Kurt Campbell, nominee for deputy secretary of state. Source: Arms Control Association - Photo: 2023

Iran Deal Off the Table as Nuclear Tensions Rise

By Kelsey Davenport

The writer is the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association (ACA). This article first appeared in ‘Arms Control Now’ of the ACA and is being reproduced with their permission.

WASHINGTON, D.C. | 14 December 2023 (IDN) — A top U.S. official said that restoring the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is not a viable option in the current environment, confirming the shift in the Biden administration’s strategy for addressing the risk posed by Iran’s advancing nuclear program.

Kurt Campbell, President Joe Biden’s nominee for deputy secretary of state, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his Dec. 7 confirmation hearing that a return to the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is “just not on the table.”

Campbell, currently the National Security Council Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs, also said that the $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets transferred to Qatar for humanitarian trade “has not been spent.” The funds, which were transferred from South Korea to accounts in Qatar as part of a swap in September that freed five Americans detained in Iran, can only be used to pay vendors for humanitarian goods exempt from U.S. sanctions.

After the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, the Biden administration said Iran would not be able to access the funds due to its long-standing support for Hamas. The administration is under pressure to more permanently tie up the funds. The House of Representatives passed a bill in November that would require the United States to freeze the money in Qatar.

Campbell said the Biden administration will be “vigilant” regarding Iran’s use of those funds, despite having “full confidence” that the funds can only be used specifically for humanitarian transactions to benefit the Iranian people.

While it has been clear for months that restoring the JCPOA is no longer a viable option, the United States still needs to contend with Iran’s advancing nuclear program. A permanent freeze on the $6 billion risks further undercutting U.S. credibility in negotiating steps to de-escalate the nuclear crisis, which Tehran may be willing to discuss.

Iran did take limited steps earlier this year to reduce its production of uranium enriched to 60 percent and allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to resume monitoring enrichment levels, but these actions did little to reduce immediate proliferation risk.

On hold

Furthermore, U.S.-Iranian talks on additional de-escalatory steps appear on hold given Iran’s long-standing support for Hamas and escalating tensions between U.S. forces and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. But absent steps to stabilize the current nuclear situation, the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program will grow, as will the risk of miscalculating Iran’s intentions.

The risk posed by Iran’s nuclear advances is compounded by Tehran’s lack of transparency. IAEA Director General Rafael Marino Grossi warned the IAEA’s Board of Governors in November that the implementation of the March 2023 agreement between the agency and Iran to enhance monitoring and resolve safeguards issues at three undeclared locations “has come to a standstill.” The prolonged gaps in monitoring and Iran’s failure to account for its past nuclear activities make it difficult for the IAEA to provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful.

Iran and the agency made limited progress on the agreement in the months after it was reached, with the agency declaring in a May report that it had no further questions for Iran about one of the undeclared locations. Iran also allowed the IAEA to re-install cameras at a centrifuge assembly facility and hook up enrichment monitors at Fordow and Natanz. But there has been no progress since May, Grossi said in a Nov. 22 statement. The “way forward must include an honest and cooperative implementation” of the commitments made in March, he said.

Condemnation of Iran’s decision

Grossi also reiterated his condemnation of Iran’s decision in September to de-designate experienced agency inspectors conducting safeguards activities in Iran.

States are permitted to reject IAEA inspectors, but Grossi said Iran’s actions are “unprecedented and contrary to the cooperation that is required” to effectively implement a comprehensive safeguards agreement. He told the press Nov. 22 that the rejection of these inspectors, which include experts on uranium enrichment, dealt a “very serious blow” to the agency’s efforts to implement safeguards in Iran.

Iran continues to defend its decision to reject the inspectors. Mohammad Eslami, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said in October that the inspectors in question had “politically oriented agendas.”

Grossi said the agency and Iran are discussing reinstatement.

In a Nov. 23 joint statement, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States accused Iran of doubling down on “its hostile attitude” toward the IAEA by de-designating inspectors. The “independent technical work of the Agency cannot be subject to Iran’s political interpretation of other member states’ views in this way,” the four states told the IAEA’s Board of Governors.

Despite Iran’s failure to make progress on the March 4 agreement and the de-designation of inspectors, the IAEA board did not take any action to censure Tehran during its November meeting.

France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States said the board will “have to be prepared to take further action in support of the Secretariat to hold Iran accountable in the near future, including the possibility of additional resolutions.” Iran cannot refuse to cooperate “without bearing the consequences,” the states said.

The board last passed a resolution censuring Iran in November 2022. In the resolution, the board decided that it is “essential and urgent” for Iran to fulfill its legal obligations and cooperate with the IAEA’s inquiries.

Despite the board’s threat to take further action against Iran, progress on safeguards and additional transparency measures appear unlikely absent any progress on talks between the United States and Iran.

According to a Nov. 17 IAEA report, Eslami told Grossi during a September meeting not to expect progress on the March 4 agreement until sanctions are lifted. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Original link: https://www.armscontrol.org/blog/2023-12/p4-1-iran-nuclear-deal-alert

Photo: Kurt Campbell, nominee for deputy secretary of state. Source: Arms Control Association

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate

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