This week, the informal Iran nuclear talks in Vienna faced new complications from an unlikely source: one of the individuals most responsible for keeping the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on life support since the US pulled out of the seven-party agreement in 2018. Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that Iran’s ongoing lack of transparency and its extensive violations of the JCPOA makes it difficult to regard the Iranian regime as credible or to accept the prospect of simply resuming enforcement of the existing agreement in the wake of the Vienna talks.
That return to the status quo was ostensibly the purpose of the latest discussions, which are being held between representatives of the Iranian regime and the six current participants in the JCPOA, while representatives of the United States remain positioned nearby to give and receive indirect communications through their European counterparts.
From the beginning, Iranian regime officials have made it clear that they expect the US to remove all economic sanctions. They have also emphasized that their representatives in Vienna will not entertain proposals for any new agreement, will not accept any change in the terms of the JCPOA, and will not discuss any matters other than the Iranian nuclear program and the associated sanctions. European negotiators have continually tried to portray the talks as having progressed toward a resolution, but there is still no indication of a change in Tehran’s position, so it is hard to see how that resolution might be achieved other than by giving the regime what it wants.
Grossi’s latest comments seem to indicate, quite rightly, that this should be a non-starter for Western powers. Furthermore, by calling attention to the Iranian regime’s pre-existing refusal to disclose certain details of its nuclear program, Grossi implied that this should have been the Western understanding since before the Vienna talks began.
After the JCPOA was implemented, new questions began to emerge about the scale and the specifics of the Iranian regime’s prior nuclear advancements. Eventually, the IAEA confirmed that activities involving nuclear material had taken place in at least three locations that were not disclosed to the international community before the nuclear deal was signed. The UN nuclear watchdog continued to press the Iranian regime for clarification both before and after the American withdrawal but has never received a satisfactory response. Meanwhile, the regime has never been held accountable for that deception by the other parties to the agreement.
Most of the individuals with direct influence over the JCPOA have appeared wary of antagonizing Iran over such matters, first out of fear that doing so might prompt the Iranian regime to violate the deal and later out of fear that it might prevent Iran from rejoining a deal it had already violated. Although Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China all remained committed to the JCPOA after the US pulled out, the Iranian regime ultimately responded by violating one provision after another, then formally abandoning every aspect of the agreement in early 2020.
At first, it looked as if this would finally be the thing that sparked a proactive response from European authorities, who initiated the JCPOA’s dispute resolution process and set the stage for the automatic re-imposition of all multilateral sanctions. However, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell then stepped forward to say that Europe was prepared to draw out the process indefinitely, leaving Iran free to continue its violations without consequence.
Prior to Grossi’s recent comments, practically no one other than the various longstanding critics of the JCPOA has pointed out how ill-advised this permissiveness is. But now that Grossi has spoken up, the agreement’s defenders may be forced to acknowledge their responsibility for the Iran regime’s nuclear program reaching new levels of advancement while the regime remained free from EU sanctions. As Grossi put it, “Iran has accumulated knowledge, has accumulated centrifuges, and has accumulated material.” And the implications of that accumulation are likely greater than anyone outside the regime knows since Tehran’s deceptiveness prevented the IAEA from ever establishing a baseline for the regime’s nuclear achievements prior to the JCPOA.
This lack of understanding needs to be rectified, and the Iranian regime’s latest advancements need to be reversed. But the problem is that from the moment talks resumed in Vienna until the present day, the Iranian regime, in a blackmail policy, has made it clear that it will never concede to any change under the current circumstances. This leaves Europe with virtually no option other than to let go of the JCPOA, apply new pressure to the Iranian regime, and start over with the goal of compelling the regime to accept a much more comprehensive and verifiable alternative agreement.