March 05, 2017
‌By Peyman Pejman

Iran’s recent announcement of the purchase of uranium ore from Kazakhstan, and the attendance of a large Iranian delegation at the two-day conference on international nuclear cooperation, sponsored by the European Union, have once again raised questions about the future of, and possible modification to, the nuclear agreement. The deal was signed in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1, United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany.

The Brussels meeting this week (Feb 28-March 1, 2017) headlined “International Nuclear Cooperation: Expectations and Responsibilities” also comes amid suggestions from various quarters that both the United States and Iran might favor some level of modification to the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

For its part, the Trump administration is said to be finalizing its overall Iran policy, a process which included meetings in Washington on Thursday with Yukiya Amano, head of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency.

In her opening remarks at the EU conference, Helga Schmid, Secretary-General of the European External Action Service, stressed the important role of civilian nuclear cooperation for the successful implementation of the JCPOA.

According to an EU press communique, “in a message transmitted on behalf of Ali Akbar Salehi, vice‑president of Iran and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, it was emphasized that the proactive framework for nuclear cooperation, established by the JCPOA, ranging from research and development to nuclear safety, promises a bright future for further cooperation in different peaceful nuclear fields.”

Whether the timing of Salehi’s comments were calculated or not, they came days after Tehran announced plans to buy 950 tons of uranium ore from Kazakhstan over three years to produce nuclear fuel, with Russia’s help.

“About 650 tons is to be delivered in two shipments over two years, and 300 tons during the third year, and this shipment is to be returned to Kazakhstan (after enrichment),” Salehi told the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) last week.

Meanwhile, there are suggestions that both Tehran and Washington might favor renegotiating some parts of last year’s nuclear agreement, a possibility that while agreeable to some, is objectionable to others. Each country will push its own agenda and will present a different path to compromise.

President Donald Trump vigorously criticized the nuclear deal while he was on the campaign trail, calling it “the worst deal ever.” But he softened his tone during the campaign saying he would “take a look at it,” instead of declaring a unilateral withdrawal. He has made no reference to such action since taking office.

Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), says both Iran and the United States could benefit from renegotiating some aspects of the nuclear deal. ICG identifies itself as “ an independent organization working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world.” Vaez argues that Iran has not benefited greatly from the lifting of sanctions, as provisioned in the nuclear deal, in part because many European and international banks continue to shy away from dealing with Iran.

“Iran still lacks normal international banking ties as major financial institutions dally. The country has effectively been prevented from reintegration into the global economy, dashing inflated public expectations of rapid economic recovery,” Vaez wrote in an article for the Foreign Affairs magazine. As for the United States, he argued, “In amending the accord, the United States could either strengthen some of the nuclear-related provisions, or introduce non-nuclear ones, in return for rolling back the U.S. primary embargo, which since the 1980s has broadly prohibited U.S. persons from engaging in transactions with Iran, due its support of militant groups in the Levant.”

Vaez seems comfortable that Iran would want to renegotiate. “A senior Iranian official recently told me that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, by criticizing Iranian envoys in November 2016 for having overlooked important details during the talks, may have meant to open the door to re-negotiating the accord,” he wrote in the Foreign Affairs article.

For its part, the United States might also see benefits in modifying the nuclear deal, even though the ultimate goal might be much broader than dealing with the JCPOA.

“The strategy is really to increase the pressure to target the regime’s malign activities within the region, support for terrorism, missile activities, human rights activities and then we’ll see if the regime wants to come back to the table to re-negotiate the JCPOA to address fundamental flaws of the original agreement,” said Mark Dubowitz, Chief Executive Officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based foreign policy and national security shop.

To get there, Dubowitz says, “In a short period you’ll see the sanctions legislation coming out of Congress, in the coming week or two. Both the House and the Senate are heavily focused on Iran’s missile program. There would be a significant ratcheting up of the pressure.” 

If the tactic works, Vaez says the Trump administration can negotiate to “lengthen time frames for restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity (now set to fade away starting in 2024), or on its ability to reprocess plutonium (that will sunset in 2030), in return for terminating restrictions on third party investments in Iran’s energy infrastructure and lifting the ban on the country’s access to the U.S. financial system for trade.”

If the White House and Congress have chosen to force Iran back to the negotiating table through increased pressure, Iran might choose to increase the proverbial poker bet its own way by attempting to drive a wedge between Washington and its European allies and by increasing its own nuclear technical skills. Sending a high-level delegation to Brussels, and the Kazakhstan deal, may be two maneuvers in the execution of such tactics.

Knowing that Iran might return to the negotiating table with a stronger hand, despite increased sanctions, why not start new rounds of talks without threats of punishment?

“In a permissive environment where there is no response to the regime’s aggressions, the regime feels it has impunity.  Only in the face of this extreme pressure where there is a threat to the regime’s political survival, they would be willing to make compromises,” says Dubowitz.