Talks between Iran and other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) 2015/Iran Nuclear deal regarding the revival of the deal resumed in Vienna on November 29, 2021, after a hiatus of five months (the talks which began on April 2021 have been stalled since June 2021). The US has not been participating directly in these talks.
- The nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), had sought to scuttle the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.
- In 2018, the then American president Donald Trump had withdrawn unilaterally from the deal and also reimposed sanctions on Tehran.
- In response, Iran stopped implementing parts of its commitments to the deal, and also expanded its nuclear programme significantly.
The P5+1 Countries
- The P5+1 countries are a group of nations working together on the Iran Nuclear Deal.
- The countries include the five permanent members of the United Nations (U.N.) security council, with the addition of Germany. The U.N. security council consists of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
- The agreement is more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
- Although the deal remains in place, the United States withdrew from the deal in 2018.
The Biden administration vs New Iranian Government
- The Biden administration is ready to take necessary steps to revive the JCPOA, including removing sanctions, but it wants Iran to return to the agreement first.
- Iran wants the U.S. to remove all the sanctions first and give assurances that a future American leader would not renege on the promises as Mr Trump did.
- Ahead of the talks, Iran demanded immediate lifting of all US sanctions, as well as a guarantee that no future US president will unilaterally abandon the deal again.
- The United States says it will take all steps necessary to come back into compliance, but warns that the window of negotiations won’t be open forever.
What happened in the first meeting in Vienna?
- After the first meeting, Iran has agreed that the talks could resume largely where they had ended in June, rather than with an entirely new agenda.
- The sense of urgency in bringing back the JCPOA has been shown by other signatories as well.
What were the terms of the nuclear agreement?
- The 2015 agreement sought to cut Iran off a possible path to a nuclear bomb in return for the lifting of economic sanctions.
- Iran maintains that its nuclear programme is peaceful, a claim disputed by many international powers.
- At the time of the agreement, Iran had two nuclear enrichment plants— Natanz and Fordow — that were enriching uranium at a higher purity than what’s required for a civilian programme and had almost 20,000 centrifuges.
- Typically, low-enriched uranium, with less than 5% concentration of the fissile isotopes U-235, is used in nuclear power plants. While uranium with 20% and more purity is used in research reactors, the fuel with 90% purity is used in bombs. Centrifuges are used to enrich uranium.
- According to the 2015 deal, Iran agreed to cut its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98% to 300 kg and keep them at a low purity level of 3.67%.
- Restrictions were introduced on the number of centrifuges it could keep and Iran agreed to open all its facilities to the inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
- These measures meant that even if Iran reneged on the promises and decided to make a bomb, it would take at least one year (the breakout period) to manufacture enough highly enriched uranium and centrifuges to do so.
Where does Iran stand in Nuclear Progress?
- Iran has substantially stepped up its nuclear activities since 2019.
- It has installed more than 1,000 more advanced centrifuges at its plants, which can enrich uranium more quickly.
- Iran has also started enriching uranium to 20% purity or more, which is a technical step away from the weapons-grade level.
- In February, Iran scuttled the IAEA’s oversight of its nuclear sights but agreed to keep recording devices in place that would allow the agency to continue to monitor the plants.
- In recent months, Iran removed the IAEA camera from a factory in Karaj, outside Tehran, that makes equipment for centrifuges.
- According to some reports, the advances Iran made in its nuclear programme has reduced the current breakout time to as little as a month, from a year when the deal was alive.
Challenges in Vienna Talks
- In Vienna, the challenge is to find some common ground so that at least the process of reviving the deal can begin.
- Time is running out for all parties with Iran moving fast with its nuclear programme.
- Iran’s negotiating team in Vienna mostly consists of people with economic expertise, signalling the country’s main focus in the talks will be on lifting the crippling American sanctions.
- The larger question is ”Will these critical talks meet the expectations on reviving the 2015 deal and curtailing Iran’s nuclear programme?”
- It is important that president Biden does not make the same mistakes as Trump and does not compel Iran to become an appendage of China (imposition of further sanctions at a time when Iran’s economy is in the doldrums will only increase the Anti-US sentiment in Iran).
- It is also important that the US works closely with its allies on the Iran issue.
- France, Germany and UK should be playing a more proactive role in the revival of JCPOA and should not be quiet bystanders.
- Iran on its part also needs to demonstrate flexibility and pragmatism.
If successful, the talks will lift unilateral US sanctions while scaling back Iran’s nuclear programme. But differences in the two countries’ stances heading into the discussions cast doubt on the odds of success and were expected to prolong the talks.