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A Backbench Business Committee debate on Iran’s nuclear programme is scheduled for Thursday 30 June 2022 in the House of Commons chamber.

What is the Iran nuclear deal?

On 14 July 2015, Iran and the P5+1 group—the US, UK, France, Germany, China and Russia—reached an agreement on a long-term deal regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), committed Iran to reducing its stockpile of enriched uranium, limiting further enrichment activities, and verified monitoring and inspections, in exchange for sanctions relief. Under the agreement non-compliance could see sanctions automatically reintroduced (the snapback provisions).

The deal was intended to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons programme. It did not include broader measures on Iranian foreign policy or its ballistic missile programme.

The deal was endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231. It is overseen by a Joint Commission comprising the signatories of the agreement and the EU. The Commission is chaired by EU High Representative Josep Borrell. Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA is monitored and verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

During his 2016 Presidential campaign Donald Trump made it clear that withdrawing the US from the deal would be one of his top foreign policy priorities. Despite Iran’s verified compliance with the agreement by the IAEA, the US withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed all US sanctions. The remaining signatories to the JCPOA did not follow suit.

Iranian non-compliance with the deal

Since May 2019 Iran has incrementally violated the terms of the agreement. It has lifted the cap on its stockpile of uranium, increased its enrichment activities beyond the 3.67 per cent permitted under the JCPOA and resumed activity at nuclear facilities that were previously prohibited from uranium enrichment under the terms of the deal. The Iranian Government has linked those violations to the failure of the deal to deliver sanctions relief, and by default the US decision to withdraw and reimpose sanctions.

At the beginning of January 2020, the Iranian Government went one step further and announced that it would no longer abide by any of its commitments under the JCPOA. As a result, there would be no restrictions on Iran’s uranium stockpile or enrichment programme going forward and its nuclear programme would “be developed solely based on its technical needs”.

On 14 January 2020 the E3 (UK, France and Germany) referred the matter to the Joint Commission of the JCPOA. After almost a year of dispute resolution, in December 2020 the Iranian Parliament and Guardian Council passed legislation requiring the Government to speed up its resumption of nuclear activities if sanctions relief was not forthcoming by 21 February 2021. The law also provided for Iran to suspend implementation of the Additional Protocol on safeguards and to reduce cooperation with the IAEA, which it did on 23 February 2021. In line with its nuclear laws Iran started enriching uranium to 20% in early 2021 and then moved to 60% enrichment in April 2021, far beyond what is considered necessary for civilian purposes. Weapons grade uranium is enriched to 90%.

In August 2021 the IAEA also verified that Iran had begun producing uranium metal, which has little civilian purpose and is applicable to nuclear weapons development.

How close is Iran to getting a nuclear weapon?

Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran’s breakout time – the time it could take Iran to produce enough fissile material for nuclear weapons – had been estimated at one year. Its breakout time is now estimated at a few weeks.

Estimates of breakout time do not account, however, for the technological capability and time required to build a deliverable nuclear warhead (which has been estimated by some at 1-2 years), whether there is the political will to proceed toward weaponisation, and the impact of likely pre-emptive action by external actors, such as Israel, should Iran progress to this point.

Iran continues to maintain that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes and that all activities initiated in the last few years are reversible if sanctions are lifted.

Status of talks

After President Biden indicated his willingness to re-join the JCPOA in early 2021, negotiators held six rounds of talks aimed at restoring the agreement. Progress was considered to have been made under the previous Iranian administration of Hassan Rouhani, despite significant challenges remaining, specifically in relation to Iran’s recent nuclear advancements, its missile programme and its regional foreign policies. However, a deal was not concluded before Rouhani left office in August 2021.

While there was hope that negotiations could resume quickly under the new President, Ebrahim Raisi, Iran did not return to the negotiating table until late November 2021.  

Despite Iran’s hardline stance in negotiations and continued escalation of its nuclear activities, including the installation of additional centrifuges at its enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, there were hopes in early 2022 that a deal on the JCPOA was imminent.

However, on 11 March 2022, the EU foreign policy representative, Josep Borrell, said talks would be paused due to “external factors”. Russia was reported to have demanded guarantees, as part of the JCPOA talks, that US-led sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should not affect its trade with Iran. In a statement following the pause in talks, E3 countries, Germany, France and the UK said: “Nobody should seek to exploit JCPOA negotiations to obtain assurances that are separate to the JCPOA”.

The EU High Representative indicated, however, that talks had been paused to allow time for political consideration by the US and Iran of a text that had been concluded, albeit one that left several “open questions” unanswered.

That pause in negotiations has, however, become protracted. Concerns remain that, on its current trajectory, Iran will soon acquire irreversible nuclear knowledge that renders the JPCOA meaningless and negate the need for future talks or any future agreement.

Iran’s demand on IRGC designation

In addition to the removal of all sanctions against Iran, including those related to human rights, a mechanism to verify the lifting of sanctions and a guarantee from the US that any future administration could not abandon the deal, Iran also wants the US designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation, to be removed.

The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has called Iran’s demand “extraneous” to the JCPOA and that the US was prepared to conclude a deal on the basis of negotiations that concluded in March 2022.

IAEA resolution on Iranian non-cooperation

At the end of May 2022, the IAEA Director General published his latest report on Iran’s compliance with its safeguard obligations. Presenting his findings to the IAEA Board of Governors at the beginning of June, the Director General said Iran had outstanding safeguards issues on undeclared nuclear material and locations that required “technically credible explanations”.

At the instigation of the E3 and the US, the IAEA Board of Governors subsequently passed a resolution criticising Iran’s “insufficient substantive cooperation” on these longstanding issues and called on the country to “fulfil its legal obligations” and “clarify and resolve all outstanding safeguards issues”.

The E3 and the US welcomed the IAEA resolution. Having previously called for the IAEA to discontinue its investigation, the Iranian government said the resolution was “miscalculated and ill-advised”, suggesting that it was based on fabricated information provided by Israel. In response, the government informed the IAEA that it would reduce transparency measures with the IAEA and turn off several “beyond safeguards” cameras at its nuclear sites. IAEA Director General, Rafael Grossi, said that if Iran did not reinstate the cameras within a few weeks it could deal “a fatal blow” to the JCPOA.

Talks to resume “within days”

On 25 June 2022 the EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, held talks with Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, on the stalled JCPOA negotiations and called on all sides to “stop this escalation” of the current impasse.

Both sides agreed to resume talks “in the coming days”. Ahead of talks, which are being held in Qatar instead of Vienna, Iran called for “realism from the American side”. A US State Department official said on 27 June that the US was “prepared to immediately conclude and implement the deal we negotiated in Vienna for mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA” but reiterated that “Iran needs to decide to drop their additional demands that go beyond the JCPOA”.

Further reading

House of Commons Library, Status of the Iran nuclear deal, 14 October 2021

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