Can the EU save the Iran nuclear deal?

Amid Israel's sharp rhetoric, Josep Borrell's initiative to break the deadlock is a welcome development

Iran's Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and the EU's Josep Borrell talk after a joint news conference in Tehran last month. Reuters
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This week’s dramatic appeal by the EU’s leading diplomat for negotiators to make a last-ditch effort to save the Iran nuclear deal reflects the dangerous impasse that has developed over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Fifteen months after negotiations resumed in Vienna to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 deal agreed between Iran and the world's major powers, the prospects of a new agreement appear exceedingly remote.

In the early stages of the negotiations, hopes were raised that a new agreement was indeed feasible, to the extent that, back in March, Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, claimed at the Doha Forum that world powers were “very close” to sealing a deal.

Looking back, that was undoubtedly the high point of expectations regarding the JCPOA. Since then, the talks have stalled over a number of issues unconnected with the central goal of the negotiations – to limit Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons, which numerous western intelligence agencies believe has been a long-standing goal of the Iranian regime.

Tehran’s insistence on introducing issues extraneous to the nuclear programme, such as the removal of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from Washington’s list of designated terrorist groups, meant valuable time was lost, to the extent that even the Biden administration, which has invested so much political capital in reviving the JCPOA, is openly questioning whether a new agreement is feasible. Arguably the most sobering remark regarding the talks came from Robert Malley, the lead US negotiator, when he said: “You can’t revive a dead corpse.”

Despite the deepening gloom among western negotiators, Mr Borrell still insists that a new agreement is possible, as long as all the sides accept that there is little prospect of further compromises being reached.

It is difficult to assess whether the negotiations will move forward, or this is yet another delaying exercise by Iran

In a letter published in London’s Financial Times this week that was jointly signed with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Mr Borrell said he was launching an initiative aimed at breaking the deadlock over a deal that, if passed, will ease economic sanctions against Iran, one of Tehran’s key requirements.

Following a visit to Iran last month, where Mr Borrell had “long but positive” talks with Mr Amir-Abdollahian and other Iranian officials, the EU diplomat is keen to restore indirect talks between Tehran and Washington. To this end, he has drafted a text that he believes could lead to the resumption of negotiations.

“This text represents the best possible deal that I, as facilitator of the negotiations, see as feasible. It is not a perfect agreement, but it addresses all essential elements and includes hard-won compromises by all sides,” he wrote. “Decisions need to be taken now,” he warned, adding that he sees “no other comprehensive or effective alternative within reach”.

Mr Borrell’s initiative prompted a cautious response from Tehran, where Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, posted in a tweet that his government has its own ideas to conclude the negotiations “both in substance and form".

As neither side has given precise details of the proposals on offer, it is difficult to assess whether there is a realistic chance of the negotiations moving forward, or whether this is yet another delaying exercise by Iran to prolong the negotiating process while it continues work on developing its nuclear technology.

Despite its involvement in the Vienna talks, Iran has intensified its nuclear activities in recent months, especially in the controversial area of uranium enrichment, where it is believed to be close to acquiring sufficient quantities of material for a bomb.

The extent of Iran's progress was revealed this month when Kamal Kharazi, a former foreign minister and key adviser to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made a startling claim about Tehran’s ability to enrich uranium to the 90 per cent level required for making nuclear warheads. "In a few days, we were able to enrich uranium up to 60 per cent and we can easily produce 90 per cent enriched uranium … Iran has the technical means to produce a nuclear bomb, but there has been no decision by Iran to build one," Mr Kharazi said.

This statement, together with warnings issued by UN inspectors, has led to heightened concerns.

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has been particularly critical of Iran’s conduct after officials removed 27 cameras operated by the agency to monitor Iran's enrichment programme. Mr Grossi said this meant that the IAEA had “limited visibility” on a programme that was “galloping ahead”. He also warned that Iran’s recent actions made it a great deal more difficult to revive the JCPOA. “It is not impossible, but it is going to require a very complex task and perhaps some specific agreements,” Mr Grossi said.

Tehran's progress has certainly attracted the attention of Israel’s security establishment, which makes no secret of its desire to prevent the Iranian regime from ever acquiring nuclear weapons that could be used to threaten the existence of the Jewish state. Speaking at a conference in Jerusalem this week, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz claimed that his country has the ability to "seriously harm and delay the nuclear [programme].”

Given the catastrophic consequences any military confrontation between Israel and Iran would have for the rest of the Middle East, any attempt to resolve the issue, such as the draft text Mr Borrell has proposed, needs to be treated with the utmost seriousness by all the parties involved.

Published: July 28, 2022, 2:00 PM