The impasse in the talks to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is raising fears of a total collapse, leading Iran to continue its nuclear activities while playing hide-and-seek with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Since the signing of the nuclear deal, the UN nuclear watchdog’s Board of Governors passed its second resolution rebuking Iran but ironically falling way short of referring the matter to the UN Security Council. This watered-down rebuke comes following Iran’s repeated failure to provide “technically credible” responses about its three undeclared sites to the watchdog since 2019 when its “nuclear archives” were unearthed by Israel and shared with the major powers and the UN’s relevant agencies. Tehran also is reportedly building new establishments to expand its nuclear program.
Even the watered-down resolution did not win Russia’s and China’s support while the United States signaled that the diplomatic efforts to revive the JCPOA would not cease. Responding to the Board of Governor’s resolution on June 9, Iran switched off or removed 27 surveillance cameras at its key nuclear sites in further disregard of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Safeguards Agreement. Since the United States and the E3 have not imposed any penalties on Iran for disregarding its obligations under the NPT Safeguards Agreement, the geopolitical temperature in the Middle East is soaring.
Two Iranian scientists were allegedly poisoned within a fortnight while Iran’s air bridge for supplying arms to Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon was severed after uncharacteristic Israeli strikes on Damascus International Airport’s civilian terminal and air traffic control tower, rendering it out of operation ever since. Iran’s arms shipment via road in Iraq was also attacked. Iran retaliated against Israel’s subversive moves by launching cyber-attacks, which have not only been quite effective but also uniquely rattling. For instance, Iran’s cyberunit hacked into Israel’s missile warning system for the public and triggered false alarms, putting its credibility into question. Tehran has faced its share of cyber-attacks too. The duel will only worsen if the United States and Iran agree to revive the JCPOA. If the nuclear talks fall apart completely and the IAEA monitoring systems stay offline or are non-functional, Tehran may well be on course to refining nuclear weapons development capabilities while being a signatory to the NPT. As per the watchdog’s last report on May 30, Tehran has stockpiled about 25 kilograms of 60 percent enriched uranium while a larger number of its latest centrifuges spin for more. For one nuclear bomb, a country needs 25 kilograms of uranium enriched at 90 percent or more.
Yet, Moscow along with Beijing both opposed the recent Board of Governor’s resolution despite blatant Iranian violations of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and inspection regimes. Though Russia does not interfere with Israel’s preemptive strikes against Iran or its assets in Syria and elsewhere, it does oppose any multilateral moves to penalize its ally. Its position will not be different if Iran’s nuclear file is referred to the UN Security Council. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Iran has become a supplier of munitions and parts for Moscow while seeking a two-decade-long strategic cooperation agreement, proposed during President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Moscow in January. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit on June 22 is a continuation of the same process which has become ever more significant amid volatility in the geostrategic arena. In their joint press conference, the two foreign ministers hoped for an early resumption of the Vienna talks with the E3.
As much as Iran benefits from its strategic relations with Russia in particular, it also uses them to enhance its leverage with the West amid the worsening global energy crisis and geostrategic instability. The Kremlin’s moves against Ukraine and threats to smaller NATO member countries seem to have compelled Washington to adopt a more reconciliatory tone toward Iran, hence the toothless IAEA resolution. For the United States, only bad options are on the table. Either revive the nuclear deal and encourage Iran’s disruptive behavior in the Middle East or abandon the JCPOA and escalate the risks of proxy wars and nuclear proliferation. With the negotiations between Iran and its Arab neighbors going nowhere, Washington’s reconciliatory tone can cast trouble beyond the Middle East. Since the Cold War 2.0 is deepening, Belarus with its history and significant expertise in nuclear technology may also choose to go nuclear with Russia’s blessing. The lack of progress in relation to North Korea is largely due to the appeasement of its nuclear neighbors. Hence, the risks of nuclear proliferation will not lessen with Iran’s return to the nuclear deal if at all a compromise is reached on the IRGC’s terror designation.
As the IAEA director-general pointed out, a return to the JCPOA is impossible without Iran’s return to full compliance with its nuclear obligations. Even if an early compromise is reached in Vienna supposedly sometime in July, the nuclear deal’s revival will have to wait for the IAEA’s affirmative report on Iran’s installation of monitoring cameras and adherence to reporting procedures. The issue of the three undeclared suspected sites will still remain. The Vienna talks will take care of Iran’s observance of JCPOA obligations, including handing over excess enriched uranium and the removal of prohibited centrifuges. Whenever the modalities are completed and the certification is given from a technological standpoint, the United States will have to lift the sanctions reimposed during the Trump era. Given Iran’s recent moves in the Middle East and the removal of IAEA cameras, prospects to revive the nuclear deal have been set back significantly. The more Iran maintains this gray zone of limbo, fears among its neighbors and the West will grow regarding its soaring stockpile of enriched uranium at a higher quality.