An Iranian nuclear deal is imminent, almost a matter of hours…since last November. Negotiators regularly announce that they are very close to the goal, namely the restoration of the so-called JCPoA treaty of 2015 by which Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear program in a verifiable manner in exchange for international reintegration.
But the obstacles still seem insurmountable, despite the submission by the European Union eight days ago of yet another compromise proposal, and the optimistic response from Tehran on Monday, which nevertheless only evokes an agreement on … the timetable negotiations.
Hope is what dies last
Negotiation sessions, there have been eight since the coming to power, in January 2021, of a Joe Biden determined to restore, under conditions, the treaty signed by the United States, Russia, China, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, on the one hand, and Iran on the other, unilaterally denounced by the Trump administration in 2018. Eight unsuccessful sessions, in the spring of 2021, in the fall, then last February-March. Since then, no significant progress. Indirect talks in Doha at the end of June between the United States and Iran, which no longer have diplomatic relations since 1980, fell through in two days.
And if the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said he still believed that a compromise was possible after an interview ten days ago with the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raïssi, the chances “seem increasingly slim”, admits Héloïse Fayet, file specialist at the French Institute of International Relations.
Three major obstacles
It is that, behind the official declarations according to which only a few points remain to be settled, there remain three major disputes. First, Westerners are concerned about Tehran’s accumulation of highly enriched uranium in response to Donald Trump’s decision. While the JCPoA treaty prohibited it from enriching its uranium to more than 3.67% in isotope 235, the one used in atomic bombs, Tehran crossed in April 2021 the enrichment threshold of … 60%.
Its stock exceeded 43 kg at the end of May, sufficient for a nuclear bomb, although of low power. But the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization (AEIO) announced on Monday evening that it had started up hundreds of new centrifuges, including the advanced IR-6 type, to further accelerate its enrichment activities.
Iran is in fact already a so-called “threshold” country, explains Héloïse Fayet, “that is to say endowed with the capacity to equip itself in a few weeks with enough fissile material for a bomb, but it steps would still have to be taken, which would take one to two years, to acquire an operational warhead, sufficiently miniaturized, for example. It is not certain that Tehran would really want to hold a bomb, because of the reprisals that this would entail, including military ones, whereas being a threshold country already provides deterrence capabilities”. Moreover, Iran has, for the first time, recently assumed to be a country of the threshold, by the voice of an adviser to the Supreme Guide, evoking the “technical capacity but not the will to produce a bomb”.
Therefore, one can even wonder what interest Westerners would have in signing an agreement. But Héloïse Fayet argues that an agreement “would normally force Tehran to give up its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, even if its know-how would remain…”
A risk of proliferation
Another stumbling block: Tehran absolutely wants the Revolutionary Guards, a politico-military body of the regime with many economic interests, to be removed from the list of terrorist organizations in the United States. Which seems unthinkable in Washington. Third, Tehran wants guarantees that a return to power by Donald Trump would not allow Washington to unilaterally denounce this new treaty again.
If the negotiators fail to reach a conclusion, on the other hand they cannot bring themselves to accept the impossibility of an agreement. Tehran clings to the hope of a lifting of the sanctions which are strangling its economy, while Westerners cannot resign themselves to Iran equipping itself, despite its denials which will only convince the naive, with atomic bombs. This would open Pandora’s box of possible Israeli military intervention against Iran’s vastly hardened nuclear sites. Not to mention the risk of a nuclear arms race by the other powers in the region, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Egypt.