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Tehran Repeats Unspecified Demands While Blaming US for Delays to Nuclear Deal

Palais Coburg, the site of a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in Vienna

By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras

Last Friday, the Iranian regime submitted its formal written response to what the European Union had presented as the “final text” of an agreement to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On Sunday, American officials spoke with counterparts from the deal’s European signatories – Britain, France, and Germany – about the prospects of that revival, as well as the need to jointly support Middle Eastern allies and constrain Tehran’s role in the region. And by Monday, Iranian officials were publicly accusing the United States of delaying the finalization of the process for resuming mutual compliance with the JCPOA.

These accusations are ironic, considering that the Iranian regime has widely been considered responsible for a number of prior delays. Serious efforts to restore the JCPOA began in March of last year, but negotiations in the Austrian capital of Vienna were halted suddenly in June after Ebrahim Raisi was appointed as the next Iranian president. For the ensuing five months, Tehran repeatedly asserted that internal discussions would need to play out before dialogue reopened between the regime and the so-called P5+1.

When the Vienna talks finally resumed, Tehran went back to the negotiating table with an expanded set of demands and a generally more confrontational diplomatic posture. Soon, the Western signatories were each criticizing the Iranian regime for maintaining unreasonable positions which threatened the prospects for the deal’s revival. Nevertheless, some Western officials predicted that the negotiating process would conclude in early 2022, even going so far as to set unofficial deadlines for a final agreement. Yet these deadlines ultimately passed without publicly observable progress, and in March, just under a year since the negotiations began, the process stalled again.

In that case, the inciting incident was reportedly Russia’s decision to complicate the talks with a demand for Iran-specific exemptions to newfound sanctions targeting the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. This issue was ostensibly resolved soon thereafter, but Tehran apparently seized upon the delay to reinforce one of its key negotiating positions – one that Western adversaries unanimously dismissed as a non-starter with no direct relevance to the JCPOA. Raisi and other leading officials said at the time that they would only send representatives back to Vienna in order to finalize an agreement that reflected American capitulation to the demand for the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

That issue remained a sticking point even after the Iranian regime broke its commitment by participating in new talks, first in Doha at the end of June and then once again in Vienna last month. In both instances, it was reported after the fact that Tehran was still insisting upon concessions that the US and Europe were entirely unwilling to provide. In addition to the IRGC’s removal from the FTO list, the regime also demanded the closure of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s probe into the past military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, as well as some form of guarantee that the United States would not be able to withdraw from a revived JCPOA without penalty, as it had done in 2018.

The IAEA probe remains open primarily because of Tehran’s refusal to provide credible and complete explanations for the presence of nuclear material in environmental samples from four undisclosed sites, which the UN agency gained access to only after the JCPOA was first implemented.

Reports on Friday indicated that Iran’s written response to the EU’s “final text” did not mention the IAEA probe. The EU, on the other hand, promised that it would not oppose the probe’s closure, provided that Tehran gave the sought-after answers before the JCPOA was formally revived.

Additionally, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi recently told reporters that he would consider it “unacceptable” for the probe to be concluded for political reasons rather than because it has successfully uncovered all relevant information.

Unified resistance from the IAEA, the EU, and the US may have finally convinced Tehran in recent days that it is futile to demand concessions on the probe. The regime has certainly not admitted this, but by not mentioning the probe or the IRGC’s terrorist designation in last week’s written response, authorities may have been hoping to resolve those issues quietly, in ways that allowed the regime to claim victory over its Western adversaries. Indeed, on Tuesday, it was reported in Western media that key concessions had been dropped, even as Tehran continued to publicly assert that it had received new concessions.

Even before the final text was presented to Tehran, the US had already stated that the regime was backing down from its demand for the IRGC’s delisting. However, instead of dropping the matter altogether, Iranian authorities appeared to kick the can down the road by accepting the terrorist designation but pressing for later negotiations to remove economic sanctions on IRGC-linked businesses.

There is no indication that such negotiations will actually be forthcoming, but the public narrative arguably allows Tehran to laud its own strength in negotiations with the West while technically giving up on issues it has demanded since the process to revive the JCPOA began more than 16 months earlier.

Even if this accurately describes the situation as it stands, Tehran’s rhetoric could create problems for re-implementation on the Western side. Since the beginning, the JCPOA has had an abundance of detractors in American political circles, as well as among vital US allies. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies argues that the revived JCPOA will be a “lesser deal” than its predecessor on account of its failure to address recent advancements in Iran’s nuclear program or to push back sunset clauses that were originally established on the assumption that Tehran would be in full compliance with restrictions on that program since the beginning of 2016.

Furthermore, the claim that Tehran has dropped its preexisting demands is called into question by corresponding reports that say the regime’s written response demanded “adjustments” to the EU’s “final text.” Although EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described that response as “reasonable,” it is unclear how any additional demands could be considered compatible with Borrell’s earlier statement asserting that all opportunities for compromise had been exhausted in the process of producing the current draft.

More clarity may be forthcoming on this issue after the US finishes reviewing Iran’s response and preparing its own – something that Borrell has said he expects to happen this week. Borrell also stated that all other parties to the JCPOA have already agreed to the proposed revival. But for that matter, US officials verbally signaled agreement with the EU’s “final text” before Iran even provided its response. If there are any outstanding questions about the US’s commitment to the agreement, they presumably stem from actual or proposed changes, which still have the potential to either derail the agreement or for the negotiating process to stretch past the 17-month mark.

Alejo Vidal-Quadras

Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a Spanish professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is currently president of the Brussels-based International Committee in Search of Justice (ISJ)