Iran plays a dangerous game in nuclear talks

Two days after Iran resumed negotiations with world powers to revive the moribund 2015 nuclear deal, news emerged that it had started enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges at its Fordow plant. The revelation was only the latest indication of how far Tehran had expanded its nuclear programme since former President Donald Trump abandoned a crucial accord that had frozen the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. In response to the reimposition of US sanctions, Iran stopped abiding by its obligations and made significant progress.

Under the historic 2015 deal, Iran could not enrich uranium at all at Fordow. It has not only restarted activity at the plant but is processing the chemical at a purity of 20 per cent, far above the 3.67 per cent level agreed in the accord. At other facilities, enrichment reaches 60 per cent purity, its highest ever level and close to weapons grade. Iran’s breakout time — the time needed to accumulate sufficient highly enriched uranium for one nuclear bomb — is estimated to have fallen from one year when the deal was fully implemented to about one month.

All this underscores why diplomatic efforts to save the accord have reached a critical juncture. President Joe Biden entered office pledging to rejoin the agreement and remove many sanctions if Iran returned to full compliance. But nearly a year on, western patience with Tehran is wearing thin amid concerns about its atomic advances. It is time for Iran to recommit to stop its nuclear march and stick once more to the agreement.

The talks between Iran and world powers resumed after a five-month hiatus following the election of President Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative protégé of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. A more hardline and less experienced negotiating team has replaced the one that made some progress in the first half of the year under a more moderate administration. Unlike Raisi, former president Hassan Rouhani was a staunch supporter of a deal and was looking to revive it.

So far, Raisi’s government is sticking to maximalist positions, notably demanding a guarantee that no US administration would be able to unilaterally withdraw from the accord in the future and that all sanctions, not just those imposed by Trump, are lifted before Iran begins to reverse its nuclear gains. Tehran’s desire for a guarantee may be understandable following Trump’s reckless attempt to destroy an international agreement that Iran was complying with. But Iranian officials surely know that it would be impossible for any US president to deliver, just as they would be naive to expect sanctions to be removed without reciprocal movement on the nuclear programme.

The hope is that Iran, which still denies that it wants a nuclear weapon, is raising the stakes to strengthen its position at the negotiating table but will display a more realistic attitude. It should not wait too long: the timeframe for diplomacy narrows with every nuclear expansion.

The US still has some cards to play. Washington may not be able to offer Iran the guarantees it seeks, but there is scope to provide assurances on economic benefits that would accrue from reversing nuclear progress. This could include licences to companies to trade in certain Iranian sectors and commitments to unfreeze overseas oil funds.

The 2015 deal was by no means perfect. But it remains the most achievable way of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions and preventing an arms race in the Middle East. Now that the US is eager to return to its commitment, Iran should be willing to do the same.

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