Security commentaries #012
Iran and the P5+1 countries meet in Vienna to restore the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal. The initial sessions of the talks were promising for both sides at the table. However, on April 11, Iran accused Israel of launching a cyberattack on Natanz underground enrichment facility, and this event has ignited concerns over the future of Vienna talks.
Harun Talha Ayanoglu and Richard Chen
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was not a final deal that solved all nuclear debate between Iran and P5+1. Instead, this agreement aimed to lengthen Iran’s breakout capacity. In 2015, Iran allegedly was ready to acquire nuclear weapons within two or three months, the P5+1 countries caught Iran at the threshold in signing the JCPOA. The Iran Nuclear Deal brought commitments to both sides; Iran committed to reduce the number and amount of nuclear material, including enrichment capacity and centrifuges. P5+1 committed that sanctions on Iran will be eased as long as Iran fulfills its commitments. American Republicans and Israel were the most dissatisfied fronts of this deal. Thus, unsurprisingly Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in 2018.
It took the Biden administration more than three months to make headway in restarting negotiations. While at this point, Tehran and Washington have neither been conducting direct talks, the shuttle diplomacy that is being conducted through seems up to now, still panning out. Sources coming out of the Joint Commission meeting reflected a “constructive atmosphere” and the path to maintain “positive momentum”.
The main concern however, is the gap of understanding between the degree to which sanctions towards Iran will be lifted. As the US has in the years of Donald J. Trump enmeshed a web of sanctions that were both part of the original nuclear deal as well as those that were justified by the US pulling out. In return, Iran has stated that only once “all sanctions” imposed during the past US administration were removed, would they revert to the initial agreement. Iran has publicly advertised since the Trump administration pulled out, that its uranium stockpile has exceeded thee 300kg limit, and that it has breached the uranium purity threshold of 3.67%—as of today at 20% and announced their intentions towards reaching 60% since the attack on Iran’s Natanz facility on April 11.
It would be far-fetched that an all-out repeal of past sanctions before concrete changes have been made on the ground in Iran, will be accepted. However, a step-by-step process with clear stages of returning to the deal may be a solution for this roadblock. It is also unclear how the Iranian elections in June will affect these negotiations.
Regional and Global Implications
Securing the Iran nuclear deal matters because of two key reasons. Regionally, keeping Iran in a non-proliferation regime is one of the most crucial hurdles preventing other regional countries from going nuclear. Iran constantly highlights the need for a nuclear arsenal to defend itself from Israeli nuclear weapons. Iran often quotes Israel’s preventive airstrike in Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981; and the Syrian industrial facility, which was allegedly a secret nuclear facility in 2007. Hence, Iran recognized the fact that acquiring nuclear weapons ensures Iran’s security fundamentally. However, Iran’s nuclear acquisition would dramatically shift the balance of power amongst Iran and its three most powerful neighbors, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, which could spark a regional nuclear arms race. The US Committee on Foreign Relations Report in 2008 discussed possible chain reactions. The report concluded that if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, it will place tremendous pressure on its neighbors, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey will be the frontrunners in nuclear weapon programs due to their regional leadership aspirations and historical animosities. However, if these countries go nuclear, the insecurity will spread like wildfire across the neighboring countries such as Israel and Greece.
With regards to China, Iranian statesmen have been seeking strategic partnership since the 1990s. From 2008 onwards both sides developed a partnership based on a model “Iranian oil for Chinese products”. The Chinese FM Wang Yi’s recent official visit to Iran recently profoundly impacts these relations moving forward. On March 27, Iranian and Chinese counterparts signed a 25-year cooperation agreement. Although the details about the agreement are still vague, according to a previously obtained draft by the New York Times, relevant parties dealt on 400 billion USD worth investment in Iran in exchange for discounted Iranian oil. It was stated that Beijing will try to safeguard the Iran Nuclear Deal and defend the legitimate interests of Sino-Iranian relations. Wang also stated that the American unilateral sanctions must be eased, and also Iran should proceed fulfilling its commitment.
Thus, as the talks come to a close, it would be imprudent to expect anything short of a hardline position or response from the Iranians. The US, as much as it seeks to rejoin the JCPOA under this administration, will find this a pill much harder to swallow than a mere presidential campaign agenda.