By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
Following the latest round of informal talks in Vienna, European negotiators expressed optimism about the prospect of coaxing Iran back into the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The coordinating envoy for the European Union told reporters on Wednesday that he anticipates the sixth round of talks will be the last. But American officials received that statement with skepticism and said that they, too, anticipate a resolution, but expect it to require much more back-and-forth among the seven parties to the agreement.
Prospects for restoring the status quo seemed to emerge last January with the presidential transition in the US, but the US has so far resisted European pressure to simply withdraw all the conditions re-imposed or newly imposed by the previous US administration, in absence of new concessions from the Iranian regime.
That regime, meanwhile, has insisted upon precisely this outcome and has refused all appeals for a compromise agreement in which some sanctions are lifted in exchange for some restrictions being reinstated at Iranian nuclear sites.
Meanwhile, the Iranian regime has continued to accelerate its nuclear activity, far exceeding some of its achievements from the era prior to the JCPOA’s implementation. At that time, the highest level of uranium enrichment known to have taken place in Iran was 20 percent fissile purity. In April, authorities publicly announced that the refortified Natanz nuclear site was beginning enrichment to the 60 percent level, thereby dramatically reducing the amount of additional effort necessary to reach the 90 percent that is considered weapons-grade.
The accelerated enrichment came just weeks after the regime boasted of having begun production of uranium metal, a material that has virtually no other purpose than to serve as a key component in the core of a nuclear warhead. The International Atomic Energy Agency now estimates that the Iranian regime has stockpiled approximately 2.4 kg each of 60 percent enriched uranium and uranium metal, plus 62.8 kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent. Its total stockpiles of uranium at any level of enrichment were estimated at 3,241 kg – roughly 16 times the amount permitted under the terms of the JCPOA.
These figures were all detailed in a report presented to the Vienna negotiators by the IAEA last week. The report noted that for the first time since the start of monitoring activities outlined in the agreement, the UN nuclear agency was forced to report estimates rather than data obtained directly from sites in Iran. This is because the Iranian government passed a bill late last year which set a deadline for halting compliance with the IAEA if US sanctions remained in place. The law took effect in March, but UN monitors struck a deal that merely avoids them being kicked out of the country by simply reducing their mandate, rather than severing it.
That deal permitted Iran to avoid giving the IAEA access to surveillance video at the country’s nuclear sites but established that the recordings would be stored and released if an agreement with Western powers was implemented in the future. It was widely assumed that despite this loss of access to visible monitoring, the IAEA was still able to collect data from other monitoring equipment at the relevant sites. The agency’s latest report corrected this misconception and made it clear that Tehran’s obstructionism has been much more comprehensive and thus more dangerous than Western negotiators realized.
All this information came to light just two days before the fifth round of talks concluded in Vienna. That being the case, it is extremely difficult to imagine where European optimism over those talks could be coming from. Iran’s accelerating violations of the agreement have not been counterbalanced in any way by its conduct in negotiations or overall posture toward Western interlocutors. The regime has not compromised on its starting position of demanding sanctions relief in exchange for nothing. And the EU has shown no greater willingness to penalize that lack of cooperation or exert pressure on the regime with the intention of compelling it to accept a more far-reaching agreement.
This European permissiveness is made all the more inexplicable by the fact that even before the IAEA issued its latest report, its Director General Rafael Grossi spoke publicly about Iran avoiding transparency, damaging its own credibility, and reducing the prospects for an agreement that is acceptable to all sides. Grossi arguably saved the JCPOA from total collapse on more than one occasion, but now he recognizes that it may not be salvageable and yet the European officials in charge of setting policy on this issue seem deaf to his advice.
“It is not possible,” the IAEA chief said of a prospective return to the status quo as it existed before the regime’s systematic violations. “Iran has accumulated knowledge, has accumulated centrifuges and has accumulated material,” and the advancements call for “an agreement within an agreement,” to address the new challenges Tehran has created.
“They have many options,” Grossi continued. “They can dismantle, they can destroy, they can put in a cupboard. What we need to be able to do is to verify in a credible and timely manner.” Of course, the international community cannot realistically expect to secure that outcome if European powers refuse to take assertive action toward that end. Such assertiveness might provide a real justification for optimism about a forthcoming deal with the Iranian regime. But as things stand, the optimism on display in Vienna seems to be based on nothing other than naïve hope or outright lies.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)