Home / News / World /  Whatever happened to the new Iran nuclear deal?

Talks on forging a new nuclear deal with Iran have stalled. While the prospects of a deal looked promising in early August, the latest news points to a gulf between Iran, the United States and the European Union. As the possibility of a nuclear Iran and fresh instability in the Middle East looms, Mint breaks down the developments in the talks

What was the original deal?

The Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was originally struck in 2015. The parties to the deal included the five Permanent members of the Security Council, Germany, the European Union and Iran. 

Iran agreed to several restrictions on its decades-old nuclear program. First, it agreed not to produce either plutonium or the highly enriched uranium necessary to build a nuclear bomb. Second, it agreed to limit its ability to enrich uranium by shuttering centrifuges and also agreed to limit its existing stocks of enriched uranium. Crucially, these restrictions were not permanent and would gradually be removed over a period of time. 

Finally, Iran also agreed to an expansive inspection system that would enable the UN’s International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) substantial access to nuclear facilities. A Joint Commission was established with the mandate of tracking and certifying the implementation of commitments made under the agreement. 

In return, the United States and other signatories agreed to lift crippling sanctions on exports of Iranian oil.

Why did the deal fail?

In a word: Trump. The newly elected American President came into office in 2017 as a fierce critic of the deal. Proponents of the deal pointed to the substantial progress made in delaying Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. However, critics alleged that the deal did little to counter Iran’s sponsorship of terror in the region or the development of its missile program. Further, the deal would only delay Iran’s acquisition of weapons and not stop this process entirely given that restrictions would expire after some years. 

In 2018, President Trump pulled America out of the deal. European powers attempted to keep the deal going in a limited fashion but their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.

What has happened since? 

After the deal fell through, Iran breached limits on its uranium stockpiles and developed new centrifuges to add to its enrichment ability. These efforts were stepped up after the United States assassinated popular Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. The reimposition of restrictions on Iranian oil exports also hurt the Iranian economy substantially. 

However, negotiations restarted after the Biden Administration took office in 2021. While a new deal seemed imminent in March, talks have been largely deadlocked since. Joseph Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, recently stated that the parties were diverging in their positions rather than converging as discussions went on.

What are the roadblocks to a new deal?

Essentially two problems. Tehran wants binding assurances that the economic relief Iran receives as part of any new deal will remain in place even if a future American administration decides to renege on a deal. This is a demand Washington will be hard pressed to meet given that it cannot bind future administrations to a particular framework. Iran has also demanded that the IAEA terminate its long running investigation into suspected nuclear activity at three facilities that Tehran had not declared as nuclear sites. This demand has not been accepted by Tehran’s counter-parties as it relates directly to whether Iran can be trusted to discharge its obligations under any nuclear deal. 

Crucially, America’s midterm elections are slated for November. Should Biden’s Democrats suffer electoral defeats, Tehran may conclude that the incumbent Administration has little ability to conclude a deal on this front.

What are the stakes? 

In the absence of a deal, Tehran has continued its nuclear activities. It has expanded its enrichment capabilities and has reduced the IAEA’s ability to monitor compliance by dismantling its monitoring equipment. Given the lack of insight into Iran’s nuclear program at present, it isn’t entirely clear how close Iran is to having a bomb. 

Even as Iran’s nuclear capabilities expand, Israel has made noises about conducting a military strike to disable its longtime rival’s capabilities. It has conducted military exercises that simulate such an action on Iranian nuclear capabilities. Reports abound of Israel stepping up covert activities that attempt to stymie Iran’s nuclear program. Should Tehran take exception to these efforts, enriching Uranium to weapons grade level could be an escalatory step available to Iran. 

Should that happen, the future of the Middle East will be on knife’s edge.

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