With much of the world focused on the war in Ukraine, there's another major international story that we also wanted to talk about: The Iran Nuclear Deal. The Biden Administration has spent nearly a year trying to salvage the 2015 agreement (which the US left under President Trump). And this week, the AP reports that negotiators are on a verge of a final deal.
So let's dive in. In this special edition newsletter we’ll look at the history behind the Iran deal, what's currently on the table and why President Biden is intent on moving forward with it. We spoke to Iran expert, Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, for his insight and analysis. Consider this your Iran Nuclear Deal 101.
PS: We'd love to do this with other topics as well. Please share this edition with friends, and let us know what you think.
JCPOA— The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name of the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Uranium — A chemical element widely used in nuclear fuel once it is refined and enriched. Nuclear power plants specifically use uranium-235. Plutonium is another element used in nuclear fuel.
Enrichment— In short, this process increases the concentration of uranium-235 to a level that can be used in commercial nuclear power plants (3-5%). Highly enriched uranium has a purity of 20% or more and weapons-grade uranium is enriched 90% or more.
Centrifuge — A device that performs the gas separation process used to enrich uranium.
IAEA — the International Atomic Energy Agency: The international organization that oversees nuclear energy and promotes its peaceful use.
IRGC — Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian Armed Forces designated a terrorist organization by the U.S.
The 1979 Iranian revolution overthrew a pro-Western monarchy and replaced it with a militant Islamic theocracy intent on exporting the revolution globally. Beyond pushing their political beliefs and funding like-minded groups around the world, the regime has long pursued nuclear weapons, seeing it as a way to reinforce the regime survival. Over the past 40+ years, the US and global community have imposed various economic sanctions on Iran related to weapons development and their use and funding for terror attacks--including on American and Jewish targets.
Beginning in 1995, the US Congress passed a series of laws authorizing sanctions on Iran and giving the White House wide discretion in how to put them into place. Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama all signed executive orders ramping up those crippling economic sanctions. One of the hopes for the penalties is that they would inspire democratic movements within Iran, which would push for government reform or overthrow of the regime. However, the Iranian regime has effectively quashed dissent and protests over the decades.
Nonetheless, the sanctions kept Iran isolated from the global economy--despite having some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world.
The Obama administration believed the sanctions forced Iran to the negotiation table over its nuclear program and stressed that engagement with Iran would ensure accountability. They were the first White House since 1979 to engage the Iranians in direct talks
In 2015 a group known as the P5 + 1 (that is the members of the United Nations Security Council: the U.S., the U.K., France, China and Russia + Germany) signed a deal with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — officially implementing it in Jan. 2016.
The 10-year agreement obliged Iran to send the majority of its enriched uranium stockpile abroad and remove 2/3 of its centrifuges that produce nuclear fuel. Iran also agreed to IAEA inspections and stopped enriching uranium at an underground nuclear site at Fordo. In exchange, the US and others would gradually lift the crippling economic and military sanctions by 2025.
The White House came under intense criticism and lobbying from Republican lawmakers, some Democrats, Saudi Arabia and Israel, among others. Their argument: The US was merely postponing Iran from getting the bomb by 10 years, ignoring ballistic missile development, avoiding Iranian training and funding of terror groups, and ensuring the survival of the authoritarian regime. They also said Iran would continue nuclear development at secret sites where inspectors were not allowed. Critics believe in a combination of crippling sanctions and covert action (including this AI-assisted remote gun) instead. There have been lots of suspicious explosions and assassinations around the Iranian nuclear program through the years.
Donald Trump never liked the Iran deal and campaigned on the promise that he'd renegotiate it.
That didn't happen right away. The Trump White House twice certified in 2017 that Iran was actually complying with the JCPOA.
The U.S. then officially withdrew from the JCPOA in May of 2018, saying it didn't account for Iranian military development, among other things, and re-imposed all sanctions that had been lifted by the accord. President Trump said at the time: "This was a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made...It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.”
Escalating its ballistic missile program and doubling down on uranium enrichment.
It now has at least a 25 kilogram stockpile of 60% enriched uranium, the most highly enriched uranium ever recorded for Iran. It also started producing uranium metal in January, which is a material used in the core of a nuclear weapon. Remember: the deal had capped uranium refinement at 3.67%, the level suitable for most civilian nuclear energy. (Reuters)
How close are they to a bomb? Iran has continued work to master more advanced centrifuges, which produce nuclear fuel faster. Some estimates are that it would take Iran a month to amass enough nuclear fuel for one weapon. But there are a range of estimates about how long it would take the regime to develop a functional nuclear weapon and mount it on a missile---ranging from 1-3 years.
Upon his election, President Biden vowed to return to the deal, believing that failure to save the agreement would risk Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, even in the face of sanctions. The new deal is a slimmed-down version of the original and basically re-joins it 'in progress.' Feeling more empowered, Iran wants the U.S. to lift sanctions first. The U.S. wants Iran to return to compliance on nuclear weapons first.
The Biden administration has also taken interest in reentering the JCPOA as a way to open up Iranian oil and gas reserves to the global market given the war in Ukraine.
But as one of the signatories to the agreement, Russia has demanded to continue billions of dollars in trade with Iran.
On Tuesday, Russia said it received written guarantees from the West that Russian trade with Iran would not be affected by the Ukraine-related sanctions.
Too little, too late: The deal would hand the Iranian regime tens of billions of dollars in money and investment to fund their military and political ambitions across the region.
The deal is already effectively 3/4 over given the timeline. They point to Iran lobbing missiles near the US consulate in Iraq last weekend and taking direct responsibility for them--as evidence of an empowered Iran that won't abide by any agreement and feel free to do what it wants in the region given the US disengagement from the Middle East.
The US is also considering an Iranian demand to take the IRGC off its list of terrorist groups as part of the deal, despite the fact that the Iranian military trains and funds terror groups across the region. That includes the Houthis in Yemen, who use missiles and drones to target civilian and commercial targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Iran is also helping Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria make its missiles targeted at Israel more accurate.
Here in the US, Republican and some Democrat lawmakers disapprove of the new plan.
Every Republican senator minus Sen. Rand Paul penned a letter to President Biden on Monday expressing their opposition to the renewal of the Iran Nuclear Deal. In 2015, no congressional Republicans supported the deal either. Trump officials, including the former Secretary of State, are voicing their opposition as well:
Some Democrats on Capitol Hill are also wavering in support, according to Punchbowl News, saying Biden has not sold the deal well to either lawmakers or the American people. Below is their latest report:
Brett McGurck from the National Security Council is on Capitol Hill today to brief the House Foreign Affairs Committee and again tomorrow to speak with Jewish House Democrats.
Ok, that's your Iran Nuclear Deal 101. Still want to learn more? Here are a few good resources:
** Send me your suggestions for future topics. See you Friday with a regular newsletter edition.
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[Top Banner Photo Credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images. Location: Bushehr, Iran nuclear power plant]