Tehran, Iran – Iran and the United States look like they are once again far away from an agreement on restoring their 2015 nuclear deal, despite recent hopes that more than 17 months of negotiations were finally heading towards a positive conclusion.
Instead, things have not moved forward since Tehran handed over its latest response to a European proposal two weeks ago, which was poorly received by the Western parties to the accord.
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There has been no indication that the US will officially respond to Iran’s comments soon, strengthening odds that potential progress in the talks will be postponed at least until after the US midterm elections in November.
So what is stopping things from moving forward?
It appears that a few issues continue to cause problems, the most important of which is a disagreement over a probe into Iran’s nuclear activities, and continued Israeli attempts to stop the restoration of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and which the US unilaterally abandoned in 2018.
What is behind the nuclear probe?
At the centre of the unresolved issues plaguing the deal are traces of old nuclear particles found at several Iranian sites, for which the global nuclear watchdog says it has received an insufficient explanation.
Iran, which maintains its nuclear activities are peaceful, has demanded that the “safeguards probe” into the nuclear traces by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) be closed before any agreement can be clinched.
Iran has also emphasised that the agency must not be influenced by political pressure from Israel and the West, while the IAEA has said the only way the probe can be closed is through full Iranian cooperation.
Two leaked confidential IAEA reports earlier this month said Iran has yet to fully cooperate on the issue, and has instead boosted its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, prompting the agency to say it was “not in a position to provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful”.
What are the stakes at the IAEA meetings?
The IAEA board of governors meeting began on Monday, with Iran on the agenda.
When the meetings last took place in June, a resolution tabled by the US, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, was passed, censuring Iran over its insufficient cooperation with the agency.
It prompted Iran to quickly dismantle IAEA cameras at nuclear sites covered by the JCPOA, making it even more complicated for the IAEA to keep an eye on Iranian nuclear activities if the JCPOA is revived.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani warned that Iran’s reaction depends on what happens during the IAEA’s meetings this week and the agency’s future moves.
But another censure resolution appears unlikely, at least during the September meetings.
Instead, the E3 – France, Germany and the United Kingdom – issued a joint statement last week that said the Iranian demand that the IAEA probe is shut down “raises serious doubts as to Iran’s intentions and commitment to a successful outcome on the JCPOA”.
What role is US domestic politics playing?
US Republicans and a number of Democrats have voiced opposition to a restored nuclear deal, as it would lift many sanctions imposed on Iran by former President Donald Trump.
They have also maintained that a restored JCPOA would pave the way for an Iranian nuclear bomb, even as the deal puts stringent curbs on Iran’s stockpiles and enrichment rates – albeit for limited time periods.
President Joe Biden appears more hesitant to act on the deal now as the midterm elections loom, as his administration continues to pile on the sanctions.
Last week, the US imposed new sanctions on Iran with the stated aims of curtailing its efforts to construct and export drones and punishing it for an alleged cyberattack against government entities in Albania.
Meanwhile, Israel remains the biggest opponent of the nuclear deal and has been actively trying to derail efforts towards an agreement.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said that Israel was “conducting a successful diplomatic drive to halt the nuclear deal”, shortly after Mossad chief David Barnea visited Washington for secret briefings with top US officials on Iran.
On Monday, in his first public speech, Barnea said that even if a deal was agreed upon, it would not give Iran protection from Mossad attacks.