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Explained: Why the Iran nuclear deal could be saved by incoming Biden administration

During his 2016 campaign, President Donald Trump criticised the deal for being too lenient on Iran, and for not addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program or involvement in regional conflicts. In May 2018, the US unilaterally withdrew from the deal.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: December 23, 2020 8:07:13 am
In the past, Biden has already declared that he would cancel the XL pipeline’s permit if elected. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

With Democrats set to gain control of US foreign policy in January, hopes are up that the historic Iran nuclear deal, signed by former President Barack Obama and repudiated by President Donald Trump, could be salvaged by the incoming Joe Biden administration.

This was the feeling expressed at a high-level virtual conference on Monday between the foreign ministers of Iran, France, Germany, UK, China and Russia– countries other than the US who are parties to the deal, and whose goal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

A joint statement of the meeting read, “Ministers acknowledged the prospect of a return of the US to the JCPOA and underlined their readiness to positively address this in a joint effort.”

Biden has in the past expressed willingness for the US returning to the deal, which was signed while he was vice president under Obama.

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What is the Iran nuclear deal?

The Iran nuclear deal, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed between Iran and the P5 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council–the US, UK, France, China and Russia) plus Germany and the European Union in Vienna in July 2015.

Under the agreement, which came into force in January 2016, Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for relief from crippling economic sanctions imposed by the UN, US and the EU.

The deal, signed after years of negotiations that began during the Obama administration, limited the number of centrifuges Iran could run and restricted them to an older, slower model. Iran also reconfigured a heavy-water reactor so it couldn’t produce plutonium, and agreed to convert its enrichment site at Fordo into a research centre. It granted more access to inspectors from the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and allowed it to look at other sites.

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In exchange, world powers lifted the economic sanctions that had kept Iran away from international banking and the global oil trade. The deal allowed Iran to purchase commercial aircraft and reach other business deals. It also unfroze billions of dollars Iran held overseas.

As part of the agreement, restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment and stockpile size will end in 2031, 15 years after the deal.

In 2016, the IAEA acknowledged that Iran met its commitments under the nuclear deal, and most sanctions on Iran were lifted. The country slowly re-entered the global banking system and began selling crude oil and natural gas on the international market.

So why did the US decide to leave the agreement?

During his 2016 campaign, President Donald Trump criticised the deal for being too lenient on Iran, and for not addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program or involvement in regional conflicts.

So, after the Republicans won the presidential race that year, the US first tried in vain to renegotiate the accord with Iran, and then unilaterally withdrew from it in May 2018. Relations between Washington and Tehran have continued to deteriorate ever since.

In August that year, the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on Iran, and also warned other countries against doing business with the hydrocarbon-rich nation. A temporary waiver granted to eight countries to buy Iranian oil, including India, ended in April 2019.

The five other JCPOA participants, however, continued to be parties to the deal, thereby weakening the impact of US sanctions.

What happened after the US withdrawal?

Despite the US withdrawal, Iran said it would continue to uphold its commitments under the JCPOA. In June 2018, it announced an expansion of its enrichment infrastructure within the limits of the deal.

But a year later in May 2019, reeling under reimposed US sanctions, Tehran said it would cease to adhere to some of the deal’s commitments, unless other members agreed to its economic demands. Two months later, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had exceeded its enrichment limits.

Then in January this year, after its top security and intelligence commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani, was killed in a US drone attack in Baghdad, Iran said it would abandon limitations on enriching uranium, refusing to adhere to the nuclear deal. Iran did, however, say that it would continue to cooperate with IAEA inspectors.

Washington-Tehran relations suffered another setback in December, when Iran’s senior-most nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated near Tehran in an operation widely believed to be orchestrated by Israel, a US ally. As per a report in The New York Times, the killing of Fakhrizadeh could “complicate” the effort by Biden to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which he has pledged to do.

What is the significance of Monday’s meeting?

At the high-level meeting, the participating countries “re-emphasized their commitment to preserve the agreement” and agreed that “full and effective implementation of the JCPOA by all remains crucial,” as per an Associated Press report.

The report, however, said that the challenge in resuming the agreement in its present form is that Iran is currently in violation of several of its important commitments, such as the limits on stockpiles of enriched uranium. Iran, though, has clarified that it will “rapidly reverse” its infringements once the United States and the three European powers “perform their duties.”

JCPOA countries are also optimistic about reviving the deal because Iran has continued to allow IAEA inspectors full access to its nuclear sites, even as it has violated its treaty obligations.

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