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The Sticky Issues Holding Up a New Iran Nuclear Deal

Reviving a landmark agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program could pave the way for the US to lift sanctions and allow Iranian energy exports back onto world markets. The talks have been hampered by a lack of trust as well as Iranian demands that Washington guarantee economic returns from a new accord, and that international monitors curtail an investigation into Tehran’s past nuclear activities. 

1. What guarantees has Iran demanded? 

In 2018, former President Donald Trump’s administration unilaterally left the deal that had been agreed in 2015 and reimposed sanctions that severely reduced Iran’s oil exports. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told diplomats and defense officials at the Munich Security Conference in February that the world powers at the negotiating table must provide assurances that Iranians won’t be tricked into limiting their nuclear activities only to be trapped again under sanctions. Of the previous deal, he said, “It was the Americans who ruined it. It is now up to the Americans to resuscitate it.”

2. Are such assurances possible? 

US officials have scoffed at the idea that they can guarantee a future president won’t again leave the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Already, there is considerable opposition to reviving it in the US. More than 100 Republican members of Congress have pledged to oppose any sanctions relief for Iran by the administration of President Joe Biden, a Democrat. A bipartisan bill introduced in July would compel the US government to assess the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran every quarter. Division over the accord within the US has forced negotiators to try to come up with creative solutions that satisfy Iran’s requirements within Washington’s system of checks and balances. Recently, officials said the parties have made progress on specific indemnities that would guarantee Iran economic returns, even if a new US administration or act of Congress overturned the deal again. 

3. Where are Washington’s other red lines? 

Iran stopped demanding that sanctions be lifted against its elite militia group, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, after US negotiators insisted on retaining designations punishing the country for malign activities not linked to its nuclear program. The White House also needs to ensure that it doesn’t give Iran any concessions that fundamentally change the original deal. Doing so would invite a new round of Congressional scrutiny from skeptical legislators, who have vowed to invoke a 2015 law that requires the president to subject any new agreement with Iran for review. 

4. What’s the issue with Iran’s nuclear infrastructure?

World powers are anxious to seal a return to the deal because, in the absence of any constraints, Iran’s engineers have increased the country’s capacity to quickly enrich uranium to levels close to those that would be needed to make a nuclear weapon. The country has always maintained its atomic program is peaceful, but the 2015 deal was forged to verify that claim. Iran is now operating a higher number of advanced centrifuges -- machines spinning at supersonic speeds to separate uranium isotopes -- than permitted under the agreement, which only allowed operation of 5,060 first-generation devices. Under the terms of the original deal, Iran would have been able to partially assemble machines under international monitoring, only bringing completed units into service from 2025. 

5. What’s been proposed?

In the absence of full guarantees, Iran wants to leave its centrifuge advancements intact so that it can swiftly reverse course should the US again leave the accord. On this point, the US opened the door to compromise in February by waiving sanctions on civil nuclear cooperation with Iran. That paves the way for the Persian Gulf country to potentially ship the nuclear fuel and centrifuges to a friendly third country, with guarantees that the property would be returned should the agreement again be violated. Russia and Kazakhstan have emerged as potential facilitators, with the latter designated in the original agreement as a potential way station for Iranian nuclear fuel. However, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council suggested that Iran’s best course might be to keep the centrifuges sealed but intact, rather than dismantling them altogether. 

6. What’s the issue with nuclear monitors? 

A side-letter with the International Atomic Energy Agency before the original agreement paved the way for Iran to settle an onerous investigation into its previous nuclear activities. But after the Trump administration left the deal, new suspicions emerged. In the wake of an Israeli spy operation that smuggled documents out of Iran, the IAEA opened a new probe that detected traces of man-made uranium at several undeclared sites in Iran. It’s this issue that has now emerged as a potential spoiler to the negotiations. Iran has demanded the investigation end as part of a broader agreement. But countries negotiating with Iran can’t order the IAEA -- which operates as an independent auditor -- to wrap up its investigation prematurely. Parallel talks in search of a resolution have taken place, but so far without tangible results. 

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