Last week, during a break in the nuclear talks in Vienna, a senior U.S. official stated that the talks were now in the endgame. The official indicated that only a handful of weeks remain for the participants to come to an agreement. The rationale for the deadline from the U.S. point of view is straightforward: as Iran continues to conduct nuclear activities, including the enrichment and stockpiling of uranium, a point is reached such that the United States and the other parties to the agreement believe that there are no longer nonproliferation benefits to gain. The U.S. official characterized the current situation as one where the negotiations have been able to compile an agreed list of remaining issues and that it was primarily up to Iran to decide whether it wanted to come back into compliance with the nuclear accord along with Washington.
The three issues that are of concern to the United States are: 1) the amount and level of enriched uranium in Iranian stores; 2) the issue of access by the International Atomic Energy Agency to Iranian sites (lacking over the past year); and, 3) the question of what centrifuges Iran could operate. The amount and type of enriched uranium that Iran possesses relates directly to “breakout time” – the amount of time it would take Iran to further enrich that material to be of a level to make a nuclear weapon. The question of access for IAEA inspectors gets to understanding exactly what Iran is doing in its nuclear program – whether it has taken steps unseen in the past year that change what the international community understands about the level of its nuclear program and whether it is for non-military uses. The United States has its own intelligence capabilities that allow it insight in addition to IAEA-derived information, but the role of international inspectors is critical for legitimacy of any conclusions reached about Iran’s compliance. Finally, Iran experimenting and operating more and more sophisticated centrifuges (limited under the JCPOA) could create a situation where its breakout time would be reduced below a minimum acceptable to Washington.
Tehran’s main sticking points are the removal of sanctions and guarantees that the United States will not withdraw from the arrangement in the future. On the first point, it is likely that Iran and the U.S. have come to an understanding of what sanctions the U.S. would lift to bring itself back into compliance with the terms of the JCPOA. The question is whether that is acceptable to Iran. The Trump administration, over its four years in office, put many additional sanctions on Iran – many of which were not related to Iran’s nuclear activities. The U.S. has almost certainly agreed to remove the sanctions that were lifted in the JCPOA and has likely offered to remove some not nuclear-related but imposed by the Trump administration. The question is whether that is sufficient for Tehran.
The Biden administration knows it will take domestic political heat for returning to the JCPOA. The U.S. has said that it would meet directly with Iran to speed talks and reduce the chances for miscommunication, but that it was up to the Iranian side. The senior U.S. official stated that sequencing would not be a problem to reaching a deal. This past week, the U.S. issued a waiver to a Trump-era sanction that would allow other countries to talk to Iran about technical nuclear issues – for example transporting nuclear material out of the country if an agreement were to be reached. Washington is clearing the way to ensure that no technical obstacles would impede implementation if an agreement were reached.