Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

The Final Hurdle: How to Secure the Iran Nuclear Deal

| Nov. 12, 2022

Without the JCPOA restrictions in place, Iran's nuclear program will expand and continue to acquire irreversible technical knowledge and competencies.

Despite optimism that a breakthrough was imminent in the talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), indirect talks between Washington and Tehran have stalled again. While the parties disagree on the extent of sanctions relief and what legal and political mechanisms are necessary to ensure the revived agreement's durability, many observers consider Iran's insistence on the settlement of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) probe into its past nuclear activities as the main roadblock to the restoration of the nuclear deal. American policymakers dismiss a premature closing of these investigations and insist that their continuation should not prevent a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. While disagreements between Iran and the United States seem irreconcilable, a better understanding of each party's sensitivities, pragmatism, and flexibility should enable a compromise to move forward.

Iran's call to close the IAEA investigations is largely rooted in the past record of JCPOA negotiations and implementation. In parallel with the conclusion of the nuclear talks in July 2015, Iran and the IAEA agreed on a roadmap to clarify outstanding issues on the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program. The roadmap was carried out within three months, as required by the JCPOA, and then IAEA director general Yukiya Amano issued a "final assessment" to the IAEA Board of Governors on December 2, 2015, wrapping up its long-running probe into this issue. The IAEA concluded that "the Agency has found no credible indications of the diversion of nuclear material in connection with the possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme,” while noting that Iran conducted some technical and feasibility studies relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device prior to the end of 2003. Upon receipt of the final assessment, the IAEA board issued a resolution, as called for by the JCPOA, noting the satisfactory conclusion of the roadmap and "closing" its consideration of this item.

Strictly speaking, while this resolution did not prevent the IAEA from conducting further investigations into Iran's nuclear program, should new safeguard issues arise, it created the expectation among Iranian officials that the IAEA had concluded its consideration of the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. The reopening of this issue in 2019, albeit under a new label, after Iran started to partially suspend some of its JCPOA commitments in retaliation for the Trump administration's May 2018 withdrawal from the deal has fueled suspicions in Tehran that the IAEA claims may be politicized. Iranian policymakers seem convinced that Western powers are trying to perpetuate claims of past or ongoing Iranian military nuclear activities to delegitimize and permanently restrain its nuclear program. As such, Tehran insists that the IAEA's outstanding inquiries be resolved and closed once and for all before it comes back into full compliance with its JCPOA commitments. The precedent of the JCPOA implementation and entry into force in late 2015 and early 2016 has also fed into Iranian expectations. The fact that the JCPOA entered into force after the IAEA had closed its consideration of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program provides a legal basis for Tehran to demand that the same procedure be used to revive the JCPOA....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bayyenat, Abolghasem.“The Final Hurdle: How to Secure the Iran Nuclear Deal.” The National Interest, November 12, 2022.

The Author

Abolghasem Bayyenat