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Experts urge return to Iran nuclear deal as prospects dim

Enrique Mora, the European Union's coordinator for nuclear talks, left, and Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, in Tehran on March 27. (Iranian Foreign Ministry/AFP/Getty Images)
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A group of 40 former government officials and leading nonproliferation experts have urged President Biden to successfully complete negotiations for a return to the nuclear deal with Iran, warning that Tehran is a week or two away from producing sufficient weapons-grade uranium to fuel a bomb.

In a statement to be released Thursday, the experts said failure to reverse the policies of the Trump administration, which withdrew from the agreement between world powers and Iran in 2018, would be “irresponsible” and “would increase the danger that Iran would become a threshold nuclear-weapon state.”

All sides in the negotiations are expressing increasing pessimism that a new agreement can be reached to restart the 2015 deal, under which Iran sharply limited its nuclear program and submitted to strict international verification in exchange for the lifting of U.S. and international sanctions.

Following his withdrawal from the agreement in 2018, President Donald Trump reinstated the sanctions and imposed even more, and Iran increased its uranium enrichment far beyond the agreed limits. Biden promised to return to the agreement, and negotiations started last April.

After the past year of talks, during which Iran and the United States have negotiated indirectly through the European parties to the deal, the two sides have agreed to a draft text but have been unable to bridge a final gap that has nothing to do with the nuclear agreement itself. Iran has revived an early demand that the United States lift its foreign terrorist designation against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a concession that Biden’s advisers say would be politically untenable.

While negotiations have not been formally broken off, they have been suspended since last month, while European Union officials, who have been coordinating the talks, have tried without success to find a compromise.

Those efforts have focused on persuading the United States to offer a partial lifting of the IRGC designation and urging Tehran to reciprocate with concessions on areas of U.S. concern outside the parameters of the nuclear deal, which include Iran’s support for foreign proxy militias and its ballistic missile program.

Virtually all Republican lawmakers and many Democrats have voiced opposition to any deal with Iran, disapproval that has escalated with reports that the administration has considered lifting the IRGC terrorist designation. Inside the administration, there is widespread agreement on the dangers of not renewing the agreement, but significant differences over whether the nuclear risk outweighs the political minefield.

Proponents of even considering removing the designation argue that it would be largely symbolic because the IRGC would remain under many other sanctions.

The experts’ statement does not directly mention the terrorist designation but notes that “some in Congress are threatening to block” implementation of “steps necessary to bring Iran back under the nuclear limits set by the JCPOA,” or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is formally known.

It argues that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctioning Iran, which he said was intended to achieve a “better” or “more comprehensive deal,” “not only failed to produce the promised results; it also opened the way for Iran to take steps to breach the JCPOA’s nuclear limits and accelerate its capacity to produce bomb-grade nuclear material.”

As a result, it said, “it is now estimated that the time it would take Iran to produce a significant quantity (25kg) of bomb-grade uranium … is down from more than a year under the JCPOA to approximately one or two weeks today.”

Signers of the statement include current and former officials of the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, the Arms Control Association, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Ploughshares Fund and former U.S. and European diplomats and academic experts.

correction

An earlier version of this article misidentified Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. This version has been corrected.

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