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What are the hurdles in the way of Iran nuclear deal?

American and Iranian diplomats are meeting in Austria’s capital of Vienna on Thursday in a bid to revive the stalled nuclear talks that have faced multiple setbacks in recent months. 

The European Union officials are mediating the indirect discussion as part of shuttle diplomacy. Officials from the US and Iran will avoid face-to-face talks and instead rely on European interlocutors to convey their messages. 

Talks to put the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) back on track started last year following the election of US President Joe Biden. But little progress has been made since then as Washington and Tehran defer on multiple issues. 

The talks are being held against the backdrop of the Ukraine conflict, which has been the main focus of the US and its European allies since the Russian troops began the assault in February 2022. 

Europe also faces energy shortages exacerbated by the sanctions imposed on Russia, which is the key natural gas supplier to EU members besides being a major oil exporter to global markets. 

In 2015, major world powers, including the US, EU, France, UK, China, Russia and Germany, agreed to lift economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for substantial limits on its nuclear programme. 

Enrique Mora, the EU coordinator for the talks, is mediating between the US and Iranian diplomats. While Ali Bagheri Kani leads Iran’s delegation, US special envoy Robert Malley is representing Washington. 

Here are some of the bottlenecks hindering a lasting resolution. 

The matter of US guarantee 

Under the JCPOA, Iran was adhering to restrictions on its nuclear programme, a fact verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global monitor which oversaw Iran’s activity. 

Tehran maintains that its programme is for peaceful purposes. But the west and regional countries, including Saudi Arabia, fear Iran has the capability to enrich uranium to a level where it makes atomic bombs. 

In 2018, the administration of former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement and imposed stifling economic sanctions on Iran.

That move essentially rolled back the whole deal as Iran restarted uranium enrichment. In 2016, Iran was enriching uranium at levels of under 5 percent. Now that level has gone up to 60 percent. At 90 percent enrichment, uranium becomes good for nuclear weapons.

Now, the Iranian leadership wants the US to give a guarantee that in future, any other administration won’t go back on a settlement and it will get economic relief as envisioned under the original deal. 

Maximum pressure doctrine 

Just this week (on August 1), the US Department of Treasury imposed sanctions targeting Iran’s petrochemical exports. 

Biden has maintained his predecessor’s “maximum pressure” policy despite the resumption of dialogue with Iran in April 2021. 

Fear of US secondary sanctions, which target foreign companies doing business with Iran, has discouraged European firms from doing business with the Islamic republic. 

EU efforts to circumvent US sanctions haven’t worked because of the considerable clout of Washington on global finance and trade. 

Iran also wants the US to remove its Revolutionary Guard from the list of designated terrorist organisations – a difficult proposition considering that American officials blame it for fueling the proxy war in Syria and elsewhere. 

Nevertheless, the EU has kept up the pressure to bring the two sides to the negotiating table. Today’s meeting is the result of a draft text prepared by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. 

“If the deal is rejected, we risk a dangerous nuclear crisis, set against the prospect of increased isolation for Iran and its people. It is our joint responsibility to conclude the deal,” he wrote in a recent opinion for Financial Times

Iran’s attitude toward the IAEA

In June, the IAEA rebuked Iran for not disclosing vital details related to the nuclear programme. The IAEA detected nuclear materials at some sites and asked Tehran for an explanation. 

As a response to that public rebuke, Iran removed surveillance cameras from its nuclear sites, making it difficult for the IAEA to ensure compliance with restrictions on the nuclear programme. 

Iran has also begun injecting hexafluoride gas into hundreds of advanced centrifuges – a process to enrich uranium – in response to US sanctions on its petrochemical industry. 

Diplomats are concerned – as Borrell indicated – that upcoming midterm elections in the US will tip the balance in favour of Republicans who are not in favour of giving economic relief to Iran.

“We are not going to wait forever,” for Iran to join the nuclear deal, Biden said in remarks last month. 

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