Analysis |

Temporary Nuclear Deal With Iran Buys Time for Biden, but Sets Bad Precedent

Biden is aware of the price and realizes that ultimately, he will be forced to make a difficult decision if he wants to to return to nuclear deal

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Biden in the State Dinning Room of the White House, earlier this month.
Biden in the State Dinning Room of the White House, earlier this month.Credit: Alex Brandon,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Let's be clear: there will be less supervision,” concluded Rafael Grossi, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, after a visit to Iran that was intended to curb Iran's threat to block all monitoring of their nuclear facilities.

Using cautious and vague language, Grossi defined the latest move as a “temporary and technical mutual agreement,” not an accord, but an agreement limited to three months, with each side permitted to renege on their agreement within that period. The agreement stipualtes that Iran will continue to operate special cameras installed by UN monitors, but the filmed material will remain in Iran without being transferred to the IAEA. Only when sanctions are lifted will the IAEA be able to view the material.

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The technical appendix of the agreement lists the installations that will continue to be observed and detailed what that observation will entail. Unannounced visits - an integral part of the monitoring system put in place as part of the 2015 nuclear deal - will not be permitted; however, Iran will also not demand the removal of IAEA monitors.

The new agreement will not prevent the continued enhanced enrichment of uranium that Iran began conducting more than a year ago, and will not prevent enrichment to values that exceed the levels set previously. Iran will not to return to the status quo prior to the accord while American sanctions are still in place. According to Iranian spokesmen, monitoring will now be at 70 percent of the level that had existed, a figure which Grossi did not comment on.

This agreement is intended to buy time for President Joe Biden to determine how to proceed with negotiations with Iran regarding the U.S. return to the nuclear accord. As there is limited transparency about Iran's nuclear activities, this agreement is also intended to prevent Iran from violating the previous accord even further, to a point that would be irreversible or be untenable for European states as well as the United States.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi walks during a meeting with head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali-Akbar Salehi, in Tehran on Sunday.Credit: Hadi Zand / WANA via Reuters

The monitoring agreement has introduced a concerning new precedent-setting aspect to negotiations with Iran: that even a signed and recognized accord is negotiable, and that its violation will not necessarily result in punitive measures. Even more serious than this, is the willingness of the United States to negotiate and sign agreements for some clauses of the accord, giving them temporary validity.

Opponents of these agreements could argue that Iran will be motivated to use their violations as leverage in negotiations, forcing the United States to renegotiate or make concessions for every clause in order to maintain the general accord. Opponents of the accord argue that the first violation should have been met by signatory states harshly, by a joint demand with the United States to re-impose sanctions on Iran. But this argument is a flimsy one.

Iran refrained from violating the accord for a whole year after the United States withdrew from it, and pressed European signatories to convince Trump to return to the nuclear accord. Every violation was publicly announced in advance, in order to pressure the United States to reverse its withdrawal. Similarly with the current agreement, Iran’s aim is to return to the nuclear accord and for sanctions to be lifted, not to terminate the monitoring process.

The question arises as to whether the monitoring agreement was sound. This violation could have been addressed alongside earlier violations, and an agreement reached on all of them in tandem, in exchange for lifting sanctions. After all, Iran has proven that it can violate the accord despite the monitoring system. The more violations Iran commits, the more politically difficult it will be to retreat from them, and the more complicated negotiations will become.

The current agreement also gives a good indication as to Iran’s intentions. If the intention of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was to undermine the accord, he could have used Iranian law to stop negotiations. Instead, he's demonstrated that he not only understands the need for the accord, but that he’s willing to renew negotiations with President Biden.

There is now a deadline for when the signatories to the accord, especially the United States, will have to present Iran with an acceptable concrete proposal that will stop the centrifuges and restore monitoring to the status quo. According to Iran there is only one acceptable solution: to unequivocally and immediately lift all sanctions. Iranian law stipulates that the government must terminate monitoring by February 21 if sanctions are not lifted.

Biden is aware of the price and realizes that ultimately, he will be forced to make a difficult decision if he wants to honor his commitment to return to the nuclear deal. He needs the time afforded by this temporary agreement in order to consult with his European partners and American advisers regarding the appropriate manner of lifting the sanctions, and how best to explain the renewed accord without appearing to have capitulated to Iran.

Biden didn’t ask for or cause this conflict, but inherited it from Trump. However, since he is the one who will have to swallow the bitter pill, his goal is to make it as small as possible. Thus, he’ll strive to hold a dialogue with Iran on other vital issues, such as their ballistic missile program, which concerns Israel and the Gulf States, concessions on human rights issues, limits on Iran’s interference in other countries such as Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and an end to aiding terrorist activity.

These are lofty aspirations, especially in a year in which Iran is preparing for a presidential election in June. Conservative and radical streams will try to block the election of candidates seen as reformist, and will portray any concession viewed to benefit the United States and her allies as a surrender and a “victory for imperialism."

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