Although the Biden administration committed to re-entering a nuclear deal that would be longer and stronger than the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) put into place in 2015, senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) Richard Goldberg said “the deal under consideration is shorter and weaker.” 

After months of indirect negotiations between American, European and Iranian diplomats, the proposed framework differs from that of the JCPOA on four key principles: breakout time, nuclear restrictions, a cap on uranium enrichment capabilities and international sanctions. 

Reduced Breakout Time

The 2015 JCPOA claimed to put Tehran’s breakout time—the time required to enrich fissile material to the level required to construct a bomb—a year away for at least a decade. In championing the benefits of the JCPOA, then-President Barack Obama claimed that a key gain was “13,14,15 years assurances that the breakout is at least a year.” 

Under the new deal, however, the JCPOA’s terms permitting Iran to retain its advanced centrifuges would carry over, meaning that Tehran’s breakout time would be significantly reduced because the sunset clauses have not changed since the 2015 deal.

In an Aug. 26 conversation with president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America Michael Makovsky, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer explained that “the deal is so bad because it has these sunset clauses, clauses by which the restrictions expire, and Iran then has no restrictions on its nuclear program.” Because the new deal fails to extend these clauses, the timeline has not moved, said Dermer. He noted that “restrictions on Iran’s ballistic-missile program are set to conclude next year.”

JINSA says the new breakout time would be 4.8 to 6.5 months until early 2026. According to JINSA’s vice president for policy Blaise Misztal and director of foreign policy Jonathan Ruhe, “a new deal will be twice as bad as the original JCPOA, delaying Iran’s nuclear program by only half as much and for only half as long.” 

The concern, according to Misztal and Ruhe, is that low breakout times could “challenge the ability of the U.S. and its partners to detect and effectively respond to any Iranian attempt to sprint for a bomb.”

Shorter Nuclear Restrictions

The 2015 JCPOA established clear nuclear restrictions, including a ballistic-missile embargo by the U.N. Security Council (UNSC); restrictions on Iranian attempts to build advanced centrifuges and use them to enrich fissile material; UNSC sanctions on Iran and restrictions on the size and enrichment levels of Iran’s nuclear stockpiles.

Under the proposed framework in Vienna, these restrictions and sanctions would not be “reset,” meaning the sunset clauses are set to expire next year. In highlighting the threat posed by the current frameworks’ failure to extend the aforementioned sunset clauses, Goldberg argued, “Iran’s concealment of undeclared nuclear sites will be ignored, advanced centrifuges will be kept in storage, and Tehran will maintain the capability to race to nuclear weapons at any time of its choosing.”

Shorter Cap on Enrichment Capacity

The JCPOA capped the number and type of centrifuges that Iran would be able to use to enrich uranium for at least 11 years. Because the proposed new deal would fail to reset the sunset clauses of the 2015 JCPOA, restrictions on the number and types of centrifuges that Tehran can use to enrich uranium would begin to lapse in two years, according to JINSA. 

Misztal and Ruhe state that the new deal contains “significant concessions that will enable Iran to quickly rebuild and expand its enrichment program in the coming years.” Among these concessions are allowing Iran to store 5060 IR-1 centrifuges, rather than destroying or shipping them out, and permitting Iran to start building more advanced centrifuges by 2024. 

However, due to repeated obstruction of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), not much is known about Iran’s timeframe for installing these advanced centrifuges. This lack of transparency was highlighted by IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi in direct reference to policymakers in Tehran, who said “give us the necessary answers, people and places so we can clarify the many things needed for clarification.” 

Weaker Sanctions

Although the JCPOA sought to lift economic sanctions on key industries in Iran, the proposed framework in Vienna goes much farther, lifting terrorism and human-rights sanctions that were put in place after the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal. 

Like the 2015 deal, the proposed agreement would lift sanctions on the Iranian energy industry, banking, finance, insurance, transportation, shipping, mining, metals and ports, including targeted sanctions against top Iranian officials. Unlike the 2015 deal, the new agreement would lift sanctions on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s personal funds, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other political institutions contributing to egregious human-rights violations and terrorism, though the IRGC is likely to remain listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department. 

In discussing the implications of a possible revival of the JCPOA under the proposed framework, Goldberg said “Iran will be getting more sanctions relief than it did under the last deal—$275 billion in year one and $1 trillion by 2030.”

The parties seem to be close to a breakthrough. While some issues remain, mainly Tehran’s insistence that the IAEA shut down a probe investigating uranium traces found at undeclared nuclear research sites, the White House has voiced careful optimism. National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby stated, “We do believe we’re closer now than we had been in certain recent weeks and months.”

A similar attitude was taken by Russia’s ambassador to the Vienna talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, who said: “We stand five minutes or five seconds from the finish line.”


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