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The fate of the 2015 agreement

Sep 14,2022 - Last updated at Sep 14,2022

As the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) opened its meeting in Vienna on Monday, Iran announced its intention of restoring ties with the agency ruptured over Iran’s failure to account for uranium particles found at an old, undeclared site. If acted upon, this shift in policy could determine the fate the 2015 agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions aborted in 2018 by Donald Trump.

After 17 months of European Union-brokered talks on reviving the deal, success seemed to be at hand until Iran and the US submitted comments on a “final text” prepared under the auspices of European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. However, Iran’s demands for an end to the probe and strengthening guarantees of US compliance beyond the Biden administration, considered “reasonable by Borrell” were dismissed by the US.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said that Iran is “ready to cooperate with the agency to clear up the false and unrealistic perceptions regarding its peaceful nuclear activities”. While Tehran declares its “readiness to continue constructive cooperation with the IAEA”, he pointed out that the agency also has “obligations”.

Kanani was responding to last week’s report that the IAEA was “not in a position to provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful”. His government is determined to avoid censure in the board meeting which concludes tomorrow. Iran was criticised during the June meeting for failing to provide a credible explanation for the uranium traces found at three sites in 2018. In reaction, Tehran turned off 27 IAEA cameras monitoring Iranian nuclear facilities.

Kanani said no resolution was expected during this week’s meeting, but warned that any further “unconstructive action” by the agency “will again have unconstructive results”.

Tehran has demanded that the IAEA’s probe be concluded as part of the deal to replace the 2015 agreement for limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions aborted by Donald Trump who also imposed 1,500 punitive sanctions on Iran. While Tehran has demanded that the IAEA drop its probe into the traces found at undeclared sites as part of the new deal, the US has said the IAEA investigation is a separate issue and should not be a problem.

While Iran has denied it ever conducted a programme to build nuclear devices, there is evidence it had a weaponisation programme until 2003 when supreme guide Ayatollah Khamenei declared all weapons of mass destruction were prohibited by Islamic law. Carrying out work with the aim of building a bomb would violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which Iran signed in 1970 well before the revolution which overthrew the Shah.

The IAEA was, apparently, alerted to the three abandoned sites by Israel, which the Iranian government regards as its chief enemy. Tehran has also accused Israel, which has mounted multipleattacks on Iranian scientists and nuclear sites, of seeding the three locations Iran did not declare to the IAEA.

IAEA director Rafael Grossi replied to Kanani by saying he hoped that Iran would start cooperating “as soon as possible.”

He said: “We are ready, we want this to happen, we are not in the business of aggravating or creating situations, we just want this issue to be clarified.”

He added: “This is very straightforward. We found traces of uranium in places that were never declared, that were never supposed to have any nuclear activity, and we are asking questions.”

If this means it will answer the IAEA’s questions on this issue, Tehran will have dropped the last of several demands it had put forward during the protracted negotiations over the nuclear deal.  These also included its insistence that the US must revoke its classification of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a “terrorist” organisation, a demand which the US refused.

Iran may also have dropped its demand that the Biden administration must give Iran firm guarantees that a successor would not follow Trump’s example and withdraw a second time from the  nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions. The administration has said that this was impossible. 

President Joe Biden would reenter the deal by signing an executive order as ex-president Barack Obama did in 2015.  Trump revoked the US signature by executive order. The only way to make US reentry binding would be by treaty which would have to be endorsed by the US legislature. This is impossible as there is strong opposition to the deal in both the Democrat and Republican parties due to Israeli rejection.

Iran has gained a number of objectives during the negotiations. The most important is an EU commitment to ensure the US abides by its obligations to lift sanctions and cease sanctioning and threatening non-US banks, firms, and governments doing business with or investing in Iran. Iran is set to see the lifting of sanctions associated with the nuclear accord but not sanctions for other activities. Iran should receive $7 billion frozen in South Korean banks as well as other funds blocked in European banks.  Iran will be allowed to immediately export legally 500,000 barrels of oil a day, doubling the volume Tehran now exports at discount rates in defiance of US sanctions.

The US has conceded its demands that Iran will cease its ballistic missile programme and halt interventions in regional affairs, both red lines for Iran, but would stick with sanctions unconnected to the nuclear deal.

According to Nina Srinivasan Rathbun writing in The Conversation, “Iran currently has the technical ability to produce a nuclear bomb within a few weeks, though not the weaponisation knowledge necessary to build it. A different kind of technology is needed to actually design and manufacture a bomb, which may take Iran about two years to develop.”  Her assessment is backed up other experts in this field.

Rathbun urges a return to the agreement as this would build trust between Iran and the US and enable Iran to reintegrate into the international community.

Israel, however, predicts that there will be no return to the Iran nuclear deal by the US before the mid-term Congressional elections which take place in early November. Meanwhile, Israel will step up its campaign to scupper US reentry.

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