Iran–US nuclear negotiations: sparring will continue, but both want a deal
24 Jun 2022|

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s 8 June motion to censure Iran for not disclosing three decades-old former secret nuclear sites, and Tehran’s response of removing multiple IAEA cameras that monitor Iranian uranium enrichment levels, doesn’t foreshadow the imminent collapse of the Iran nuclear deal or provide any evidence of Iranian intent to develop a nuclear weapon.

What these events do represent is further, serious manoeuvring by key stakeholders in the deal (officially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) to leverage their advantages during the ongoing attempts to revive it.

Negotiations between Iran and the US to revive the JCPOA stalled in March when the two sides reached an impasse on trade-offs over US sanctions and verification procedures. However, the Iranians now claim that the major stumbling block is their demand that the US remove Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its list of foreign terrorist organisations.

For Iran, this demand is reportedly ‘non-negotiable’ given the IRGC’s special national security role, including ‘defending the revolution’ from internal and external threats, and the role of its Quds Force in promoting Iranian interests abroad, especially regionally, largely through both military and paramilitary means.

The US, which designated the IRGC as a terrorist organisation in 2019 because of its support to other regional terrorist organisations such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian movement Hamas, has rejected Iran’s demand, claiming the IRGC’s listing is unrelated to nuclear sanctions. This is technically correct. However, while most of the 1,500 or so US sanctions imposed on Iran by former president Donald Trump are not directly nuclear related, they are indirectly related as part of his much wider ‘maximum pressure’ campaign.

What is or is not negotiable by either side will depend on what each wants from a revived deal.

For Iran, do the principles behind its stand on the IRGC outweigh the broader benefits of the US lifting key economic sanctions? That would give Iran access to billions of dollars of frozen funds and some return to normal trade, especially the export of oil and gas, across international markets. Although Iran has so far survived the effects of US sanctions, the direct and indirect costs to its economy and people have been substantial. There’s a strong imperative to reach a revived deal for its immediate benefits, and a hope that international pressure due to Iran’s assumed total, transparent compliance with the deal’s conditions would stop any future US administration from a repeat withdrawal.

For the US, the principal benefit would be meeting its non-proliferation objective by facilitating Iran’s recommitment not to develop nuclear weapons and putting in place monitoring procedures that would very quickly detect any intent to do so. The US would also seek to significantly extend the sunset dates for existing safeguard. That outcome would help settle one element of instability in the Middle East. A more stable Middle East would also enable the US to continue to lessen its military commitment to the region and redirect its interests and efforts to Europe and Asia (that is, Russia and China). Collectively, these outcomes could also meet US needs stated in late May by Robert Malley, US special envoy for Iran, that the benefits of a revived deal to the US must outweigh the relief that Iran would receive.

However, Malley was also reported as saying that demands that go beyond the scope of the JCPOA—which presumably include removal of the IRGC from the US list of foreign terrorist organisations—will continue to be rejected. There’s another US reality also: congressional constraints could, and most likely would, prevent President Joe Biden from unilaterally delisting the IRGC.

The challenge to the logic of reaching a deal is making it happen. This month’s IAEA censure motion was a hard push in that direction. It was submitted by the US and three IAEA governing board members, the UK, France and Germany, and approved by 30 of the 35 board members, including Australia. It picked up on an Iranian technical non-disclosure and Iran’s inadequate response to evidence of nuclear activity some decades ago at three nuclear locations, two in Tehran province and one in the northwestern province of Kurdistan.

This censure motion sought to expose Iran as untrustworthy about past, and potentially future, disclosures of nuclear development. Evidence of the sites was reportedly provided by Israel, which has made detailed exposures of Iran’s nuclear programs prior to 2003. Israel is a member of the IAEA board, but not a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi added to these concerns on 9 June when he claimed that the removal of monitoring cameras would not enable the IAEA to continue to monitor enrichment levels, suggesting that Iran could produce uranium enriched to 90%, which is weapons grade, in ‘three to four weeks’. He said this ‘would be a fatal blow’ to future JCPOA negotiations.

This was a clear message to Iran of a lack of trust, and implied that trust could be restored, and monitored, through a revived JCPOA.

Tehran’s decision to remove the IAEA’s monitoring capability was, presumably, the reverse side of the same coin: to put pressure on the US to rejoin a revitalised JCPOA, enabling Iran to demonstrate trust through its recommitment, along with all other original signatories, to non-proliferation and all JCPOA enrichment, verification and dispute-resolution provisions.

According to several sources with expertise in non-proliferation, there is no evidence that Iran is covertly developing a nuclear weapon or intends to do so. If it did, it would quickly be discovered by related intelligence coverage across Iran’s nuclear industry. It is widely assessed that Iran wants the JCPOA revived, but will play hardball to maximise the benefits it receives. The US also wants to rejoin, but not at the cost of delisting the IRGC. Sparring will continue pending a face-saving formula acceptable to both sides.