Iran is in no hurry to revert to terms of 2015 nuclear deal

Confused? You’re not the only one. Trump’s firing of national security adviser John Bolton adds challenges for analysts assessing US foreign policy.
Saturday 14/09/2019
Spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation Behrouz Kamalvandi attends a news conference in Tehran. (AP)
A new process. Spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation Behrouz Kamalvandi attends a news conference in Tehran. (AP)

Iran’s decision to operate advanced centrifuges for enriching uranium is its most significant step yet outside the 2015 nuclear deal. Yet it was followed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirming that, while the United States would continue its “maximum-pressure campaign,” US President Donald Trump was ready to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rohani “with no preconditions” during the UN General Assembly.

Confused? You’re not the only one. Trump’s firing of national security adviser John Bolton, an advocate of “regime change” in Iran, adds challenges for analysts assessing US foreign policy.

Sir Richard Dalton, former UK ambassador to Iran, said a basis for US-Iran progress in talks existed but required compromises. “All Iran’s moves are minor in non-proliferation terms and… reversible,” he said. An immediate obstacle, Dalton continued, might well be Trump’s unwillingness to give Tehran “oil-sale waivers in return for Iran undoing its non-observance of some of the [nuclear] limits.”

Dalton is sceptical that Trump, even without Bolton, can conjure up with Iran a quick foreign policy breakthrough to rescue his presidency. “Neither Tehran nor Washington is in a hurry to try a new tack. They have not given up on their underlying positions,” Dalton said. “Trump would like a meeting with Rohani but not enough for him to change policy or annoy the Israeli government and their Republican allies.”

Another problem is that, the longer negotiations are delayed, the further Iran’s starting points and red lines will shift. While the Iranian nuclear programme is nowhere near its scale before the nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it is expanding.

On Trump’s watch, Iran has moved beyond the JCPOA in several areas: It has expanded its stockpile of low-enriched uranium beyond 300 kilograms and enriched beyond 3.67%. With more advanced centrifuges, which the JCPOA barred until 2026, Iran will edge towards capacity for 20% enrichment. Once at 20%, the centrifuges could ease any shift to the 90% enrichment required for a nuclear weapon.

While US sanctions have plunged the Iranian economy into recession, they have not led to its collapse nor to the uprisings predicted by Bolton. Iran’s official oil sales were down in July to around 400,000 barrels per day from 2.3 million before last year’s stringent US sanctions but sales of oil products — mainly fuel for power generation and liquefied petroleum gas — have barely fallen and are netting $500 million a month.

Tehran has also been fairly assertive militarily in the Arabian Gulf, where in June it shot down a US drone with relative impunity. Tehran still holds the British tanker Stena Impero, seized near Hormuz in July under the nose of the British Royal Navy. Iran has confirmed the sale — presumably to Syria — of the 2.1 million barrels of oil aboard the Adrian Darya I, the tanker previously known as Grace I that Gibraltar’s authorities impounded July 4 and released August 18.

By the US presidential election of November 2020, Iran will have a more advanced atomic programme and an economy less dependent on oil. Washington’s “maximum pressure” may not have weakened Iran’s links with allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Yemen, while Trump’s continuing disengagement is likely to further boost Russia’s Middle Eastern role. The United Arab Emirates may continue discussions with Iran over maritime security and to resist US pressure over sanctions.

Changes in the wider region, all affecting Iran’s calculations, are afoot. Tehran’s relationship with the Palestinians may strengthen with the plan announced by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to annex 30% of the occupied West Bank if re-elected prime minister after the September 17 election.

Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz has said Riyadh wants to enrich uranium for its nuclear power programme, which is due for tender in 2020. Last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz warned that the Saudis would develop nuclear arms if Iran did. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said he could not accept Israel using nuclear weapons to “scare” other nations while Ankara, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, was barred from having them.

In all these circumstances, Iran will not simply revert to a nuclear agreement reached in 2015, even if JCPOA restrictions were due to continue until 2025 or 2030.

“I think we are looking at a whole new process of negotiations after Trump,” said Dalton, with Iran accepting a fresh multilateral process as the United States removed “many of their unilateral sanctions, especially on oil and finance.”

How different might it all look?

“Perhaps next time, an added reason to get an agreement will be the progress Saudi Arabia is making in nuclear matters,” said Dalton, “and maybe the penny will have dropped that Middle East insecurity needs to be tackled not just on an anti-Iran platform but across the Gulf region and by a group involving all concerned parties.”