President-elect Joe Biden hopes to revive the Iran nuclear deal after taking office, but that task is only growing more daunting.
Driving the news: Iran announced today that it would begin to enrich uranium to 20% — within striking distance of weapons-grade levels — at its underground Fordow facility.
- Hours later, Tehran announced it had seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, allegedly for pollution. That’s another reminder to the world of Iran’s ability to disrupt a crucial shipping corridor.
- Meanwhile, the U.S. and its regional partners continue to fear possible Iranian reprisals one year after the U.S. attack which killed Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, as well as the more recent assassination of Iranian chief nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
State of play: In Biden’s view, Iran’s nuclear acceleration and the simmering regional tensions are consequences of President Trump’s "maximum pressure" approach following his withdrawal from the 2015 deal. Biden is willing to lift the nuclear sanctions and bring the U.S. back into the deal — if Iran returns to compliance.
- Incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sunday that after returning to the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Biden will pursue follow-on negotiations to constrain Iran’s regional behavior.
- Iran’s ballistic missile program, Sullivan said, "has to be on the table” in those negotiations.
The other side: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says Iran is prepared to return to compliance if the U.S. lifts its sanctions, indicating that the framework is in place. Look closer, though, and things get far more complicated.
- If Iran enriches significant quantities of uranium to 20%, its nuclear breakout time will become “very, very small,” says Ernest Moniz, who played a key role in negotiating the 2015 deal as Barack Obama’s energy secretary. “The key question is how much they make.”
The move toward 20% enrichment is part of a law — passed over Rouhani’s objections — that also calls for the suspension of UN nuclear inspections if sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors aren’t lifted by February.
- That would be a “game-changer” beyond any of the steps Iran has taken up to now, Moniz says, because “then it becomes more and more difficult to argue that we know that they are not engaging in a weapons program.”
Iran has also demanded compensation for the damage from U.S. sanctions, though Rouhani has shown some flexibility on that point.
- More challenging may be the insistence from Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that Iran is unwilling to negotiate on issues beyond its nuclear program — at least not before the U.S. lifts sanctions.
What's next: Iran also has presidential elections looming in June, with a hardline administration expected to replace Rouhani's.
- Returning to the deal after being burned by Trump is an exceedingly contentious proposition.
- "It's probably the kind of thing that’s easier for an outgoing administration to do, since the JCPOA’s not the most popular item in some political circles in Iran," says Rob Malley, a former Middle East adviser to Obama and now president of the International Crisis Group. The direction of travel will ultimately be set by Iran's supreme leader, Malley adds.
What to watch: If Biden wants a deal with Rouhani, he’ll have just five months to get it.