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What’s the deal with the Iran nuclear deal?

Trump withdrew from the accord, and Biden is working toward its resurrection.

Head of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), Rafael Mariano Grossi (right) meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian in Tehran, Iran on March 5.
Meghdad Madadi ATPImages/Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

A nuclear deal with Iran was Barack Obama’s biggest diplomatic achievement, and its annulment was arguably Donald Trump’s biggest foreign policy failure.

Nearly 15 months into Joe Biden’s presidency, the US, Iran, and other world powers are close to resurrecting the 2015 deal that ensured Iran’s civilian nuclear program could not develop weapons-grade uranium. But the hurdles in negotiations over the last 12 months — not to mention two recent hold-ups that could derail the whole endeavor — show just how big of a diplomatic feat the original deal was, and how difficult it appears to get back to it.

Right now, the talks in Vienna are in the narrow space between a breaking point and a breakthrough. April 6 marks the one-year anniversary of Iran negotiating there indirectly with the US and directly with the five other original signatories (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom). This week, Iran said it would return to the negotiating table only to “finalize” a renewed deal.

The original agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, required Iran to send abroad about 98 percent of its enriched uranium and it limited its nuclear capacity, with independent observers monitoring its progress. In return, the US removed sanctions that opened Iran up to the world economy. The JCPOA, according to international monitors, achieved its goal of curtailing Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani speaks to the press during the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) meeting in Vienna, Austria on December 27, 2021.
Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images

Trump unilaterally pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018 and imposed a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign. Those sanctions continue to be punishing for Iranians, especially throughout the pandemic, and have severely limited access to medicine and food.

In 2019, Iran started breaching its side of the agreement too. Now, its nuclear program has reached more advanced stages. Iran’s stockpile of uranium has expanded, with levels of enrichment much higher than permitted under the 2015 deal. At this point, Iran may be able to produce the material for a weapon in less than six weeks. (The JCPOA had put that time at about a year.) Still, the process of putting enriched uranium into a weapon could take two years.

That’s why renegotiating has been an urgent priority for the Biden administration. The text of the near-final deal is not known, but experts familiar with the negotiations say that the deal — and the political challenges of its implementation — will be similar to the last time around. The primary new challenge will be that given Iran’s improved nuclear technology and capacity, the constraints on the country will necessarily be less stringent.

If the two countries reach a new deal, it would mean that Iran is moving beyond the mistrust that Trump sowed by reneging on the JCPOA while claiming he could get a better deal. (He didn’t).

There would be immediate economic benefits to Iran, the US, and the world. With Iran more easily selling oil globally, it might help lower the incredibly high energy prices driven by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Most importantly, the deal would again accomplish what it set out in the first place: limiting Iran’s nuclear capacity. The chances of getting there, however, are tied up in the details, especially Trump’s sanctions.

What’s the hold-up?

Important clues about the status of negotiations and the major sticking points after about a year of talks were on display in at the end of March, as Middle East experts and policymakers gathered in Qatar for a policy forum. They carefully watched the choreography of US and Iranian officials appearing on stage one after another, but not speaking alongside each other. It was a visual encapsulation of the outstanding gaps in negotiations.

Sayyid Kamal Kharrazi, the former Iranian foreign minister and an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, took the stage. “Yes, it is imminent,” he said, “but it depends on the political will of the United States.” As Kharrazi was interviewed by a CNN anchor, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran negotiations, Robert Malley, sat watching in the front row.

Kharrazi departed, and then Malley, the next speaker, struck a cautious and almost poker-faced tone. “We’re pretty close to a deal, but we’ve been pretty close for some time. I think that tells you all you need to know about the difficulty of the issues that remain,” Malley said.

The immediate holdup, according to experts familiar with the details of the talks, is a sanction that the Trump administration put out in 2019 against a branch of the Iranian armed forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, that has designated them as a foreign terrorist organization. That designation is largely symbolic and the Biden administration’s hesitancy to remove it is largely political.

Even if the IRGC were removed from the terrorist list, it’s unlikely that US companies would be interested in doing business with them. The terrorist designation is hardly going to change where IRGC will be able to bank. This is in part because there are so many other sanctions currently against the IRGC, including wide-ranging restrictions from the Treasury Department.

But symbolism can be a powerful thing.

To Iran, the designation is an affront. The IRGC is an organ of the Iranian state, and an FTO designation is strictly for terrorist groups that are non-state actors. As Kharrazi put it, “A national army cannot be listed as a terrorist group.” For Biden’s team, removing the designation may risk looking weak in the eyes of domestic American audiences who cheer militaristic policies toward Iran.

And while this largely symbolic issue is the latest sticking point, it is not the first time that a significant matter has nearly derailed negotiations.

A year of three delays: the US, Iran, and Russia

When Biden came into office in January 2021, most experts agreed the impetus to restart negotiations was on his new administration, given the US was the one to withdraw from the JCPOA first under Trump.

The main gesture the Biden administration took was appointing Malley, a respected Middle East diplomat who was a lead negotiator on the 2015 accord, which itself signaled seriousness. But absent sanctions relief or other good-will gestures, that wasn’t enough to jumpstart negotiations.

Trita Parsi, an Iran expert at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, argues that the Biden administration should have gotten back into the deal through an executive order during Biden’s first days in office. But the Biden administration was reluctant to take any foreign policy risks that could potentially undermine its domestic agenda. “The time that was lost caused a crisis within the negotiations,” Parsi said. “The effort at reducing the cost completely backfired and actually increased the cost.”

The more time passed, the more hardened Iran’s position became. With maximum pressure sanctions still in place, it seemed to Tehran that Biden’s team was using the sanctions to squeeze Iran even further, tantamount to blackmail. “One senior Iranian official told me at the time, that if we wanted to negotiate with the implementers of maximum pressure, we would have talked to the Trump administration,” said Ali Vaez, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

As Special Assistant to President Clinton, Robert Malley (center) was a member of the US peace team which helped organize the 2000 Camp David Summit.
Sharon Farmer/Newsmakers via Getty Images
In 2021, President Biden appointed Malley as special envoy for Iran negotiations. Here, Malley meets with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani Doha, Qatar on October 19, 2021.
Qatari Foreign Ministry/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Some observers argue that it may have not been politically feasible for the US to jump directly back into the deal since there was an Iranian election scheduled for June 2021, and ultimately a hardline Iranian government took power. In the meantime, the Biden team was spending energy meeting with the Israelis and the Emirates, who in 2015 opposed the JCPOA, trying to avoid potential regional spoilers.

But some also say Iran took its own time coming back to the negotiating table, perhaps to strengthen its negotiating position with a more developed nuclear program. After the hardliners’ victory in June, talks paused and Iran didn’t return to Vienna for five months.

And by the time the hesitancy of the US and of Iran was resolved, and talks had advanced, a new issue appeared: Russia.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine last month, the nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna were thrown into doubt. Vaez described it as a “tactical gambit by Moscow, to see if there is any room for taking the JCPOA hostage.”

Initially, Russia wanted new guarantees for the sanctions it was now being hit with over the invasion, so that Russia’s trade with Iran would not be affected. The West rejected that idea, and Russia soon walked back its demands. And the Iranian public took a stand against Putin and Russia — Iranians are eager to return to the deal and the global access it will provide. “The Russia thing was obviously very dangerous, but it got resolved quickly after the Iranian foreign minister went to Russia,” explained Parsi.

That Russia’s role came to be a possible impediment shows delicateness of this diplomacy. “This process is vulnerable to external developments,” Vaez said.

What a new Iran nuclear deal would do

Whatever deal Iran and world powers may forge in Vienna, it will look a lot like the one that the Obama administration shepherded in 2015.

That is to say, the checks, enforcement mechanisms, and implementation will likely mirror the original JCPOA, but the exact parameters may be different given how Iran’s capacities have developed.

The 2015 deal guaranteed through a United Nations–run inspections regime that the purity to which Iran could enrich uranium was limited to 3.67 percent. Weapons-grade uranium is 90 percent pure, and Iran’s purity level has recently advanced significantly to around 60 percent since the US and it walked away from the deal, according to the UN atomic agency.

The breakout time was about a year when Iran was abiding by the deal, meaning that it would take a full year for the country to develop weapons-grade uranium; now experts say that it’s somewhere between three to six weeks. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that actually turning that material into a weapon could take up to another two years.

The Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria on June 30, 2015. Then, Robert Malley (far right) was the National Security Council Senior Director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf States.
US Department of State/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A renewed deal would establish limits on how much Iran could enrich uranium and how many centrifuges Iran could have. Iran would also send Russia most of its enriched uranium, in exchange for sanctions relief. (Russia is committed to Iran not developing a nuclear weapon, has long called for Iranian restraint, and has previously even approved UN sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program.)

“It’s going to be very similar, obviously,” says Parsi. “There’s going to be some changes here and there.” Those may include some sanctions imposed by Trump that won’t be lifted, or technical changes given that the Iranian program has grown to have more advanced nuclear centrifuges.

The sequencing — that is, the timeline for each side meeting parts of its commitments — may move more quickly than last time, with the US and Iran acting simultaneously to restore the agreement. Back in 2015, Iran initiated the JCPOA by rolling back its nuclear program first, and only once international inspectors verified Iran’s compliance did the US remove sanctions. It’s likely this time around, Vaez says, “Both sides will move in parallel. This is penance for Trump’s withdrawal in 2018.”

Critics of the deal say that Iran isn’t trustworthy and emphasize that the deal doesn’t do enough to limit Iranian proliferation or the country’s other activities, and a better one could have been negotiated. But returning to the JCPOA is far better than ideas like threatening a military attack on Iran. “The critics of the deal, both then and now, have not provided a better mechanism other than continued sanctions, and that simply hasn’t done the trick,” said Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution.

Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi (top center), speaks with reporters after his arrival for the current Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Airport on March 5.
Georges Schneider/Xinhua via Getty Images

By bringing Iran closer to the world, a renewed deal could reduce the power of hardline leaders in the Iranian government and revive the prospects of a pro-democracy movement in the country, says Nader Hashemi, a Middle East scholar at the University of Denver. “Those in prison and outside of prison celebrated the JCPOA for reasons that are not difficult to understand,” he said. “It meant the world to Iranian democrats and human rights activists.”

Most importantly, a deal could minimize the potential for a war. Israel has threatened to attack Iran should it develop weapons-grade uranium in the absence of a nuclear accord. (Israel has nuclear weapons though officially denies that.) In the meantime, other regional powers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sought nuclear capacity in response to Iran’s growing civilian program. All these factors risk a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East, and more strikes against Iran that could escalate out of hand.

In 2015 when the JCPOA was signed, the US and Iran had “for the first time in 40 years, significant contact,” Hashemi said. “There’s also the hope that [a revived deal] would lead to other sort of discussions about regional issues.”

What happens next

If the sanctions against the IRGC and whatever other outstanding issues are addressed, then Biden still has to clear another hurdle: making the case to Washington and his former colleagues in the Senate on why the deal must be adopted.

The technical procedure likely involves getting this deal through the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), a congressional review process created in response to the previous deal. But INARA is a negative mechanism, meaning the deal is adopted unless both houses effectively get veto-proof majorities to disapprove of it. The Senate, through this complex parliamentary review, didn’t formally disapprove of the deal in 2015.

“That’s a process that is favorable to the administration,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami of the advocacy group J Street. “It’s not a real fight, because the outcome is clear.”

Still, it’s worrisome for the deal’s advocates, and the Biden administration, that a leading Democrat, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez, remains skeptical of the deal’s significance and utility.

The Biden administration wouldn’t have to get congressional approval for a new agreement that is exactly the same as the JCPOA. But to build goodwill and the political buy-in of lawmakers, Biden’s participation in the INARA process seems likely. A discussion on the Senate floor of the merits of the nuclear deal might also build a broader case of why diplomacy is crucial — a potential win for Biden in advance of the midterms, especially if the deal brings down energy prices.

But beyond the political and technical challenges in Washington, or the diplomatic nuances in Vienna, the biggest ongoing question is whether Iranians would trust Americans to fulfill their side of the agreement. That Trump pulled out of the deal has damaged America’s standing. “All of these agreements, hinge on the credibility of our word and the credibility of our commitment,” said Rupal Mehta, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska Lincoln.

For all of the incentives that Iran has to rejoin the deal, there are risks of another US president’s withdrawal. “If I was sitting in Tehran, watching polarized American politics and seeing how popular Trump remains, I would be very worried about signing back onto a deal only to go through this entire exercise once again,” said Hashemi.


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