The last few weeks have witnessed an active diplomatic movement between Tehran and Western countries, especially the United States, regarding resolving the crisis of Iran’s nuclear program. Current diplomatic efforts appear to be limited to achieving an interim or limited agreement, without a full return to the 2015 agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). According to US media, the agreement currently on the table includes fewer restrictions than in the 2015 agreement, and may include restricting Iranian arms exports to Russia, in exchange for easing US economic sanctions on Iran and not working against it in international institutions.
Negotiations aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal ended in failure in the fall of 2022. The most important point of contention between the United States and Iran was the latter’s refusal to return to the uranium enrichment rate set by the 2015 nuclear deal at 3.67 percent, which it raised to 60 percent, on the grounds that it was the United States that violated the terms of the JCPOA by withdrawing from it in 2018 and reimposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic. To Washington, this 60 percent ratio in theory reduces the so-called “breakthrough” period for a nuclear weapon to a period of just one year to a few weeks. Iran is also demanding that Its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) be removed from the list of foreign terrorist organizations. The former Trump administration designated it a terrorist organization in 2019 in order to complicate any future administration’s ability to revive the nuclear deal.
In addition, Iran is demanding guarantees from Washington that no new administration would withdraw from the new agreement in the future or impose new sanctions on it. The Biden administration insists it cannot fulfill this demand since the nuclear deal is not a binding “treaty” for any future administration; and treaty approval requires US Senate approval, which is not possible under the current composition of the chamber. Thus, an executive decision of one president is reversible by a future president.
Diplomatic communication between Washington and Tehran resumed at the end of 2022, specifically between the US special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, and Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Amir Saeid Iravani who held several meetings since then. However, these contacts took on a more urgent character after a drone attack on a US military base in Syria in March 2023 which killed an American contractor. The United States blamed Iranian-affiliated militias for the attack, and responded with an airstrike on an Iranian facility in Syria that killed several of its personnel. American sources say Iran then sent letters to the Biden administration, expressing its desire for talks to prevent escalation. Since then, two meetings have been held in Oman,1 between Iranian negotiators and the Middle East official at the National Security Council, Brett McGurk, in which the talks went beyond merely discussing de-escalation modalities between the two sides to include other matters such as Iran’s nuclear program, sanctions, Tehran’s support for Russia in the Ukraine war, and prisoner exchanges.
American and Iranian negotiators believe that returning to the 2015 nuclear deal is practically impossible; Iran currently operates more advanced centrifuge systems than the JCPOA allowed it, and enriches uranium to high degrees (60 percent) that bring it closer to the percentage that would enable it to build a nuclear bomb (90 percent).2 It has no intention of giving up these gains. In contrast, the Biden administration does not want to enter into a confrontation with Congress by lifting sanctions on Iran, without major concessions that Tehran does not seem ready for. Congress passed a bipartisan law after the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, titled the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), which gave it the right to control how the United States implements the agreement, although this law is subject to a two-thirds majority.3 But at the same time, Iran is seeking to avoid a confrontation with the United States, especially with its threat that Tehran’s 90 percent uranium enrichment will require an American response, which may include military action.4
This is why a reasonable way out would be a limited or interim agreement, in the form of specific understandings and mutual confidence-building measures, rather than reviving the original nuclear agreement.5 US President Joe Biden is trying to avoid an escalation in the Middle East because he does not want a crisis with Iran ahead of the 2024 presidential election, especially as he faces the challenges of the Russian war in Ukraine and escalating tension with China over Taiwan. His administration believes that the popular protests in Iran over the past months have not weakened the regime, and Tehran’s normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates strengthens its position in the region and makes it difficult to isolate.6 Washington also hopes that Tehran will withdraw its support for Moscow in its war in Ukraine with ballistic missiles and drones, in exchange for the economic benefits it will reap if US sanctions were eased.7
In the same vein, Tehran does not want to provoke the United States to the extent that it is forced to respond militarily against it, as it is already suffering the brunt of US economic sanctions and wants to end them. It needs to neutralize Washington in order to proceed with normalizing its relations with its Arab neighbors.8 Moreover, the conservatives who control the reins of power in Iran may have political calculations, as parliamentary elections will take place in 2024, and any easing of economic sanctions on the country may be a boon to them.9
General Outline of the Purported Agreement
Although Washington and Tehran have not announced an imminent agreement, general outlines are being circulated for a possible one, which can be summarized as follows:
- Iran commits not to enrich uranium beyond 60 percent, far more than the 2015 agreement, which set the limit at 3.67 percent. According to US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, enriching uranium at this rate (60 percent) means that Iran may need only “several months” to build a nuclear bomb. However, Israeli military estimates suggest that it may take Iran up to two years to achieve this, and that Milley’s statements may be aimed at giving Congress a sense of urgency to support a new agreement.10
- Iran expands its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and allows it to conduct strict inspections at its nuclear sites.11
- Iran stops attacks by its proxies in the region on US forces or American contractors, both civilian and military.12
- Iran refrains from supplying Russia with weapons, especially drones and ballistic missiles.13
- Iran releases three American businessmen of Iranian origin, whom it has arrested on espionage charges that the United States denies, and reveals the fate of a retired FBI officer, Robert Levinson, who later worked as a CIA contractor and disappeared in Iran under mysterious circumstances in 2007.14 Although US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described reports on the outlines of the agreement on “nuclear issues and detainees” as “not accurate,”15 and although the file of American detainees is technically being pursued through Switzerland, McGurk stressed during his talks with the Iranians, according to some leaks, that it is inconceivable to make progress on any issues between the two sides without the release of detainees and the disclosure of Levinson’s fate. In June 2023, Oman’s Foreign Minister Badr bin Hamad al-Busaidi confirmed that the two sides were “close” to reaching an agreement in this regard.16
- In return, the United States eases economic sanctions on Iran, stops confiscating tankers carrying its oil, and refrains from pushing the IAEA or the UN Security Council to take punitive measures against it.17
- The United States lifts the freeze on some of Iran’s money in international banks, provided that those funds go to third parties and are used for unsanctioned humanitarian purchases, such as food and medicine, a route used by India and others to pay for Iranian oil shipments. It was the Trump administration that imposed this mechanism, whereby money would be deposited in banks over which Tehran has no authority. The supposed deal also examines the fate of $7 billion in Iranian funds frozen in South Korea, and the US Treasury Department considers an arrangement whereby the money would be transferred to a US-monitored account in a third country. After that, Iran applies for funds to go to a “humanitarian organization” that secures purchases of food and medicine, with each transaction subject to individual approval from the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control without passing through the US or Iranian financial systems.18 In a sign of progress on this issue, Washington granted Iraq an exemption under which it was allowed to pay its gas and electricity debts to Iran, worth $2.76 billion.19
- The United States releases four Iranian detainees.20
There are indications that Washington and Tehran are moving toward a temporary or limited agreement dictated by necessity, without the ceiling of the 2015 agreement; but this does not mean that the agreement is assured. For example, the Vienna talks collapsed when the two sides appeared to have reached a “draft agreement”21 in March 2022. But this time, unlike the Vienna talks, the negotiations are not aimed at reviving the 2015 deal and returning the United States to it, as much as they focus on specific or temporary restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and the release of detainees and seized funds. This may explain the statements of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, in June 2023, when he said that there was “no harm” in reaching an agreement with the West on the condition that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is “preserved.”22 In addition, there is no strong regional opposition to a US-Iran agreement, as was the case in 2015, especially in light of the rapprochement between Iran and Arab states in the Gulf (Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular). Even Israel, which strongly opposed the JCPOA, is not showing the same level of resistance this time, partly because the limited agreement does not lift sanctions on Iran, and Benjamin Netanyahu does not have the influence he had eight years ago in Washington, especially in light of the Biden administration’s marginalization of him and the far-right government he leads, and the desire of many members of Congress to keep their distance from him for the same reason. This was evidenced by what US and Israeli sources explained was a rebuke last week by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan of his Israeli counterpart, Tzachi Hanegbi, in a phone call for deliberate leaks by Netanyahu to the media and US Republicans about the possible agreement with Iran, based on intelligence information shared by the United States and Israel.23
This article was first published in Arabic on July 10, 2023 by Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.
1 Karen DeYoung, Joby Warrick, and Steve Hendrix, “U.S. and Iran in Indirect Talks over Nuclear Program and Prisoners,” The Washington Post, June 20, 2023, at: https://bit.ly/43l8MMJ.
2 “IntelBrief: Iran and the United States Negotiating Understandings,” The Soufan Center, June 28, 2023, at: https://bit.ly/44yYBFl.
3 Patricia Zengerle and Arshad Mohammed, “Analysis: U.S. Congress May Squawk Over a New Iran Deal but Is Unlikely to Block It,” Reuters, February 17, 2022, at: https://bit.ly/43xUf0t.
4 Abbas Al Lawati and Mohammed Abdelbary, “Iranian-Western Talks Have Resumed. Here’s what that Means,” CNN, June 28, 2023, at: https://bit.ly/44wTPJ3.
5 Trita Parsi, “An Unwritten Deal Is Exactly what Iran and America Need,” Foreign Policy, June 20, 2023, at: https://bit.ly/44A8AKp.
7 “IntelBrief: Iran and the United States Negotiating Understandings.”
9 Al Lawati and Mohammed Abdelbary.
10 Michael Crowley, Farnaz Fassihi, and Ronen Bergman, “Hoping to Avert Nuclear Crisis, U.S. Seeks Informal Agreement with Iran,” The New York Times, June 14, 2023, at: https://bit.ly/3OgC2A9.
11 DeYoung, Warrick, and Hendrix.
14 DeYoung, Warrick, and Hendrix.
15 “Blinken: Reports of US Nuclear Deal with Iran ‘Not Accurate’,” VOX, June 16, 2023, at: https://bit.ly/3rsqfp2.
16 Elizabeth Hagedorn, “Oman FM Says US, Iran ‘Close’ on Prisoner Deal,” Al-Monitor, June 14, 2023, at: https://bit.ly/44A4sua.
18 DeYoung, Warrick, and Hendrix.
19 “Iraq to Pay $2.76 Billion in Gas and Electricity Debt to Iran,” Reuters, June 10, 2023, at: https://bit.ly/46KfnDd.
20 Barak Ravid, “Scoop: U.S. and Iran Held Indirect Talks in Oman in May,” AXIOS, June 9, 2023, at: https://bit.ly/3JRqSPD.
21 Karen DeYoung, “Experts Urge Return to Iran Nuclear Deal as Prospects Dim,” The Washington Post, April 21, 2022, at: https://bit.ly/3D6XPnm.
22 Parisa Hafezi, “Iran’s Khamenei Says ‘Nothing Wrong’ with a Nuclear Deal with West,” Reuters, June 11, 2023, at: https://bit.ly/3NRzUNQ.
23 Barak Ravid, “Scoop: White House Expressed Concern that Israel is Leaking Info on Indirect Iran Talks,” AXIOS, June 28, 2023, at: https://bit.ly/3pK32OP.