European countries and the United States have rejected Iran’s proposal to save the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal. So why did these governments object to the offer put on the table and to Iran’s efforts to get the JCPOA back on track?
The recent discussions mark the seventh round of talks to revive the JCPOA, which was first negotiated in 2015 but then collapsed after President Trump decided in 2018 the US would no longer be party to the deal. But after extensive talks, the Islamic Republic's proposal has been rejected, deemed unacceptable, with the United States stating that Iran's approach lacks any real incentive to save the deal.
However, the fact that the offer was based on the text of the deal is precisely why it was rejected.
The JCPOA, as an agreement that limited the Islamic Republic's nuclear program and lifted US nuclear sanctions, is now essentially a historical document because what it sets out does not exist anymore in any tangible or real sense. The agreement currently only removes UN Security Council and EU sanctions, which, because US sanctions remain in place, have little economic impact on or benefit for the Islamic Republic.
If the provisions of the JCPOA were still valid, and if Iran and the US were both motivated to return to it, it would have been possible for each party to announce that they would once again fulfil their obligations as set out in the deal, meaning a return to the situation before May 2018 when President Trump had not yet abandoned the deal. But today, it is impossible to recreate the situation as it stood in May 2018.
With the withdrawal from the JCPOA agreement, the Trump administration re-imposed 100 percent of the lifted nuclear sanctions, and within three years, with a policy of "maximum pressure,” put sanctions on almost all parts of Iran's government. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his office and governing body, and his appointees to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is woven into the fabric of Iran's economy, are all under US sanctions.
Some of the sanctions the JCPOA agreement lifted have been re-imposed under recent cases of human rights sanctions, money laundering or counter-terrorism. Furthermore, the Joe Biden administration has added to the scope of the sanctions.
In this environment, even if nuclear sanctions were to be lifted, many of the vital structures of the Islamic Republic, such as the Central Bank, will remain under sanctions, and/or the sanctions against Khamenei and the Leader’s Office will remain in place. This will not be in any way beneficial to Iran’s declining economy.
At the same time, President Biden is in no position to lift all the sanctions Iran has called for, given the unstable political environment in which he currently finds himself. Even Biden's Democrat supporters in Congress largely disagree with the idea of lifting all of the Trump-era sanctions and are likely to pass a resolution to that effect. For them, and for the signatories to the JCPOA, the key issue is that Iran once again upholds its commitments in terms of its nuclear program.
After the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran began withdrawing from its nuclear commitments step by step. After US air operations in Iraq initiated the killing of Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' overseas branch, Iran fully re-instated its activities and abandoned all commitments. However, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and monitoring continued for some time.
After Trump's election defeat and when Biden's presidency began, the Islamic Republic reduced the level of IAEA inspections by suspending the implementation of the Additional Protocol, and by reinstating the production of 20 percent and then 60 percent uranium enrichment and collecting a significant amount in uranium reserves. This fully ended its obligations under the JCPOA.
During this period, the Islamic Republic has deployed a new generation of uranium enrichment technology and begun research and development on its more advanced generations. With 60 percent enrichment, it has embarked on a new path that did not exist before the JCPOA, bringing the level and depth of its nuclear program to a level not anticipated in the nuclear deal.
Today, even if the Islamic Republic seeks to return to its full obligations under the JCPOA, it must eliminate its accumulated nuclear knowledge, and this is impossible. Therefore, in order to ensure that it does not deviate towards the production of nuclear weapons and to distance it from the "nuclear escape point” — one of the two main goals of the JCPOA — new provisions must be added to the agreement. It is not possible for the previous text to be reinstated as it is no longer sufficient.
If the Islamic Republic wants the United States to accept more commitments than the provisions of the JCPOA and add an amendment to it, it must also accept an amendment for its nuclear obligations; while Ali Bagheri Kani's proposal is limited to the current text of JCPOA and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has also said that the Islamic Republic does not accept any more obligations from the JCPOA, nor does it accept anything less than the concessions contained in it.
This is precisely why the nuclear proposals of the new nuclear negotiating team of the Islamic Republic of Iran have been rejected by the European governments and the situation of stalemate and disruption in the nuclear case is still in place.