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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg June 22, 2021

Preliminary talks underway to revive the Iran nuclear deal

Joe Biden told voters during his campaign that he would revive the 2015 agreement that constrained Iran's nuclear program. five months into his term as president, he has yet to achieve that goal, but talks are underway. There is some optimism that the United States and Iran will come to terms, but with a new Iranian president due to take over, the hurdles may have become higher. 

To recap, the 2015 multinational agreement that rolled back Iran's nuclear program, lifted sanctions, and opened the country to international inspections required regular certification of compliance. The formal name of the agreement is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

In a March 21, 2018 briefing, the U.S. State Department said Iran was living up to the deal.

On May 8, 2018, Trump announced that the United States would re-impose economic sanctions on Iran and Washington would no longer hold to the agreement.

Trump pursued a path of "maximum pressure." The plan was to cause such economic damage that Iran's leaders would be forced to not just rejoin the deal, but agree to stricter controls on its missile program and other military activities.

In response, Iran began gradually to ignore limits in the agreement on its uranium enrichment activities. Under the JCPOA, Iran had agreed not to enrich uranium above the 3.67% concentration point. In July 2019, the country announced it would enrich beyond that mark.

In early January 2021, Iran went further. In the presence of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, it said it began enriching about 137 kilograms of uranium to the 20% point. At the end of January, Iran said it would restrict the ability of international inspectors to track its nuclear processing activities. It later dialed back that threat, agreeing to a three-month extension.

Both sides said they were open to returning to the agreement, but were stuck on who should take the first step. Iran said the U.S. must first drop the economic sanctions imposed by Trump. The U.S. wanted Iran to first commit to getting back into compliance.

The logjam cleared when the European Union announced April 1 that it would hold a meeting of all the original partners to the deal — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia — with Iran and the United States participating, without having to be in the same room at the same time. The State Department called this a "positive step."

The indirect talks have led to ongoing discussions about the steps all parties can take to get back to the terms of the JPCOA. Nothing is yet in writing, but the general tone is upbeat.

"I suspect the United States and Iran will manage to return to the 2015 nuclear deal later this year, but they will not be able to find agreement on the bigger deal sought by the Biden administration," said Georgetown University's Matthew Kroenig. 

Incoming Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi rejected the idea of expanding the scope of a new agreement.

At the Arms Control Association, executive director Daryl Kimball welcomes the new talks, but warns that Trump created some "tough issues to hammer out."

"While it is relatively clear what Iran needs to do to return to compliance, there are some more complexities regarding some of the sanctions measures that were imposed by the Trump administration," Kimball said. "The U.S. retains the right to impose sanctions for non-nuclear reasons, whether it's terrorism or human rights violations. So unraveling which of these must be lifted and which will not is complex."

With talks underway, we rate this promise In the Works.

Our Sources

International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA and Iran - IAEA Reports, accessed April 21, 2021

White House, Remarks by President Biden at the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference, Feb. 19, 2021 

U.S. State Department, Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Press Availability, March 24, 2021

U.S. State Department, Department Press Briefing, April 1,2021

Center for Strategic and International Studies, Nuclear Proliferation Challenges Facing the Biden Administration, Feb. 4, 2021

AP, 'First step:' US, Iran to begin indirect nuclear-limit talks, April 2, 2021

AP, Iran's election unsettles Biden's hope for a nuclear deal, June 22, 2021

Congressional Research Service, U.S. Decision to Cease Implementing the Iran Nuclear Agreement, May 9, 2018

Reuters, Much more work needed in Iran nuclear talks despite progress, EU says, April 20, 2021

BBC, Iran nuclear deal: Government announces enrichment breach, July 7, 2019

Email exchange, Matthew Kroenig, professor of Government and Foreign Service, Georgetown University, April 20, 2021

Email exchange, Daryl Kimball, executive director, Arms Control Association, April 20, 2021

 

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