What’s Next for Iran Nuclear Talks?
May 19, 2021
Talks in Vienna aimed at allowing the United States and Iran to return to compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal ended on May 19 having made further progress but still falling short of a final agreement on what that return would look like. Differences remain over U.S. sanctions relief and the required nuclear steps by Iran. Some officials involved in talks suggested that an agreement could be reached relatively soon—perhaps as early as next week when the parties reconvene in Vienna. But predictions of a quick conclusion around the corner have so far proven illusive.
In addition, the Iranian team faces a tough domestic political environment when it returns to Tehran. To date, Iranian negotiators have remained on a tight leash. Guidance from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may provide negotiators with the flexibility they need to make a breakthrough, but he could just as easily hold that flexibility in reserve.
Without that breakthrough, U.S. and European negotiators will likely need to prepare for some turbulence the remainder of this month and into June. Odds are good that they will navigate that period successfully. Nevertheless, how these upcoming events are handled matters because they could have negative implications for access to Iran’s nuclear program and make a future return to the deal more cumbersome.
The first key date will come this Friday, May 21, when a temporary technical arrangement reached in February between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is set to expire. This agreement allows the agency to continue with some of its expanded verification activities—namely, the use of IAEA cameras for continuous monitoring of key Iranian nuclear activities—despite Tehran’s decision to jettison the enhanced monitoring measures of the deal and the Additional Protocol. Iranian officials previously stated that they would remove the cameras and destroy the video footage by May 21 unless sanctions are removed. The tapes are important because they provide continuity of coverage of Iran’s nuclear program, assuming the IAEA eventually gets access to them.
Following the conclusion of negotiations in Vienna on May 19, it was not immediately clear whether Iran had agreed to extend the arrangement, which would leave the cameras in place and avoid adding a stressor to nuclear talks. Reports suggested Iran was open to extending the agreement, but that talks with the IAEA were ongoing. The destruction of the tapes would be a provocative move and a setback for international monitoring, but alone poses little immediate proliferation concern if the deal can be salvaged soon. The chances that Iran used that three-months-long window to divert any material or components is small, particularly because Iran knows it may be turning the video footage back over to the IAEA, which would notice such a diversion. The move would also be unlikely to derail talks: the United States and Iran have a strong interest in the negotiation process continuing, and U.S. officials previously indicated they were still willing to talk with Iran despite its steps to reduce inspections.
A more worrisome outcome, however, would be an extended period of time without any camera coverage at all, combined with Iran’s continued limits on other important JCPOA monitoring mechanisms, because it reduces international insights into Iran’s nuclear activities. In addition, if and when the JCPOA is ever restored, it could take longer for the IAEA to “play catch up” and adjudicate any discrepancies between the last date of inspector access and new information provided by Iran.
The second flashpoint is the self-imposed June deadline for Iran and the IAEA to make progress clarifying agency concerns over potentially undeclared nuclear activities and material in Iran. In March, Iran agreed to meet with the IAEA with the goal of reaching a “final outcome” by the Board of Governors meeting in June. For nearly two years, Iran has resisted the agency’s efforts to investigate new evidence about these activities—almost certainly tied to Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear weapons program—including traces of uranium at two locations not declared to the IAEA. The start of these talks was delayed and ultimately shifted to Vienna (where some of Iran’s experts are for JCPOA talks) rather than Tehran, but little is known about their content.
Iran almost certainly will not provide honest and complete answers because doing so would be tantamount to admitting its past deceptions and its weapons program. But there is a difference between Iran at least meeting and responding to the IAEA’s inquiries in a substantive way and continued Iranian stonewalling.
The above two developments will occur before the IAEA’s early June Board of Governors meeting—the third date on the calendar that will require careful management. Prior to the last board meeting in March, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany circulated a resolution condemning Iran for curbing transparency measures and refusing to cooperate with the IAEA’s aforementioned investigation. The parties backed off, however, following Iranian threats to curtail inspections even further and following concerns from other board members that a resolution at that time would doom any hopes of getting the JCPOA back on track. The IAEA-Iran agreement to try and make headway in resolving the agency’s concerns also held out hope for progress. If the IAEA reports ahead of the June meeting that Iran has not provided credible answers to its questions, then there could be a greater willingness among the United States, United Kingdom, France, or Germany to consider a resolution censuring Iran. This desire would be magnified if Iran decides to destroy the tapes and remove the IAEA’s cameras.
If such a resolution were passed, Iran would protest and may even take some additional nuclear steps, but it would be unlikely to walk away from negotiations altogether. The continued IAEA concern about undeclared material in Iran and the debate between the United States, its allies, and Russia and China on the best way to address them is a reminder, however, that this issue will remain at the forefront regardless of whether the JCPOA is revived.
The final marker on the calendar is Iran’s June 18 presidential election. On the one hand, there is an argument that the election, lame-duck president Hassan Rouhani (he has served two terms and is therefore not eligible to run again), and changeover of governments will slow the pace of talks. However, if predictions that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is deliberately slow-walking negotiations until a new government and president are in place are correct, the elections could actually pave the way for an agreement that allows for both Iran and the United States to return to the deal. In either case, while the Iranian president can shape the tenor and approach to nuclear negotiations, he does not set the red lines or make the big decisions. That responsibility falls to Khamenei, and thus the elections in Iran will ultimately not make or break whether a deal with the United States can be had.
Iran’s negotiating position—which so far has included demands that go beyond the terms of the original JCPOA—and its insistence on no direct talks with the United States have made it much harder for both parties to agree on a path back to the nuclear deal. As a result, the United States and its allies will need to successfully navigate events over the next several months in a way that keeps negotiations on track but also ensures the international community can still adequately monitor Iran’s nuclear activities.
Eric Brewer is deputy director and senior fellow with the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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