What New Iran Nuclear Deal May Look Like, and Why Israel Is Against It

What revisions are likely to be included in the new Iran nuclear deal, what will happen further down the line, and why has Israel been caught by surprise? | Haaretz explains

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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A cleric walks past Zolfaghar, top, and Dezful missiles displayed in a missile capabilities exhibition by the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in Tehran, Iran, January 7, 2022.
A cleric walks past Zolfaghar, top, and Dezful missiles displayed in a missile capabilities exhibition by the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in Tehran, Iran, January 7, 2022.Credit: Vahid Salemi / AP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Iran and the world powers are close to an agreement to return to the original 2015 nuclear accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, with slight changes that have not yet been made public, a senior Israeli official has confirmed to Haaretz.

The original agreement was designed to freeze the Iranian nuclear project for 15 years until 2030, although some of its clauses were scheduled to expire in about another two years. It is unclear whether the new agreement will include a revised timetable or whether it will expire in eight years as in the timetable of the original agreement called for. On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that “the new agreement appears to be shorter and weaker than the previous one.”

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What are the terms of the original agreement?

The 2015 agreement limited Iranian uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent; enrichment would cease entirely at the Fordow facility; and Iran would reduce the number of centrifuges by about two-thirds. Iran was allowed to hold only 300 kilograms of enriched uranium, a fraction of the 12 tons it had before the original agreement was signed. In return, the onerous sanctions that had been imposed on Iran were to be suspended, and $100 billion in Iranian funds held abroad were unfrozen. When the agreement expired, Iran would be subject to no restrictions at all.

What is in the revised agreement?

Iran and the world powers have still not revealed the terms of the revised agreement. However, Reuters last week reported what it said were some of its provisions: The Iranians would suspend uranium enrichment above 5 percent, about $7 billion in Iranian funds stuck in South Korean banks under U.S. sanctions would be released and Western prisoners held in Iran would be freed. It appears that the agreement says sanctions will be lifted only after the first steps are implemented.

And what will happen to the uranium that is already enriched?

Israel has claimed in recent months that Iran took advantage of the Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA agreement to increase enrichment and significantly upgrade its research and development capabilities for building a nuclear weapon. Iran has reportedly enriched uranium to 60 percent in violation of the 2015 accord. Nuclear weapons require enrichment to a level of 90 percent. The new agreement is expected to allow Iran to maintain its enriched uranium to a level of 3.67 percent in an amount not to exceed 300 kilograms for 15 years.

Why was it decided to return to the original agreement?

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said two months ago in an interview with Haaretz that contrary to Israel’s assessment, the Biden administration was seeking to return to the original agreement. He responded coolly to the possibility of an interim according that included only the issues that the parties could agree on (“less for less”). “Personally, I’m not a big fan of the phrase ‘less for less.’ We intend to guarantee that Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons,” Sullivan said. Removal of sanctions, he added, must be done in a measured way to ensure the terms are carried out.

Why have the most recent developments surprised Israel?

Israel had been saying in recent months that the odds of a return to the original agreement were poor. In place of reviving the 2015 agreement, the widespread assumption among Israeli officials with knowledge of the talks was that the sides reach an interim “less for less” deal. Israel believed that Tehran was not interested in reviving the original agreement: Its presence in Vienna was designed to string along the world powers before letting the negotiations eventually collapse, thereby giving it more time to continue enrichment without oversight.

In any case, Israeli officials asserted, it would be impossible to restore the main points of the 2015 agreement, in part because they believed that by the beginning of February Iran would have passed the technological threshold the original agreement had been designed to prevent. While Israel thought that an interim agreement would be a bad alternative, it didn’t reject one outright if it would delay the Iranian nuclear program by decades.

How will Israel respond if negotiations end in a revised version of the original agreement?

A senior Israeli diplomatic official told Haaretz that if a new agreement is signed preserving the original timeframe, Israel would oppose it. Israel’s main concern is the agreement’s so-called “sunset causes.” If the timetable isn’t revised, some of the provisions relating to the phased reintroduction of advanced centrifuges will expire as early as 2025 while limitations on the quantity of permissible enriched uranium will expire in eight years. The world powers currently have no clear plan for how to delay Tehran’s nuclear ambitions subsequently.

At the beginning of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Bennett spoke about Israeli concerns, saying, “Two things have happened since the original signing: The Iranians have made great strides in building their enrichment capability and time has passed.”

“If the world signs the agreement again – without extending the expiration date – then we are talking about an agreement that buys a total of two-and-a-half years, after which Iran can and may develop and install advanced centrifuges, without restrictions. According to the agreement, this would mean ‘stadiums’ of centrifuges. In return, the Iranians will currently receive tens of billions of dollars and the lifting of sanctions; that is a lot of money.

“In any case, we are organizing and preparing for the day after, in all dimensions, so that we can maintain the security of the citizens of Israel by ourselves.”

What about further down the line?

Whatever may happen, Israeli hopes are pinned on the Americans’ goal of reaching a long-term agreement with Iran (“longer and stronger”) that would come into force when the original agreement ends in 2030. To coerce the Iranians into signing on, the world powers will need to again threaten them with severe sanctions.

The hope in Israel is that the U.S. will escalate the threats on Iran and publicly commit to a military attack on the ayatollahs’ regime if Iran opts to withdraw from negotiations and pursue a nuclear program with military goals. So far, however, the United States has refrained from making such a declaration.

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