Iran Nuclear Deal: How US Failed Historic Breakthrough & Opened Door to Seven Years of Controversy
15:20 GMT 16.01.2023 (Updated: 16:59 GMT 31.07.2023)
© AP Photo / IRIB In this image made from April 17, 2021, video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line the hall damaged on Sunday, April 11, 2021, at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility
© AP Photo / IRIB
Exactly seven years ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that Iran had completed the necessary steps under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on January 16, 2016. Why was the progress reversed, pushing the region back to square one?
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program reached in Vienna on July 14, 2015, between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council together with Germany (P5+1) and the European Union.
The negotiations, which formally started in 2013, revolved around restrictions on the Islamic Republic's nuclear strategy in exchange for sanctions relief. Under the terms of the deal, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its atomic program and open its facilities to more extensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Finally, by January 2016, Iran had shipped 25,000 pounds of enriched uranium out of the country; dismantled and removed two-thirds of its centrifuges; removed the calandria from its heavy water reactor and filled it with concrete; and provided access to its nuclear facilities and supply chain, as per White House archives.
After the IAEA verified that Tehran had completed the necessary steps under the agreement, the US and European nations lifted oil and financial sanctions on Iran on January 16, 2016, and released roughly $100 billion of its assets. In addition, Tehran and Washington swapped long-held prisoners: five Americans, including a Washington Post reporter, Jason Rezaian, were released by Iran. In exchange seven Iranians, either convicted or charged with breaking US sanctions, were released and 14 others were removed from international wanted lists, according to the US press.
The European and US signatories to the deal argued that the agreement was necessary to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons. For its part, the Islamic Republic of Iran placed emphasis on the peaceful character of its atomic strategy and its goodwill in addressing the international community's concerns.
4 December 2022, 10:36 GMT
Origins of Iran's Nuclear Program
It was the US that helped Tehran kick off its nuclear program. It was launched in 1957 under Mohamed Reza Shah’s rule within the framework of Washington's Atoms for Peace initiative. At the time, Washington and Tehran concluded a nuclear arrangement known as Cooperation Concerning Civil Uses of Atoms.
In 1967, the US supplied a five-megawatt nuclear research reactor along with highly enriched uranium to Iran. At that time, Iran prohibited the development of nuclear weapons as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which has been in force since 1970. In 1975, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) struck an agreement with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to provide Iranians with scientific and technological training on nuclear energy.
Iran's relations with the West and the US, in particular, had already been mired in controversy at that time. In August 1953, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) helped orchestrate a coup d'etat in Tehran. In the course of the notorious Operation Ajax, democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mossadegh was ousted, triggering a steady growth of anti-western sentiment in the country.
24 June 2017, 15:13 GMT
The 1979 Islamic Revolution came as the apogee of the growing distrust. It resulted in the seizure of the US Embassy and the suspension of diplomatic relations between Iran and the US. Washington immediately halted its civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with the Middle Eastern nation and has since tried to hinder Iran's atomic program. Furthermore, the US declared Iran as one of the primary threats to its own interests and the interests of its regional allies and slapped a series of sanctions on the country from November 1979.
Nonetheless, the Iran nuclear program continued to gain pace with Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani nuclear physicist, secretly providing Tehran with designs of a P-1 centrifuge in the 1980s. This sensitive data was instrumental in ensuring Iran's capability to enrich uranium. In 2001, the construction of the Natanz enrichment facilities began. At the 2002 IAEA General Conference, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran revealed Tehran's intention to develop the full nuclear fuel cycle.
Tehran's nuclear program prompted a storm of criticism in the West. The IAEA later claimed that Iran had conducted experiments aimed at designing a nuclear weapon until 2003. However, in 2007, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence admitted that Iran had completely halted its alleged nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. CIA Director William Burns revealed on July 20, 2022, that Iran has made zero effort to create atomic arms since 2004.
Iran's Nuclear Deal and Trump's Adventurism
After the 2015 JCPOA came into force, the Islamic Republic of Iran fully abided by the provisions outlined in the agreement judging from the IAEA's quarterly reports to its board of governors and the UN Security Council on Tehran's implementation of its nuclear commitments.
However, then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA in 2018 and reinstated banking and oil sanctions on Iran. Trump argued the deal failed to curtail Iran’s ballistic missile program and its alleged "proxy warfare" in the Middle Eastern region.
Tehran lashed out at Washington for reneging on its commitments and criticized European signatories to the deal, including France, the UK, Germany and the EU for submitting to US unilateralism. European powers implemented a series of limited efforts to preserve the Iran nuclear deal: France, Germany, and the UK launched a barter system (INSTEX), to conduct transactions with the Islamic Republic outside of the US banking system. According to western observers, the system wasn't efficient enough as it covered only food and medicine, which were already exempt from US restrictions.
As long as the Trump administration maintained waivers for several countries to import Iranian oil, Tehran continued to abide by its commitments. However, soon Washington ended waivers and stepped up sanctions within the framework of the so-called policy of "maximum pressure" on Tehran.
Iran responded by gradually loosening the JCPOA restrictions on uranium enrichment from under 5% to 60% from July 2019 to force western countries to observe their obligations under the deal. Nonetheless, the Iran nuclear program remained strictly peaceful.
Later, the US press revealed that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif held meetings with Obama's former Secretary of State John Kerry and other ex-officials "throughout the Trump years, in 2017, 2018 and 2019" to discuss the US policy and, presumably, to keep the nuclear deal alive. According to western observers, Obama veterans' effort to maintain ties with Tehran to some extent buffered the Trump administration's tough approach toward the Islamic Republic. The US media assumed that former Obama officials tried to lay the foundation for a future Democratic administration that would repair relations with Iran and revive the nuclear agreement.
On his campaign trail, then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden repeatedly signaled his commitment to revive the Obama-era deal. After Biden assumed office in January 2021, his administration demonstrated readiness to restore the deal.
19 October 2022, 13:28 GMT
Biden Administration's Failure to Restore JCPOA
However, the nuclear negotiations did not start smoothly with Iran already having deep mistrust towards the US administration. On February 18, 2021, the Biden administration announced that it was ready to restart talks with Iran over the nuclear deal, while on February 25, 2021, Washington conducted strikes against alleged "Iranian-backed militia" targets in eastern Syria.
The Pentagon claimed that the strikes were carried out in retaliation for rocket attacks on US facilities in Iraq over the past two weeks. However, international observers presumed at the time that the Biden administration sought to strengthen its hands in the lead up to discussions with Iran.
The informal talks on restoring the JCPOA between the US and Iran reportedly began in March 2021, while on April 11, 2021, a blast damaged multiple IR-1 uranium enrichment centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear site. While it was initially believed that the site was subjected to a cyber-attack, it was later reported that the act of sabotage was performed with the use of explosives. The Biden administration said it had no involvement in the attack.
Later in April 2021, official talks on the 2015 JCPOA kicked off in the Austrian capital of Vienna between Iran and the P4+1, including China, Russia, France, the UK, and Germany. The US participated in the negotiations indirectly. Tehran and Washington's negotiations have repeatedly stalled, with the US refusing to take the first step and lift Trump's "maximum pressure" sanctions on Iran unless Tehran scales back its uranium enrichment activities.
22 July 2022, 17:59 GMT
Nonetheless, by mid-August 2022, the "big issues" concerning the nuclear accords had been "largely settled," as US State Department spokesman Ned Price announced at the time. On August 22, 2022, EU High Representative Josep Borrell called the "final" text of the agreement "reasonable" at a press conference in the Spanish city of Santander. Borrell added that he hoped the US response would "put an end to the negotiations," after some 16 months of EU-mediated talks.
However, in September 2022, National Security spokesman John Kirby revealed that Biden wanted to make sure that the US had "other available options (…) to potentially achieve that solid outcome of the no nuclear weapons capability for Iran" apart from the nuclear agreement.
In October 2022, the US State Department abruptly signaled that the JCPOA is no longer Washington's focus. October 17, 2022, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre announced that the US government doesn't see "a deal coming together anytime soon." According to international observers, the Biden administration apparently sought to use protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iran in order to force Tehran into further concessions. Washington openly supported the protests with western media amplifying the unrest by spreading uncorroborated information with regard to Amini's death.
In early October, the Biden administration slapped a new batch of sanctions on Tehran over its response to the protests. The same month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with "activists and thought leaders focused on Iran" asking them "what more the United States could do to support" Iranian protesters apart from providing internet access. For his part, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan admitted in an interview with CNN on October 16 that the US is taking "a number of aggressive steps aimed at supporting the protesters in Iran." Tehran accused Washington of trying to foment regime change in the country.
In addition, the US and its allies accused Iran of apparent drone supply to Russia during the latter's special military operation to demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine. Western powers claimed that the alleged supplies left Iran in breach of the 2015 JCPOA. Tehran and Moscow resolutely rejected the allegations of weaponry deliveries to Russia by Iran.
10 December 2022, 19:41 GMT
Is There a Glimpse of Hope?
Even though Iran maintained its willingness to continue talks on restoring the deal, Washington and the IAEA stepped up pressure on Tehran in November 2022. The IAEA Board of Governors issued a resolution on November 10, 2022, charging Iran with failing to cooperate with the nuclear watchdog regarding traces of uranium said to have been found at three so-called "undeclared nuclear sites."
Iran dismissed the allegations referring to the fact that it had already provided “reasonable” answers to the IAEA’s inquiries. In September 2022, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran revealed Tehran had been "fully cooperative" and provided the international watchdog with "information and answers to the nuclear agency’s questions and has also held meetings to resolve the ambiguity."
Still, the US, and its allies the UK, France, and Germany put forward the IAEA resolution. Russia and China voted against it.
Prior to that, Washington joined Israeli-led drills simulating attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities which further aggravated US-Iranian tensions.
Later, a video emerged of Joe Biden declaring in early November 2022 that the nuclear energy deal with Iran is "dead": "It is dead, but we're not gonna announce it," the US president said at a campaign rally with fellow Democrat congressman Mike Levin in Oceanside, California.
In early December 2022, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi stated that there is still slight hope for the revival of dialogue on the JCPOA.
"What one can say is that the JCPOA, or what remains of it, has become, in practical terms, irrelevant. It will have to be revived, and I think there is still maybe a glimmer of hope that this could be done, although that is in the hands of those negotiating," Grossi told a Middle Eastern broadcaster.
In late December, Iranian negotiators signaled apparent progress in the talks, stressing that the only remaining obstacle is the dispute between Iran and the IAEA over the origins and explanation of nuclear particles found at three sites in 2019. Furthermore, IAEA inspectors, led by its deputy director general for safeguards, Massimo Aparo, visited Tehran to meet the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation Mohammad Eslami.
Moreover, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell argued last month that the Iran nuclear deal should be separated from the disputes over the alleged human rights violations in Iran and supposed arms provision to Russia. “In spite of the fact that the nuclear deal remains in a stalemate and the escalation of Iran’s nuclear programme is of great concern, we have to continue engaging as much as possible in trying to revive this deal," stressed Borrell.