Iran Nuclear Talks Update 6/6

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Shay Khatiri – Senior Policy Analyst

Negotiations Status: Talking about Talks 

  • Although President Joe Biden declared in December that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was dead, his administration appears to be pursuing a shorter nuclear agreement with Iran—and negotiations for such a deal appear poised to resume soon.
    • Even as the administration maintains that diplomacy is still the best option to prevent a nuclear Iran, the White House continues to insist that reviving the JCPOA “is just not on the agenda right now.”
  • As early as March 2023, the Biden administration floated the idea of a “freeze for freeze” interim nuclear deal to European allies and Israel in March.
    • Reportedly, the agreement entails Iran freezing its uranium enrichment and releasing three U.S. citizens in detention in exchange for the release of $17 billion of Iranian assets—equivalent to one-third of Iran’s annual state budget—in South Korea and Iraq that have been frozen under U.S. sanctions, with state media in Iran reporting on June 6 an additional $6.7 billion from the International Monetary Fund’s special drawing rights, bringing the number to nearly $24 billion.
  • A flurry of diplomatic activity and goodwill gestures by the United States and Iran over the last month suggest that such a short-term deal—or at least new talks about it—might be coming closer to reality.
    • On May 8, National Security Council official Brett McGurk secretly traveled to Oman.
    • On May 29, Sultan Haitham bin Tarik of Oman met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani in Tehran.
      • Oman has traditionally been an intermediary for nuclear talks between the United States and Iran.
    • On May 30, an anonymous South Korean official confirmed that his government is working with the U.S. government to release $7 billion in frozen assets to Iran.
    • On May 31, Iran’s state media reported that the IAEA had accepted Iran’s explanation for the presence of undeclared activities at a site in Abadeh/Marivan and, as a result, the IAEA would be closing two ongoing investigations into suspected undeclared Iranian work related to building a nuclear weapon.
      • Since 2018, the IAEA has been requesting an explanation from Iran about three undeclared sites—Abadeh/Marivan, as well as Turquzabad and Varamin—that were revealed by Israel after it obtained Iran’s secret nuclear archive and by the presence of uranium at the Turquzabad site.
      • Also on May 31, the Associated Press reported that Iran claims that nuclear traces at the Abadeh/Marivan site resulted from lab contamination from mining in the 1960s and 1970s by a foreign operator, and the IAEA had accepted this as “a possible explanation.”
    • Also, on May 31, Iran and the IAEA confirmed that monitoring equipment had been reinstalled in Fordow and Natanz uranium enrichment facilities. The IAEA began re-installing the equipment in April.
      • Iran had removed the equipment in June 2022.
      • In March 2023, Grossi stated that Iran’s removal of monitoring equipment had led to “the bleeding of information and lack of continuity of knowledge” the IAEA had, and the agency would have to “start working again, reconstructing these baselines of information.”
    • Despite the progress on addressing questions about the Abadeh/Marivan site and reinstalling monitoring equipment, on June 5, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi stated that Iran remains uncooperative on most outstanding concerns and that the recent developments are “a fraction of what we envisaged and what needs to happen now is a sustained and uninterrupted process that leads to all the commitments contained in the Joint Statement being fulfilled without further delay.”

Too Late, Too Little

  • Reports of a freeze-for-freeze deal come as Iran’s nuclear program approaches the very threshold of nuclear weapons capability. With Iran now able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks, freezing its nuclear program at the current level will do nothing to alleviate concerns of an Iranian breakout.
    • An interim deal would freeze enrichment at the current level of 60%, which would still leave Iran on the doorstep of producing fissile material with a “breakout time” of mere days or weeks and enough fissile material to build “several nuclear weapons.”
      • In March 2023, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said, “Iran could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks,” and it “would only take several more months to produce an actual nuclear weapon.”
    • Neither such an interim deal nor the IAEA’s recent agreement with Tehran would address or even provide much-needed transparency about Iran’s potentially ongoing work to build a functional nuclear weapon.
  • A freeze-for-freeze deal would, however, give Iran a much-needed cash infusion at a critical time, as it faces disarray and poor morale within the rank and file of its security forces.
    • Iran’s previous demand that the Islamic Revolution’s Guardians Corps (IRGC) be removed from the list of U.S. sanctions was a key reason that previous negotiations broke apart, however, it dropped this demand in August.
    • The desperation and vulnerability caused by internal challenges and the prospects of European sanctions against IRGC have made Iran tactically flexible for now.
    • Iran will likely spend most of any cash relief to further modernize its nuclear centrifuges and invest in the security forces to strengthen its regional position, terrorize its domestic subjects, and manufacture weapons for its own use and sale to partners, such as Russia.

The Administration Is Alarmed by Iran and Israel Alike

  • As Iran is marching toward nuclear arms, chatters from Israel suggest that the possibility of an Israeli attack is increasing, adding urgency to the matter on both sides.
  • Even though this agreement will not remove Iran from its current perch on the precipice of nuclear weapons capability, the Biden administration likely hopes a deal would make it politically expensive for Israelis to attack Iran at a time when there is visible progress.