After months of indirect negotiations in Vienna, the Biden administration has lurched into a last-ditch effort to entice Iran into rejoining the flawed 2015 nuclear deal. On Friday, the State Department announced it was waiving sanctions on Iran’s “civilian” nuclear program so that foreign companies could resume work on key aspects of the project.
The Administration had promised to negotiate a “longer and stronger” nuclear deal, but clearly, that will not happen. Due to Iranian foot-dragging and maximalist demands, the negotiations will either yield a shorter, weaker deal or collapse without an agreement.
Either way, the Administration’s complacent squandering of the leverage afforded by U.S. sanctions will be a contributing factor.
The sanctions waiver announced on Friday is only the most recent of a series of one-sided goodwill gestures and concessions made by the administration that has reduced the pressure on Tehran to accept an agreement that includes more effective and longer-lasting non-proliferation guarantees, which the administration admits are needed to correct flaws in the 2015 agreement.
Iran says waivers are “not sufficient”
The new waivers permit foreign countries and companies to work on projects at Iran’s Arak heavy water plant, the Bushehr nuclear power station, and the Tehran Research Reactor. The Trump administration had revoked the waivers in May 2020, as part of its “maximum pressure” strategy to extract a more effective and durable nuclear agreement from Iran.
The State Department now maintains that the waivers should not be considered a concession to Iran. Rather, they are “designed to facilitate discussions that would help to close a deal.” But the overture apparently carries little weight with Iran.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh dismissed the waivers on February 5, complaining “Everyone knows that is not sufficient.”
Two days later, Khatibzadeh announced that Iran’s “red line” is that all sanctions must be lifted to Iran’s economic benefit: “Washington has decided to take a step which has no impact on Iran’s economic situation…. A responsible [U.S.] government should return to the deal and fulfill its obligations.”
Iran defines U.S. obligations in terms of giving Iran all the sanctions relief it was entitled to under the 2015 deal. This would mean lifting all U.S. sanctions imposed since then, including sanctions tied to Iran’s support of terrorism and human rights violations.
Such sanctions relief would give Tehran more benefits than was promised under the 2015 deal, which offered only to lift U.S. sanctions applied due to nuclear concerns. Moreover, Iran has hollowed out the benefits of the 2015 deal by installing and operating advanced centrifuges that were not allowed to be installed until much later under the deal.
Tehran also insists on a written guarantee that the U.S. will not abandon the agreement again, as President Donald Trump did in 2018. Such a guarantee would be impossible for any president to make, particularly as the agreement will not be anchored to a treaty approved by the Senate due to its controversial nature.
Concessions only encourage Iran’s maximalist demands
Iran’s unyielding stance at the Vienna talks reflects both confidence that it can withstand half-hearted U.S. economic sanctions and skepticism that it will face more serious consequences if it continues ignoring its nonproliferation commitments.
The Biden administration has encouraged this calculus by denouncing the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy, relaxing enforcement of sanctions, and turning a blind eye to surging Chinese imports of Iranian oil.
Last month, the Administration issued a license for South Korea to pay an Iranian company at least $63 million, using some of the $7 billion in Iranian funds frozen by U.S. sanctions in South Korea. Last year, it approved the transfer of some of the Iranian frozen funds to pay Iranian debts to Japan.
Biden’s policy of economic appeasement reached new heights when the administration arranged for $18 million of blocked Iranian funds to be released by South Korea so the Iranians could pay their dues to the United Nations, which had suspended Iran’s voting rights in the General Assembly.
By accepting the fiction that Iran cannot afford its U.N. dues at a time that it is spending the equivalent of billions of dollars on its nuclear program, military buildup, and proxy militias, the Biden administration has shown itself to be willing to swallow Tehran’s duplicitous claims on its nonproliferation commitments and other issues.
Rather than helping Iran pay for its U.N. membership, the Biden administration should be pushing for the snapback of U.N. sanctions against Iran. But that option has been undermined by the U.S. failure to hold Iran accountable at the December meeting of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Despite Iran’s failure to cooperate fully with the agency’s nuclear inspectors, Washington failed to press the issue by calling for Iran to fully account for the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program and passing a censure resolution that would refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council.
The weak negotiating strategy has precipitated a shakeup of the American team negotiating in Vienna. Last month, the deputy special envoy for the negotiations, Richard Nephew, left the team along with two other officials who had advocated a tougher negotiating stance.
A revived nuclear deal will be shorter, weaker, and riskier
Instead of the longer, stronger version of the 2015 deal promised by candidate Joe Biden, what is emerging from the Vienna talks is a shorter, weaker and riskier diplomatic gambit to appease Tehran.
A revival of the 2015 agreement will mean key restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment program will again progressively expire by 2031, providing a shorter period of non-proliferation barriers than the original agreement.
A revived agreement will be weaker because Tehran has hollowed out some of the benefits of the agreement by violating restrictions on centrifuges and producing uranium metal, gaining experience that will enable Iran to gain a more rapid nuclear breakout capability.
The revived agreement will also be riskier than the original deal because of the reduction in the time Iran would need to stage a nuclear breakout. The 2015 deal was based on a 12-month breakout time, but a revived deal is likely to provide far less of a cushion.
That is important because U.S. officials assess that a breakout period shorter than six months would not give the U.S. and its allies sufficient time to respond if Iran opts to ramp up its nuclear weapons program.
The inconvenient truth is that the 2015 nuclear agreement did not end Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions; it merely slowed Iran’s nuclear progress with a diplomatic speed bump.
In 2031, after key restrictions on uranium enrichment and the size of Iran’s uranium stockpile expire, Tehran will be well-positioned for a possible nuclear breakout or sneakout.
The bottom line
The 2015 nuclear agreement rewarded Iran with disproportionate economic benefits in return for weak, temporary, and easily reversible restrictions on important aspects of its nuclear program. Rather than returning to the defective old deal, Washington should have insisted on a stronger new deal. The Biden administration has made a bad situation worse by unwisely relaxing pressure on Iran and offering carrots while downplaying the role of sticks in its negotiating strategy.
Under these circumstances, the Vienna negotiations are likely to yield a half-baked deal that will only postpone a festering nuclear crisis, not resolve it. And it will kick the can down the road while flooding Iran with sanctions relief that will embolden the regime, aid its military buildup, and strengthen its proxy terrorist networks for future attacks.
James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation, has written extensively on regional issues and international terrorism since 1978. His prime research interests as part of Heritage’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy include Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Persian Gulf security issues and Middle Eastern terrorism.