February 19, 2021

Middle East Roundup: Biden Takes Steps Forward on JCPOA & What Iran’s Feb. 23rd Deadline Means

This week, the Biden administration took its first steps in trying to jump start the process to reenter the Iran nuclear deal. Also, barring any changes, Iran is set to reduce the access of IAEA inspectors on Feb. 23rd. Please see our breakdown and analysis below: 

Biden Administration Takes Three Steps Forward on Iran

  • Iran Welcomes One Step, Yet to Respond to Others; Regional Players Engage on Iran
    • After weeks of delay, the Biden administration took a flurry of steps on Thursday night, Feb. 18th, to jump start a JCPOA return. First, the State Department Spokesperson sent out a statement saying that, “the United States would accept an invitation from the European Union High Representative to attend a meeting of the P5+1 and Iran to discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran’s nuclear program.” 
    • Second, the U.S. Acting UN Ambassador sent a letter to the Security Council reversing the Trump administration’s assessment that UN sanctions on Iran were “snapped back.” 
    • Third, the Biden administration lifted travel restrictions on Iranian officials who seek to enter the United States to attend U.N. meetings. Reporters also asked U.S. officials if the United States has already had any preliminary diplomatic communications with Iran. The official did not respond specifically, saying only that the administration had consulted broadly on the subject. 
    • In a background briefing with reporters, U.S. officials also said that “this is going to be a painstaking and difficult process that’s going to take some time for it to see whether both sides agree on what they will define as compliance for compliance.” They went on to say, “it’s not something that is sort of preordained…which is why the EU invitation is important.” 
    • Iran did not outright reject the administration’s call to convene a meeting, but in response to the three moves, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said “we agree” that the Trump administration’s claims regarding snap back sanctions were invalid. But he went on to say that the U.S. should comply further with UNSCR 2231, the UN resolution that codified the JCPOA, and “unconditionally & effectively lift all sanctions imposed, re-imposed or re-labeled by Trump. We will then immediately reverse all remedial measures.” He ended his statement with the hashtag “#CommitActMeet.” 
    • Neither the Supreme Leader nor the Iranian President have commented on the Biden administration’s moves. The EU’s Deputy Secretary General for Political Affairs said, “I am ready to invite them to an informal meeting to discuss the way forward.” 
    • President Biden gave a speech at the Munich Security Council and touched lightly on Iran, stating that “We are prepared to re-engage in negotiations with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program…We must also confront Iran destabilizing activities in the Middle East.”
    • Regional players and world powers are trying to resuscitate dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, advocating that both sides return to the 2015 nuclear deal and reduce tensions. Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani met with his Iranian counterparts this week and spoke to high ranking U.S. officials to discuss the nuclear deal.
    • The U.S. and its major European allies held a meeting to discuss Iran and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wed. Feb. 17th. According to China’s Foreign Minister, U.S. Iran Envoy Rob Malley spoke with his Chinese counterparts on Feb. 10th, and had an “in-depth exchange of views on the Iranian nuclear issue.” Biden also called the Israeli Prime Minister for the first time on Wednesday, Feb. 17th where they “discussed the future advancement of the peace accords, the Iranian threat, and regional challenges, and agreed to continue their dialogue.”
  • Key Takeaways 
    • Zarif’s initial comments highlight Iran’s preferred path forward, namely seeing the U.S. moving to ease sanctions before a meeting is held, but do not reject Biden’s call to meet first. It will be important to see how the Iranian President and Supreme Leader react to the call for a meeting. Rouhani will likely be eager to start the diplomatic process to get back into the deal, but his own domestic political fault lines may prevent him from accepting the meeting before some sanctions are lifted.  
    • The three steps taken on Thursday night, and President Biden’s explicit call to restart diplomacy, are all good steps in the right direction. But they will most likely not stop Iran from reducing the access of IAEA inspectors on Feb. 23rd that was mandated by the Iranian parliament (see below). To stop a serious nuclear escalation, the U.S. should consider taking more affirmative steps upfront. This can include:  
      • Revoking the order issued by President Trump withdrawing the U.S. from the JCPOA. National Security Policy Memorandum (NSPM) 11 formally ended U.S. participation in the JCPOA on May 8, 201. 
      • Immediately renewing waivers for cooperative nonproliferation projects. Revoking the waivers was counterproductive to non-proliferation efforts and reversed critical components of the deal that allowed other JCPOA participants to assist Iran in reducing proliferation risks at key nuclear sites.
      • Allowing the IMF to issue a $5 billion loan that Iran requested earlier this year to help combat the pandemic. The U.S. could simply lift its objection to the loan, giving Iran the funds needed to repair some of the economic damage from the pandemic and U.S. sanctions, helping regenerate some of the goodwill that was lost under the Trump administration. 
    • The U.S. may also be hedging their bets, but the strategy might backfire. Even though the steps and rhetoric are positive, they barely move the needle. From Iran’s perspective, there is little change from Trump’s approach as all sanctions still remain in place and there is little indication that will change soon. If Iran rejects Biden’s call for a meeting, however, U.S. officials can point to Iran as the ones who didn’t come to the table, despite knowing beforehand that Iran may reject the meeting without more tangible relief.
    • Amid this back and forth, precious time and goodwill is being lost. The steps Biden took are a signal. But it is not clear Iran will accept the meeting or that either party is ready to initiate a JCPOA return before the Iranian elections in June, when the situation will get even more complicated. 

Iran to Reduce Access of IAEA Inspectors on Feb. 23rd

  • Inspectors Will Not Be Kicked Out, But Limited in Their Oversight
    • Iran informed the IAEA that it will scale back its cooperation with IAEA inspectors on February 23rd following a bill passed by the Iranian parliament in November of 2020 that mandated a reduction in access if sanctions were not lifted by February 21st. In a statement, the IAEA said, “Iran informed the IAEA on 15 February that the country will stop implementing voluntary transparency measures under the JCPOA as of 23 February, including the Additional Protocol.” 
    • The passage of the parliament bill reducing Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA followed the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Earlier in the year, Iran’s centrifuge production facility was destroyed in sabotage and Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani was assassinated. Rouhani and Zarif opposed the passage of the parliament’s bill and sought to delay it, but were overruled.
    • Iran’s missive to the IAEA concerning their reduction in compliance also included seven “transparency measures” that most likely include JCPOA-specific inspection mechanisms that go beyond Iran’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) with the IAEA and the additional protocol (AP). This includes the “use of modern technologies.” Under the JCPOA, Iran allowed the continuous monitoring of their enrichment cycle, including real-time online surveillance. 
    • Iran will continue to implement its CSA with the IAEA, which is required by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), meaning IAEA inspectors will still have some level of access to Iran’s nuclear sites to verify Iran’s activities and the non-diversion of nuclear material. But ceasing implementation of the AP will downgrade inspectors’ access. Under the JCPOA, Iran agreed to voluntarily implement the AP as well as to ratify it by 2023, locking in enhanced inspector power indefinitely. 
    • Under the CSA, there are several types of verification methods, including unannounced and regularly-scheduled inspections, that the IAEA can use to verify Iran’s declared nuclear activities, including confirming the amount and type of enriched uranium, the design of its nuclear facilities, and the usage of its fissile material. The IAEA is also able to procure environmental samples and use remote monitoring equipment to track nuclear materials under Iran’s CSA.  
    • The additional protocol gives inspectors several additional verification tools and expands the types of facilities under the IAEA inspections regime. The additional protocol allows for short-notice inspections of undeclared sites, expanded use of environmental sampling, and allows access to any nuclear site, including those involved in the nuclear fuel cycle and military facilities if there is evidence of undeclared activities. This includes sites such as centrifuge production facilities and uranium mines that wouldn’t be accessible under the CSA.
    • The Director-General of the IAEA, Raphael Grossi, is also expected in Tehran on Saturday to discuss Iran’s ceasing implementation of the additional protocol. Iran’s Supreme Leader on Wednesday, Feb. 17th said that “We have heard many nice words and promises, which in practice have been broken and opposite actions have been taken. Words and promises are no good. This time [we want] only action from the other side and we will also act.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said of the approaching date that not only will Iran not expel the IAEA inspectors but that “safeguards regulations will be implemented.”
    • In a joint statement, the U.S., U.K., France, and Germany, the “E3 welcomed the United States’ stated intention to return to diplomacy with Iran” and went on to say, in reference to the Feb. 23rd deadline, “the E3 and the US called on Iran not to take any additional steps, in particular with respect to the suspension of the Additional Protocol and to any limitations on IAEA verification activities in Iran.” 
    • For a deep dive on inspections, please see Arms Control Association’s recent memo here.
  • Key Takeaways
    • Iran’s plan to cease its implementation of the additional protocol is both the most concerning step Iran has taken in reducing its compliance in the JCPOA and another indication of the legacy of failure left in the wake of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign.  
    • While many have framed the bill as being narrowly aimed at pressuring Biden, this ignores that the bill partially arose due to Iran’s domestic politics. In the wake of assassination and sabotage, hardliners in Iran demanded a response. In that context, a series of unhelpful but reversible steps on the nuclear program were perhaps more a reaction to these events than a carefully-constructed pressure strategy. Similarly, Iran’s new and ambitious parliament leader Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf wants some of the credit if a return to the deal is negotiated under Rouhani – or blame him if it fails to go forward. 
    • Even though IAEA inspectors will be more limited in their access, Iran will still adhere to the CSA, which should continue to provide assurance that Iran is not moving to break out and secure a nuclear weapon. Moreover, the move is reversible and Iran can quickly notify the IAEA of its intention to once again adhere to the additional protocol. 
    • However, the reversibility of this violation also depends on the length of time Iran reduces inspector access. From a proliferation standpoint, reducing inspector access may create gaps in knowledge that the IAEA will need to fill once Iran and the US start on the path to re-enter the deal. The longer both countries wait, the more gaps the IAEA may need to fill, which would lengthen the time needed for Iran to return to compliance. For that reason, and more, the U.S. should build on its recent moves in order to grease the wheels for a swift return. 


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