Intelligence Brief: Nuclear Deal May Die on the Vine

Negotiations between Iran and the other parties to the Iranian nuclear accord have not resumed in Vienna. After the Iranian elections, there was a delay while the new Iranian administration was inaugurated. The assumption at the time was that the talks would begin again in mid-to-late August. Instead of the talks resuming, Iran has over the past several weeks been embroiled in a spat with the International Atomic Energy Agency over its obligations under its comprehensive safeguards agreement that is part of Iran being a signatory to the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In addition, over the past several weeks, Iran has continued nuclear activities that improve its understanding of technology and steps that it would need were it to make the decision to construct a nuclear weapon.

In the meantime, the Biden administration is getting increasingly frustrated, warning publicly that time is running out for Iran to come back to the table in Vienna and for a mutual return to the accord. Is time running out? Will talks resume, and if so, what are the odds at an agreement?

Iran’s actions over the summer, specifically working on shaping uranium metal and carrying out small-scale enrichment up to sixty percent, have increased concerns among nuclear analysts. They worry that Iran is increasing its knowledge in a way that will allow it to “break out” or “sneak out” of any renewed agreement in a very short period of time – before the international community might have time to gather itself to react. The Biden administration and others have spoken of the need for Iran to return to compliance with the JPOA in order to create a one-year “break out” timeline. This means that if Iran quit the JCPOA and ordered IAEA observers out, it would take a year of work before they could manufacture a nuclear weapon. It is not at all clear why one year holds any particular technical importance, but it has been used as a rough benchmark for Washington. With Iran’s ongoing activities in the fields of enrichment and the shaping of uranium metal, even if they came back into compliance with the JCPOA, it might now put them closer than a year to a potential “break out.” In addition, the JCPOA has restrictions and verification provisions with sunset clauses, some as soon as 2023. The longer Iran and the U.S. remain out of compliance, the less importance the agreement has in terms of limiting Iranian capabilities if it is reintroduced.

While most commentary has been pessimistic in light of no new talks, Iran’s spat with the IAEA seems to have been resolved on Sunday. While not every issue was resolved, the IAEA indicated that the most important ones were, including the agency’s ability to service monitoring equipment in Iran to keep it functioning and thereby allow international eyes to watch key Iranian nuclear activities to ensure they are peaceful. As important as the details of this latest agreement is the signal that Iran is sending by coming to some solution with the IAEA. Europe, Russia, and China want Iran (and the United States) to come back into compliance with the JCPOA and for Iran to stay in compliance with its nuclear monitoring obligations under the NPT and Iran’s safeguards agreement. It would be much more difficult for these other parties to the JCPOA to press both Washington and Tehran to come back to the table if Iran were to quit its other obligations. With word of a deal, there is also hope that the parties will meet in Vienna again soon. If they are both back at the table, there is still time for a deal, even though that rough one-year break out U.S. benchmark may have to be softened.

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