran agree to any deal which incorporates clauses beyond the nuclear issue? No. The maximum pressure strategy of Trump failed so miserably. So, who will retain the upper hand in case of a “no-deal”? The answer, without doubt, is Iran.
Does Iran require or want a nuclear weapon in the immediate future? No. If Iran had wanted a nuclear weapon, it could have got it much earlier. Setting off a nuclear weapons race in the region does not suit Iran’s regional calculus. Instead, it may prefer to maintain a level of “nuclear latency”.
For talks in the new year to succeed, both parties will have to demonstrate goodwill. Iran may begin by suspending further enrichment for 90 days. It will not set back its nuclear programme in a significant way but offers it an opportunity to take the first lead.
IAEA inspectors could be given access to its nuclear plants during this period. After this, the US should follow up and roll back all economic sanctions imposed by Trump over the next three months, during which Iran could restrict enrichment of uranium to 3.67%, as agreed in the JCPOA.
On the successful completion of this six-month period and build-up of trust, the two sides could then negotiate a viable deal, like the JCPOA. But, on the other hand, any threats of military action or forced inclusion of non-nuclear issues is a perfect recipe for disaster and could signal the end of the nuclear talks and start a very dark, conflict-prone uncertain period in the region.
Rajeev Agarwal is assistant director at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. He has previously served as director of military intelligence, director in the ministry of external affairs, Delhi, and a Research Fellow at IDSA
The views expressed are personal