Iran Nuclear Talks Update 3/15

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Anna Schaftel – Programs and Outreach Associate

Negotiation status: dead or alive?

  • Despite previously admitting privately the JCPOA was “dead,” since January Biden Administration officials have wavered on the status of the deal and nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
    • On January 30, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley said diplomacy is “still the priority… diplomacy never ends.”
    • On February 21, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “we’ve also been clear that the Iran nuclear deal, the so-called JCPOA, is not now on the table…” before adding, “the door is always open to diplomacy going forward, but a lot depends on what Iran says and does….”
    • On March 9, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said, “We continue to believe diplomacy is the best way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”
    • See JINSA’s infographic providing an in-depth timeline of these statements, here.
  • Meanwhile, Iran is attempting to undermine any move by the United States and its partners toward a tougher policy by appearing to be cooperative—promising to restore inspectors’ access to nuclear facilities and claiming to have reached a hostage release deal with Washington.
  • As a recent JINSA NatSec Brief lays out, the administration’s months of needless diplomatic dithering have only encouraged Iran to continue advancing its nuclear program, in many ways irreversibly, and thereby further weakening and shortening what was already an unacceptable JCPOA. 

Iran’s (empty?) promises ahead of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board meeting

  • On March 3, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi visited Iran for high-level talks ahead of the IAEA’s first quarterly Board of Governors meeting of the year that began on March 6 in Vienna.
  • During the visit, Grossi said that Tehran pledged to restore IAEA monitoring cameras it had removed last summer, in violation of its pre-existing safeguards agreements, and to allow more inspections at the deeply-buried Fordo facility where near weapons-grade uranium was recently discovered (see below).
    • On March 4, Grossi said these pledges were “a tourniquet on the bleeding of information and lack of continuity of knowledge we had.”
    • On June 9, 2022, shortly after Iran removed the IAEA’s cameras, Grossi said he believed inspectors would lose continuity of knowledge within three or four weeks, and then it would be “anybody’s guess” as to the state of Iran’s nuclear program.
    • Grossi later told reporters on March 6 that these were “not promises, we do have certain agreements which are concrete.”
  • However, the March 4 joint statement released by the IAEA and Iran following Grossi’s visit appeared to soften these assertions, suggesting they are far less than concrete.
    • The statement says that Iran “on a voluntary basis will allow the IAEA to implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities.”
    • A March 6 IAEA press conference indicated, as part of Grossi’s visit, that Iran had not agreed to provide IAEA access to specific sites, facilities, or related materials, and that any such progress would be contingent on follow-up talks.
    • Previously, similar Iran-IAEA communiques have not led to Tehran providing access to inspectors in accordance with its international safeguards commitments.
    • Senator Bob Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on the IAEA to censure Iran, saying, “Tehran’s agreement this weekend to increase IAEA monitoring at nuclear facilities falls well short of addressing these provocative steps.” 

Iran enriched uranium up to 84% – just short of weapons-grade

  • On February 19, the IAEA discovered Iran had enriched uranium to 84%, its highest level ever and just short of the 90 percent threshold for weapons-grade fissile material.
    • It remains unclear if this level of enrichment was intentional. However, these reports follow several ongoing Iranian upgrades that significantly expand its ability to produce weapons-grade fissile material at its deeply buried Fordo facility.
  • Iran was previously known to be enriching uranium to 60%, which was already a level for which nonproliferation experts already said there was no civilian use.
  • On February 28, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl claimed that it would only take Iran “about 12 days” to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb. 

New rounds of sanctions; UK and EU flounder on IRGC terror designation

  • Since January, the United States has levied multiple rounds of sanctions against Iran, targeting its drone manufacturers, international UAV procurement network, and sanctions evasion network.
  • On February 25, the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Union (EU) levied a new round of sanctions on entities within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for their proliferation of military drones to Russia.
  • Despite the EU parliament calling last month for the bloc to designate the entire IRGC as a terrorist organization in response to the IRGC’s military support for Moscow’s war in Ukraine, recent efforts on this front have floundered in the UK and EU.
    • The UK has delayed its decision as to whether it will designate the IRGC a terrorist organization, with several sources alleging that Biden administration officials were pressuring the UK against the decision, in order to placate Iran in the hopes of reviving nuclear negotiations (even though the Biden administration chose last year to keep a similar U.S. designation on the IRGC).
    • German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said, on February 20, “as of now, we don’t have legal grounds in the EU to list the Revolutionary Guards as terrorist organization.”
  • However, on March 2, during an official visit to Israel, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis pledged his country’s support for Israeli efforts to have the EU designate the IRGC as a terrorist group.

Iran-U.S. prisoner swap deal: claims and denials

  • On March 12, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told state TV, “Regarding the issue of prisoner swaps between Iran and the U.S. we have reached an agreement in the recent days and if everything goes well on the U.S. side, I think we will witness a prisoner exchange in a short period.”
    • State Department spokesperson Ned Price immediately denied these claims, saying, “Statements from Iranian officials that a deal regarding the exchange of prisoners has been reached are another especially cruel lie that only adds to the suffering of their families.”
    • A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council also rejected these claims; “Claims by Iranian officials that we have reached a deal for the release of the U.S. citizens wrongfully held by Iran are false.”
  • Previously, on February 15, NBC News reported the United States and Iran were engaged in indirect talks to negotiate the release of American citizens imprisoned by the regime, with Qatar and the U.K. serving as intermediaries.
    • In exchange for Iran’s release of the detained Americans, the United States would purportedly release billions of dollars of Iranian oil funds frozen by South Korea under U.S. sanctions.
    • However, on February 20, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani told reporters that negotiations were on the verge of an agreement, “but then the U.S. showed bad faith.”
    • State Department spokesperson Ned Price rejected Kanani’s claims as “…beyond the pale.”