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‘Biden is playing for time on Iran’s nuclear program’

Washington’s emerging nuclear agreement with Iran is deeply flawed and seeks mainly to put the matter on ice until after the November elections, experts tell JNS.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reviews new nuclear achievements during the country’s National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran, April 10, 2021. Credit: Iranian Presidency Office.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reviews new nuclear achievements during the country’s National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran, April 10, 2021. Credit: Iranian Presidency Office.
Amichai Stein

While the Biden administration is denying it, the fact is that in recent weeks the United States and Iran have been holding indirect talks regarding Tehran’s nuclear program.

According to U.S. officials and Western diplomats, in the weeks and months after the unofficial death of attempts to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement, the Biden administration conducted several “what’s next” meetings. What emerged from these meetings was the idea of a new kind of a nuclear deal, one based on “freezing” Iran’s nuclear program, not halting or reversing it.

“This is an agreement designed to pause the current situation,” said Gabriel Noronha, former U.S. State Department adviser on Iran and now a Jewish Institute for National Security of America Fellow. “It’s just a statement: It’s impossible to continue on the path we’re going down,” he added.

So what will the agreement contain? Based on the few details to have emerged so far, Iran, for its part, will agree to stop enriching uranium to 60%. In return, the United States will unfreeze billions of Iranian dollars. Some reports claim that Iran will also be allowed to increase its oil exports.

One obvious problem with such an agreement, according to Israel’s former national security adviser Eyal Hulata, is that it doesn’t actually freeze uranium enrichment.

“In this agreement, according to the reports, there is a break in the accumulation of high-enriched material, but Iran can continue the accumulation of low-enriched [20%] material,” he told JNS.

Such an agreement would not extend Iran’s break-out time to a bomb, he explained.

“So the danger that the U.S. administration warned about—a short break-out time, that will allow them [Iran] to enrich enough weapons- grade uranium [90%] for one nuclear bomb in two weeks—still remains,” he said.

But the greatest flaw of such an agreement, he added, was that “time doesn’t stop.”

Hulata, currently a senior international fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, went on to explain that the arms embargo on the Islamic Republic is set to end in October, while after 2025, the “sunset clause” in the JCPOA will be triggered, lifting various restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.

“From the Israeli point of view, [under such an agreement] the ball remains in Iran’s court. Break-out time remains short. Iran’s nuclear infrastructure remains intact, and the clock continues to tick towards the end of the sanctions,” he said.

Former State Department adviser on Iran Gabriel Noronha also criticized the emerging agreement.

“Ultimately, there is no change in the amount of enriched uranium held by Iran, there is no change in the [nuclear] program itself. They will still be able to secretly conduct weapons experiments. Iran will receive a lot of money—and then in another month it will be able to violate the agreement,” he said.

An end run around Congress

Setting aside the question of what the agreement will consist of, there remains the question of whether it will actually be an agreement at all.

Western diplomats and a U.S. official told JNS that whatever its details, the agreement will be a verbal one, with no documents signed. The reason for this, they said, is that the Biden administration is seeking to bypass the need for congressional approval.

As an example of how hard receiving such approval might be, a letter sent to President Biden this week, warning against the administration’s approach to Iran and demanding a much more aggressive approach, was signed by 26 senators—11 of them Democrats.

“The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act says that any agreement in any form—as long as it is related to the Iranian nuclear program—must be voted on by Congress,” said Noronha. “But the administration is trying to create an ‘understanding’ between the parties,” without a signed document. This is a complete violation of that law.”

According to Hulata, “what the Americans are actually doing is freezing the situation until the U.S. elections next November.”

Israel realized during the Bennett-Lapid government’s term that Iran had dropped down the U.S. list of priorities, he said, “and this was even before the war in Ukraine.”

However, he continued, “that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about Israel’s national security, and that is why we insisted that Biden sign the Jerusalem Declaration that says Israel has the right to defend itself.”

Israel shifts from prevention to mitigation

In recent days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to “downgrade” the agreement.

Israeli officials told JNS that Israel’s current view is that Washington has decided to cut a deal with Iran and that Jerusalem’s chances of stopping it are somewhere “between slim and zero.”

This is likely the reason Netanyahu has changed tack, attempting to influence the terms of the agreement instead of attacking it outright; he doesn’t want it to be seen as his failure if the deal goes ahead.

Which way will Iran jump?

But the big question, the answer to which will ultimately decide whether or not an agreement is reached, is simply whether or not Iran will say “yes.”

“Iran is still open to reaching a deal with the West over its nuclear program,” said Sina Toossi, an Iran expert and nonresident fellow at the Center for International Policy.

“The country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has backed a diplomatic agreement, as long as it does not undermine Iran’s nuclear capabilities or its national pride,” Toossi told JNS.

“Khamenei said there is nothing wrong with an agreement with the West if it benefits Iran’s interests and sovereignty. He explicitly used the term ‘flexibility,’ which he had also used before the original nuclear deal in 2015,” he said.

While in a recent speech, Khamenei said that the country’s nuclear capabilities must not be compromised, he has not specified what he means by “nuclear capabilities.” However, comments by other Iranian officials suggest that Iran will seek to keep its more advanced centrifuges and stockpiles of enriched uranium.

However, the lure of sanctions relief is a strong one, according to Toossi.

“Although sanctions relief and unfreezing of assets alone may not entirely rectify the deep-rooted issues in Iran’s economic and governance structures, it can indeed provide a much-needed lifeline and some respite to the country’s flailing economy and its most vulnerable people,” he said. “Furthermore, sanctions relief could allow Iran to reestablish key economic and trade ties and attract foreign investments,” he added.

The question is: Will those economic benefits be enough to convince Iran to accept the U.S. offer?

Amichai Stein is the diplomatic correspondent for Kan 11, IPBC.

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