In what appears to be a sign of progress in the Vienna talks, the United States notified on February 4 that it had decided to withdraw sanctions imposed on Iran’s nuclear program in May 2020. The notification’s intent is to restore Tehran’s confidence in the Vienna talks. The last move of President Trump before leaving office was not considered by many observers of Iranian affairs to be effective in curtailing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Rather it was undertaken to handicap his successor from reviving the nuclear deal. The US decision re-establishes greater foreign monitoring of Iran’s nuclear sites besides opening the avenue for Tehran to dispose of materials/parts exceeding its JCPOA commitments.
“Absent this sanctions waiver, detailed technical discussions with third parties regarding the disposition of stockpiles and other activities of nonproliferation value cannot take place,” a senior State Department official was quoted as saying. Russia, China and the European countries will now be able to resume work on Iran’s Arak heavy water plant, the Bushehr nuclear power station, and the Tehran Research Reactor. Expectedly, Tehran downplayed the US concession, with its Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh stating, “Everyone knows that it is not sufficient.” He later observed that “the measure has no impact on Iran’s economic situation,” demanding, “a responsible [US] government should return to the deal and fulfill its obligations.”
Prior to lifting the sanctions, Washington provided relief to Tehran but in a rather paltry manner. In January, the United States permitted South Korea to reimburse Tehran’s $63 million to enable the payment of Iran’s dues to the UN, which had resulted in the suspension of Iran’s voting rights. The sum will directly go to the UN on Iran’s behalf; hence, it will not be able to redirect the funds for other purposes. The country will not be able to receive its remaining $6.3 billion from Seoul until Washington issues another waiver, unlikely prior to the revival of the nuclear deal.
Instead of announcing any reciprocal steps, such as walking back on its nuclear excesses, Tehran has maintained significantly reduced access for IAEA monitors. At home, the Biden administration’s decisions concerning Iran are causing anxiety. In January, Richard Nephew, the deputy special envoy for the negotiations, along with two other colleagues quit the negotiating team. Their concerns stemmed from Washington’s own assessment of the difficulty in extending Iran’s nuclear breakout time. The fissures in the US negotiating team signal a tug-of-war between the camp seeking a revised, stringent and broader deal with Iran versus the one seeking the revival of the agreement to restrain further progress in its nuclear capability. If the JCPOA is restored, key restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment program will last until 2031, after which it will not be restricted to explore its nuclear option.
The United States is working with a self-assigned deadline of March 7 when the IAEA’s Board of Governors convene. If a deal is agreed upon by then, the nuclear watchdog will return to its additional role specifically defined by the nuclear deal.
“As we have said, we have only a few weeks to conclude an understanding, after which the pace of Iran’s nuclear advances will make a return to the JCPOA impossible,” according to a spokesperson of the US State Department.
Once a new agreement is reached, Iran will be required to take specific steps to dismantle, destroy, or seal its stockpile of enriched uranium, centrifuges, and transfer the HEU abroad to the JCPOA-mandated countries such as Russia.
Concerns surrounding unknown unknowns, if realized, can lead to the worst-case scenario. Estimates of Iran’s current breakout time differ from one scenario to the other, from a few weeks to six months. Even if Tehran manages to pile up enough weapons-grade uranium, it will not be able to fabricate the actual payload in a short duration.
Though the waiver is less significant than it sounds, the urgency on the part of President Biden is perplexing for Iran’s neighbors as well as the US strategic and political community. To win broader confidence in the revival of the JCPOA, a host of concerns need to be addressed: How does reducing the leverage of sanctions help or compel Iran to negotiate a new deal or return to the JCPOA? By imposing a shorter timeline for the deal’s restoration and lifting the Trump era’s sanctions, does the United States risk encouraging Iran’s destructive behavior in its bordering regions? How will the Biden administration appease its regional allies seeking a more stringent deal instead of reviving the flawed agreement President Obama had agreed upon in 2015?