The U.S. to Rejoin Iran Nuclear Deal

On Tuesday, March 15th, after the Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, visited Moscow, it appears that the Kremlin has retreated from its previous demands that were holding up a resolution for the broken Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal. A resolution that will now, once again, include Russia and seems to be continued shortly. The recent demands that have since been retracted come from Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and were set forth a week ago. Such orders consisted of guarantees that, if a deal was restored, Western sanctions on Russia over Ukraine couldn't "in any way damage our right to free and full trade, economic and investment cooperation, and military-technical cooperation" with Iran. The U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, described such demands as “irrelevant,” and “[having] nothing to do with the Iran nuclear deal.”

This sudden change of mind infers that the whole effort was a stunt to prolong Russia's oil sales in the wake of Russia's invasion into Ukraine. If a new deal is procured, the US will rejoin the JCPOA agreement, which in addition to regulating Iran's nuclear program, will effectively reduce the cost per barrel of oil and likely increase import from Iran. Since Iran breached the agreement that caused the US to withdraw from the deal back in 2018, oil costs per barrel have peaked at $141 and stayed over $100 consistently. While Trump remained in office until 2020, he was able to keep China from buying out too much of their oil, but since President Biden took office and the Supreme Leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, saw how lenient the new president of the United States was being. China has been buying up plenty more Iranian oil with no consequences. Furthermore, in Biden's first year in office, Iran has significantly developed their nuclear program and stopped allowing checkups on its facilities.

In a recent report from the United Nations, Iran had nuclear enrichment up to 60%, which is about 75% percent of what they would need to construct a nuclear weapon. They could reach lethal levels in less than six months if this is true.

American Beginnings

To shed some perspective on how we have gotten to this point, it dates back to President Eisenhower's 1953 Atoms for Peace speech at the United Nations General assembly.

12/8/1953 - 470th Plenary Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly

"The atomic age has moved forward at such a pace that every citizen of the world should have some comprehension, at least in comparative terms, of the extent of this development, of the utmost significance to every one of us.

"The United States, heeding the suggestion of the General Assembly of the United Nations, is instantly prepared to meet privately with such other countries as may be ‘principally involved’, to seek ‘an acceptable solution’ to the atomic armaments race which overshadows not only the peace, but the very life, of the world.

"The more important responsibility of this atomic energy agency would be to devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine and other peaceful activities. A special-purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world."

Following this speech, Iran had shown continual interest, and the US supplied the country with its first facility in 1967. This facility was a 5 MW capacity reactor located in Tehran. The US also applied Israel, Pakistan, and India with the same technology during the same period. Though each country agreed not to develop weapons, all but Iran have since successfully done so.

In 1967, when Iran was given this technology, the country was ruled under the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Though he was a hereditary monarch, he led on secular belief, which is why they had a positive relationship with the US.

For the next decade, with assistance from the US and Europe, they launched a series of nuclear research programs in Tehran. In 1970, Iran was one of the original signatures of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is an international treaty to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. By 1974, the Shah presented an ambitious set of goals to develop their technology, signing several deals with other countries, but everything came to a halt following the Iranian revolution of 1979. Under the new supreme leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, much international support was lost by switching from a secular outlook to a Shia religious ideology.

As the country began to sponsor and partake in horrific terrorist acts, the US added Iran to the state-sponsored terrorism list in 1884, marking the beginning of the US's sanctions. As the Iraq-Iran war was going simultaneously until 1889, it was difficult for the country to make much progress in the nuclear sphere – or at least until '87 when Abdul Qadeer Khan, a nuclear physicist from Pakistan, sold Iran classified knowledge on centrifuges that he had previously taken from his work with Urenco. By the early 90s, once Iran recovered from the war, it began to make further nuclear developments again with assistance from deals signed with Russia and China.

As the US was monitoring nuclear progress carefully, they passed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in 1996 (ILSA), later renamed as Iran Sanctions Act in 2006 (ISA). These economic sanctions were put in place to respond to the Iranian nuclear program directly.

Then in 2003, after discovering some covert nuclear facilities in 2002, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ordered Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment and open all facilities for inspection. Iran did not comply with the orders, and that's when conflict with the IAEA started. In 2009, the CIA discovered a nuclear facility in Fordow that contained over 3,000 centrifuges and was seemingly built to resemble more of a weapons development facility. Built under a mountain in the city of Qom, the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) is the country's second pilot enrichment plant, the first being in Natanz.

Qom, Iran: Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant

After years of conflict, it wasn't until 2013 that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) were able to begin talks to work towards a JCPOA. Then in April of 2015, they finished the framework and set forth on implementing the JCPOA agreement. The deal was stringent but primarily contained sanction relief in return for allowing surveillance and dismantling parts of their nuclear facilities.

JCPOA agreement between Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, the US, and the European Union

However, it wasn't long until Iran broke the agreement in 2018 when they raised nuclear enrichment to 4.5 percent. According to JCPOA, the maximum they were allowed to reach was 3.75 percent. This caused President Trump to withdraw the US from the deal and place its pre-JCPOA sanctions back onto the country. From then until now, Iran has progressively become more non-compliant. Alleged records released from the UN in February show enrichment to be up to 20% in Natanz and 60% in Fordow. That is about 75% the way to weapons-grade enrichment. Iran has also been producing uranium metal at their Isfahan facility, which is yet another direct breach of the JCPOA agreement. All while not allowing inspections, making it difficult for the IAEA to implement the NPT safeguards agreement.

Iran’s Nuclear Threat

Suppose Iran happens to create a nuclear weapon of mass destruction, which it is conceivably very close to. In that case, the country could potentially make a substantial geopolitical shift in the Middle East. If you look at Iran on a map, you will see that it is in the middle of two bodies of water: To the north is the Caspian Sea, and to the south is the Persian Gulf. On nearly every side are steep mountains, including the Zagros Mountains region along the eastern border, thus making the area prime for defense.

Given access to nuclear bombs, Iran would have greater diplomatic leverage and utilize more aggressive strategies, likely destabilizing the middle eastern region. However, a more significant threat would be to the United States ally, Israel. In 2012, after some missile tests, Iranian General Amir Ali Hajizadeh threatened Israel with his willingness to "wipe them [Israel] off the face of the Earth." As Israel and Iran have been in a proxy war since 1985 following the Iranian revolution, Iran has since aimed to dissolve the Jewish state. This is one of the reasons for Iran's government sponsorships to terrorist groups like the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. While those are the central two being used to attack Israel, the Republic of Iran funds many more terrorist organizations. These groups, such as the Hezbollah and Shi'ite militias, have historically attacked several countries, including the United States. While heavily taking place in Lebanon, they spread all over.

That is precisely the most significant fear many countries bear regarding Iran's nuclear program. While embracing many great tributes for a more civilized government, a nuclear force can be disastrous in the wrong hands. Given Iran's track record, it is not a far reach for Iran to potentially provide this caliber of weaponry to various terrorist organizations.

Current Talks

As a result of the US-reimposed sanctions from the 2018 JCPOA withdrawal, Iran has entered into a more profound economic struggle. From the remainder of the time that Trump was in office, he had been able to keep China from importing too much Iranian oil, but since 2020, President Biden has been much more lenient on the communist country. This has allowed Iran to gain a little more economic profitability but combined with the pandemic, Iran has still declined economically.

While they haven't been able to develop an atomic arsenal, they've significantly expanded their Agni family of missiles. In the past months, Iran tested several newly developed, very effective missiles, giving them significant leverage to begin talks. Additionally, the US is in a time of struggle, therefore suggestively weak and willing to accept a lesser deal. Israel has seen our tragic withdrawal from Afghanistan, record inflation and recent sanctions on Russia, giving them an urge to start negotiations.

After many months of talks in Vienna, a solution had become increasingly pressing since February. Before, Iranian officials have previously blamed Washington for failure to secure any deal and insinuated that Russia had typically been more sympathetic to Iran's situation. At least until early March when Saeed Khatibzedah, spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry, raised concern that Russia was now in the way with their unreachable demands, stating “No external factor will affect our joint will to go forward for a collective agreement.”

A week after the talks ended with no agreement in place, Russia backed off their rather extreme demands after receiving news that the remaining P5 + 1 countries would continue working forward without them.

While further talks are predicted to continue soon, a new JCPOA agreement could be imminent. Though such an agreement would likely include more lenient demands, it would provide peace of mind to see Iran's nuclear program under surveillance once again. Additionally, the US is in desperate need of more oil imports that Iran could offer.