GP Insights

GP Insights # 496, 11 April 2021

Iran: Return of the JCPOA talks
Poornima B

What happened?
On 9 April 2021, a Joint Commission meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) members (excluding the United States) was held in Vienna. The meeting followed a virtual and in-person meeting held a few days earlier, resulting in two working groups. One group looks at the US sanctions imposed on Iran; the other will develop conditions that Iran has to comply with to execute the JCPOA. The US representatives stayed at a different hotel as the Iranian delegation refused to meet them directly. Messages about the negotiations were relayed to the US by the other signatories to the JCPOA- Russia, European Union, China.

As the talks' progress, the US and Iran will be involved in indirect talks from the coming week. Iran has expressed its willingness to negotiate provided the US also followed suit. The other parties expect that the negotiations will culminate with a credible outcome that outlines the measures needed to be taken by them to reignite the JCPOA. 

What is the background?
First, the JCPOA initiative, as an effort to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In 2015, President Obama signed the JCPOA to offer sanctions relief to Tehran in exchange to ensure a peaceful Iranian nuclear programme. Under this nuclear deal, Iran agreed to restrict the production of the nuclear material for ten years and dismantle its centrifuges, basically giving up the idea of developing its nuclear weapons. UK, France, China, Russia and Germany (P5+1) were also parties to the deal. 

Second, Trump disrupting the progress of the Iran nuclear deal. Trump pulled out of the deal, following criticisms about the deal by the US' close allies - Israel and Saudi Arabia, and citing Iran's aggression in the Middle East. The other parties to the deal opposed Trump's decision; however, he reimposed sanctions on Iran. Tehran began producing nuclear materials, and considerable advancement in Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs was observed. 

Third, Iran's response. In December 2020, Iran's Supreme Council passed a nuclear law that directs the state to bolster its nuclear enrichment levels up to 20 per cent Ur-235. Despite President Hassan Rouhani's warning against the consequences of such legislation, the Supreme Council passed it. As of February 2021, Iran had produced 17kg of weapons-grade Uranium.

What does it mean?
First, disagreement over what sanctions to remove could be a potential hurdle for the negotiations. While Iran demands all sanctions imposed after January 2016 be lifted, the US does not want to remove non-nuclear sanctions. Moreover, President Trump had smudged the difference between nuclear and non-nuclear related sanctions by placing some into terrorism-related sanctions. A major challenge for the US delegation would be deciding whether to stick to these designations or look beyond them. The US will also have to convince its allies in the Middle East. 

Second, the negotiations have to fructify before the Iran presidential elections in June. If a hardliner replaces Rouhani (who is considered a moderate), Iran could revisit its negotiations. The deal must see the light for the moderates to retain their face amid widespread call for a hardliner Presidential candidate in Iran. Such political change could delay the talks' outcomes, as opposed to what the other parties aim to achieve. 

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