Four days of multilateral negotiations concluded in Vienna on Monday, with reports of progress in reviving the text of an agreement to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that had been languishing since March. However, significant hurdles remain, despite the EU’s declarations that the text was a final draft that would not be edited. While the U.S. indicated it was ready to conclude a deal on the basis of the final text, it has not affirmed that the deal would be acceptable, while Iranian decisionmakers have disparaged it as a joint Mora-Malley text – referring to the lead negotiators from the European Union and United States. Iranian officials are reportedly still considering the text, while the European Union has asked for a yes or no answer by Monday.
A New Stumbling Block?
While the negotiations in March were stymied by the controversial designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, that issue appears to have been set to the side for now. However, the separate but parallel International Atomic Energy Agency investigation into Iran’s 2003-era nuclear program may be the chief obstacle standing in the way of a renewed deal that delivers long-delayed sanctions relief.
Iran has reportedly sought, including at the negotiating table, to end the IAEA’s ongoing investigation into a number of locations and activities alleged to be part of Iran’s 2003-era nuclear program. Critically, these locations were brought to light by Israel’s “Atomic Archive” raid from 2018, which makes Iran even more highly sensitive to the IAEA’s investigation. After environmental sampling at three facilities, the IAEA reported it found evidence of “multiple uranium particles of anthropogenic origin that required explanations by Iran.” Those inspections have led to intensive efforts from the IAEA to ensure that Iran provides a full accounting of Iran’s nuclear material and activities.
Iran has the legal obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to disclose its nuclear activities to the IAEA, but is alleged to have engaged in significant work toward developing a nuclear weapon prior to 2003 – nearly two decades ago – much of which was not declared to the IAEA. The IAEA alleges that Iran’s answers to its investigations – including allegations of foreign sabotage – are not technically credible and seeks answers on the origin and current location of the material that was stored at the sites. Credible answers to those questions could provide far greater understanding of Iran’s alleged 2003-era activities and the current location of any mothballed equipment.
In 2015, a roadmap was established to enable the IAEA to investigate numerous ongoing questions it had into Iran’s 2003 program, which led to a long-sought environmental sampling at the military base at Parchin. The completion of that investigation, which appeared to confirm prior allegations of nuclear-related research at the facility, led to the IAEA Board of Governors adopting a resolution closing the agency’s consideration of the inquiry. This helped ensure the JCPOA would come into force and that Iran’s nuclear program was solely for peaceful purposes moving forward. However, Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA – which diminished a critical tool to force inspections of suspect facilities in Iran – and the Atomic Archive raid in 2018, has upended that promise and helped ensnarl ongoing negotiations to revive the agreement. Iran likely fears that cooperating with the IAEA investigation would validate the Israeli raid, cast further doubt on Iranian explanations of its nuclear history and divulge new intelligence that could be used against it by hostile powers. On the other hand, failure to close the probe could also undermine Iran’s potential JCPOA benefits and cast the Raisi administration in a bad light domestically for failing to achieve what the Rouhani administration did in 2015.
The Proposed Solution
Earlier this week, European Union negotiators in Vienna proposed a solution to the IAEA investigation impasse wherein the IAEA Board of Governors would “pass a resolution closing the probe into the nuclear material, if Tehran provides answers…that are deemed credible by the IAEA.” The Wall Street Journal further elaborated on the scope of this proposed text, noting that it would commit Iran to cooperate with the agency with a view toward answering the agency’s inquiries and clarifying them. In turn, once duly addressed, the parties to the deal would push to close the prove at the Board of Governors, though this would happen regardless if Iran satisfies the IAEA’s probe. While some have sought to spin this as a “concession” to Iran, it is nothing of the sort. Underscoring Iran’s need to cooperate with the IAEA, and the obvious outcome if Iran does so, is a smart step that could help bridge the difficult and dangerous impasse on the JCPOA itself.
Such a formula would replicate the roadmap established in 2015, though it is far from clear whether it will satisfy the caustic politics surrounding the agreement in Tehran and Washington.
Positive Polling on JCPOA
Separately, important polling from Data for Progress has revealed voters’ strong support for a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear standoff.
Between July 8th-11th, Data for Progress surveyed 1,330 likely voters of which 94% expressed some level of concern regarding Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon. When asked how to respond to this concern, 78% of respondents favored diplomacy over just 12% favoring war to halt Iran’s program. While nearly every Republican member of Congress has spoken out against Biden’s nuclear negotiations with Iran, 56% of participants who identified as Republican supported restoring the 2015 deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program. The numbers are even more stark among Democrats, with 82% backing the negotiations explicitly. By a 3:1 margin, prospective voters say that support for a nuclear deal with Iran would make them more likely to vote for a Congressional candidate.
The Biden administration has emphasized the failures of “maximum pressure” and condemned President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018. Yet, voters remain split on who to blame if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon – with 33% blaming President Biden and 34% blaming President Trump. According to the data, if the Biden administration fails to re-enter the JCPOA, and allows Iran to become a nuclear threshold state, they will not escape the political blowback.
For more information about the poll results, click here.
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