Four years after US President Donald Trump decided to disassociate himself in May 2018 from the nuclear agreement with Iran - known as the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (PAIC) -, the situation is clearly worse than it was then, when the International Organization for Atomic Energy (IAEA) continued to confirm that Tehran was scrupulously complying with what was agreed in July 2015 with the so-called P5 1 (China, USA, France, UK and Russia, plus Germany). The negotiations promoted by the European Union since April 6 last year, trying to straighten a path in which everyone is losing, have not yet been translated into a new agreement, although for weeks the spokespersons of the countries involved have maintained that the text is practically closed. Meanwhile, Iran has resumed its nuclear program and is approaching a point of no return that Israel and the US itself, along with other countries neighboring Iran, maintain that they will not allow it to cross under any circumstances.
The situation in 2015 was far from ideal, but at least it had managed to stop a process that could lead – although Tehran denies that it is seeking to equip itself with nuclear weapons – to add a tenth member to the exclusive club of nuclear powers. Assuming that the military option to destroy the complex nuclear program that Iran had been developing for years was (and still is) unfeasible, the intention was to buy time to convince Iran that its re-entry into the international arena was much more advantageous for its interests than to pursue a nuclear capability that could cost it an unbearable cost. And so, among other things, Iran agreed to submit to the most intrusive rules of the 1997 Additional Protocol, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and renounced in real terms 98% of its enriched uranium stock (from about 10,000 kg to only 300), to the production of heavy water in Arak (limiting its stock to only 130 metric tons) and to having only 3,000-4,000 operating centrifuges (when it had more than 19,000).
It is true that the Iranian regime has never stopped improving its missile capacity and interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbors, both because of its desire to expand its influence in the area and to equip itself with retaliatory tricks with which to dissuade its enemies. , with Tel Aviv and Washington in the lead. But, on the one hand, it should not be forgotten that it is Washington that has violated the agreement and, on the other, that neither of these two arguments can be used to denounce it, for the simple reason that they were not even mentioned in the text agreed. What did appear (and was not fulfilled) is that Iran would benefit in the commercial and investment spheres from the normalization of relations with all the signatories, especially in the possibility of exporting its hydrocarbons and modernizing its industrial infrastructure.
That is why it must be understood that the US decision, with the intention that the rest of the countries align with it, was a punishment strategy –“maximum pressure” in the language chosen by Washington– that, in reality, did not seek to bring the Iranians back to the negotiating table to sign a more demanding agreement, including the issue of interference in internal affairs and the missile program. The real objective was to provoke the overthrow of a regime that has been questioning the regional status quo since 1979. From there, the Iranian reaction sought (unsuccessfully) to provoke a reaction in its favor from the rest of the signatories (especially from the EU) in order to have escape valves that would guarantee the continuity of the regime, in the face of an increasingly anxious population. and criticism of their rulers, all while waiting for Trump not to revalidate his mandate. Only China has dared to challenge the US, signing a strategic agreement with Iran for the next twenty years whereby, in exchange for Iranian hydrocarbons, China agrees to develop more than a hundred projects, valued at around 400,000 million dollars, and to launch an ambitious cooperation program in the military field.
When Joe Biden became president in January 2021, it was already obvious that “maximum pressure” had failed to bring down the Iranian regime and Tehran to bow to US demands despite serious punishment and obvious marginalization. international that was suffering. And although Washington reactivated some sanctions and imposed additional ones, Iran continued to comply with what was agreed for another year, until it found that the rest of the signatories neither managed to convince the US to return to the path of the agreement nor were they determined to contravene US guidelines.
Since then, and in a first phase that lasted well into 2021, the Iranian regime chose to harden its position, taking care not to go beyond what was stipulated, speeding up the interpretation of section 36 of the PAIC that allows it to reduce its level of commitment when there is a dispute in the interpretation of the agreement. In this way, already in open defiance of the US and in compliance with what the Majlis demanded at the end of 2020 – an increase in the budget for the nuclear program and the number of centrifuges to achieve 20% uranium enrichment at a rate of 120 kg/year, reactivation of the Fordow plant and suspension of the Additional Protocol of 1997–, Tehran returned to accumulate twelve times more enriched uranium than initially allowed, installed 348 very advanced centrifuges (IR2m), began to enrich uranium above 20% and, just as or more worryingly, annulled the application of the aforementioned Additional Protocol (which translates into fewer possibilities for IAEA inspectors to guarantee strict compliance with what was agreed).
A dynamic, in short, clearly destabilizing, which led Biden to explore a progressive rapprochement, beginning by granting more freedom of movement to Iranian diplomats in the US, not responding to some Iranian missile attacks on US facilities in Iraq, allow the granting of an IMF loan of 5,000 million dollars to deal with the effects of the pandemic, not hinder the agreement by which Seoul announced its intention to finally transfer Iranian funds that it kept frozen (estimated at about 8,000 million dollars) and accept the EU's invitation to hold an informal meeting with Iran and the rest of the P5 1 countries (although Washington would only participate indirectly by Iranian imposition). All of this accelerated by the fear that the Iranian presidential elections on June 18, 2021 would strengthen the most radical sectors, and that would mean the closing of the timid window of opportunity that appeared on the horizon.
For its part, Iran – aware that international marginalization and notable popular dissatisfaction endangered the survival of the regime – also loosened its position. Thus, it decided not to close the doors to the IAEA inspectors, opting to reach an agreement in extremis so that images of its nuclear facilities could continue to be recorded, closed to in-person visits by the inspectors, warning that they could only contemplate said images if the agreement was reactivated, with the US included. According to the director general of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, this would guarantee the verification and monitoring of the program. In parallel, the then Foreign Minister, Mohamed Javad Zarif, confirmed the acceptance for the meeting promoted by the EU.
To get to that point, Iran has also had to resist pressure from the country's toughest sectors, starting with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (the Pasdaran), who demand a point-by-point response to the repeated attacks they have received. A long list that includes the Israeli sabotage against the Natanz underground plant (IV/11/2021), the assassination of the main person in charge of the nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (11/27/2020); the elimination of General Qasem Suleimani (3/1/2020), head of the elite force of the Pasdarán (Al Qods Force) and of special operations in different neighboring countries; without forgetting the computer attacks (Stuxnet, in 2010, and Flame, in 2012), the loss of other nuclear scientists (2010-2012) or the elimination of Tehrani Moghaddam (November 12, 2011) who was in charge of the program missile. And along this path, dotted with errors and decisions that have further confused the situation, a moment has been reached in which it is estimated that Iran already has at least 170 kg of uranium enriched at 20% and in around another 30 kg enriched to 60%, largely thanks to the re-entry into operation of the advanced IR-6 centrifuges at the Fordow and Natanz nuclear plants.
Some steps that led to the fact that, when the last meeting was held in Vienna on February 8, all the participants affirmed that the agreement to return in general terms to what the PAIC already included was just around the corner. corner. And it is at that point, when the technical details of a new agreement seemed to be on track, that other political elements have gained strength that can undermine the effort made so far. On the one hand, Iran demands guarantees that no Biden successor can go back to his old ways; something that the US Administration cannot formally assume. On the other hand, Russia, in the midst of its war in Ukraine, pointed to its rejection of Iran's reintegration on the international stage, perceiving it as a direct competitor if Tehran returns to selling gas and oil in a market that seeks to eliminate dependence on Moscow.
Finally, the problem posed by the designation of the Pasdaran as a terrorist organization remains to be resolved; a decision that Trump made on April 16, 2019, followed, on the 23rd of the same month, by Tehran, assigning the same rating to the US forces of the Central Command (CENTCOM), which are responsible for the Middle East region. Given their status as major players not only on the Iranian military scene, but also on the economic and political scene, it will not be easy to overcome the problem posed by the Iranian demand to remove that reference, while 33 US senators are demanding that Biden chamber has the last word on what is negotiated in Vienna. His promoters, by insisting that what comes out of Vienna become a treaty, count on the fact that Biden will never be able to push it through because he will never have the necessary two-thirds majority of the House in his favor. .
Iran understands the nuclear weapon as a dissuasive instrument against those who intend to sink it, as an asset to aspire to regional leadership and, furthermore, as a bargaining chip to stop being treated as a pariah. This is how it is necessary to understand its insistence that all the steps it has taken in the last two years are totally reversible if the other signatories fully comply with their part of the agreement and Washington once again implements resolution 2231 of the UN Security Council, regarding the uprising of the sanctions.
The urgency to reach an agreement, before Iranian nuclear advances make it impossible to return to what was approved in July 2015, is obvious. Any alternative to signing a new text, however imperfect, is even worse. For Iran, it means continuing to be isolated internationally and subjected to a harsh economic punishment that generates growing citizen unrest, which may turn against the regime led by Ali Khamenei. For the rest of the actors involved in the negotiation, it means assuming that sooner rather than later there will be another nuclear power on the planet, triggering an unstoppable regional arms race.
The path to reach a new agreement is very arduous. It remains to be seen who takes the first effective step. It is a fact that, for the moment, the rope has not been completely broken, because none of the actors involved is rationally interested in a war. But in a process of action and reaction that has been going on for a long time, both Iran, on the one hand, and the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, on the other, are only fueling a tension that can end up out of control for any of them.
Jesús A. Núñez Villaverde is co-director of the Institute for Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action (IECAH)