By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
It is time for the European Union and the three European signatories of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to recognize that the agreement is beyond saving. The sooner they do that, the more quickly they will be able to formulate an alternative policy for holding Iran accountable for its escalating provocations and preventing the regime from making any further progress toward a nuclear weapon.
Iran has been fully out of compliance with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for nearly two years now. During that time, it has not only restored the levels of nuclear enrichment it achieved prior to the negotiations that led to the 2015 agreement, but it has also drastically exceeded those levels, enriching some uranium to 60 percent fissile purity and thus putting it only one short technical step away from the 90 percent that is needed for a nuclear warhead.
The Iranian regime has also created more and more roadblocks to the monitoring of that nuclear activity, very nearly ejecting inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency early this year, before striking a deal that allowed them to remain but removed their access to surveillance cameras and other monitoring equipment. The new Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran recently hinted at the effectiveness of these roadblocks by boasting that Iran had actually accumulated significantly more 20-percent enriched uranium than the IAEA estimated in its latest quarterly report.
Ineffectual temporary agreements between Iran and the IAEA are representative of the weak approach that Western powers have been taking to the nuclear issue since the start of Iran’s violations and especially since the presidential transition in Washington brought an end to the US strategy of “maximum pressure.” With the US and Europe now in alignment, the current strategy could rightly be described as “minimum pressure.” It entails no consequences for any of Iran’s actions in this area, whether new advancements in its nuclear program or just passive efforts to stall the resolution process and keep the JCPOA in limbo.
This week, the administration of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took a bold new step in that direction by announcing that instead of resuming talks on the restoration of the JCPOA in Vienna, the deal’s signatories would instead hold preliminary talks in Brussels for the purpose of setting the conditions for later talks in Vienna. European officials, including EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, have denied Iran’s announcement, but they have also downplayed its significance, leaving open the possibility that the Vienna negotiations might resume any day now.
Realistically, this will not happen any time soon. The Raisi administration has been responding to Western inquiries with only the vaguest reassurances since it took office in August. And even before then, the outgoing administration actively stalled plans for the next round of talks while reiterating the regime’s hardline position with respect to the United States. Raisi did the same on Monday in remarks on Iranian state television, saying, “We are serious about result-oriented negotiations…If Americans are serious, they should remove unjust sanctions on Iran.”
The US, which withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, has presented a number of options for the two countries to exchange concessions until both are back in full compliance with the agreement. Tehran has insisted, over and over again, that all sanctions must be suspended in advance before Iran even enters into negotiations that would supposedly facilitate the reversal of the many nuclear advancements the country has made over the past two years. Even Rafael Grossi, the IAEA Head and the author of multiple temporary agreements with the Iranian regime, has rejected this prospect, noting that “Iran has accumulated knowledge, has accumulated centrifuges and has accumulated material,” all of which make the simple restoration of the prior agreement an unworkable solution.
It is very clear that the simple restoration of the prior agreement is the absolute best outcome that Western powers are currently anticipating. The likelier outcome is that Iran will continue to draw out the negotiating process indefinitely, announcing talks and conditions for talks before other preliminary talks, while steadily advancing its nuclear capabilities and narrowing the window for its breakout to a nuclear weapon. The preferable outcome, of course, is that the international community publicly recognizes Tehran’s obvious deceptions, finally allows the permanent collapse of the JCPOA, and once again begins exerting serious pressure on the regime pending another, much farther-reaching and more effective agreement.
Unfortunately, Josep Borrell has preemptively disregarded any possible change in strategy and has continued to hang all of the EU’s hopes on a set of negotiations that appear to be drifting farther and farther away. “I don’t want to think about Plan Bs,” he said last week, “because no Plan B that I could imagine would be a good one.”
What Borrell and his fellow European policymakers must recognize, though, is that any Plan B will be much more palatable if it is decided in advance by a unified Western world, as opposed to being cobbled together as a matter of necessity after Iran reaches the very brink of nuclear weapons capability. The truth is that as long as the Iranian regime continues dictating when and under what circumstances the next round of nuclear negotiations will take place, the other negotiating powers are already living out Plan B, even if they don’t know it yet.
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)