Iran Nuclear Diplomacy Enters a Perilous New Phase

In early June, Iran took the dramatic step of turning off some monitoring cameras in key nuclear facilities that had been installed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The move came in reaction to a vote by the IAEA board of governors to censor Iran over its lack of cooperation with IAEA inspectors.

This latest turn in the ongoing saga of nuclear diplomacy with Iran is further indication of just how precarious the 2015 Nuclear deal seems to be.

Laura Rozen is a veteran reporter who has closely followed the contours of Iran nuclear diplomacy over many years. She is a member of the Just Security editorial board and writes the “Diplomatic” newsletter on Substack

We kick off discussing the state of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as Biden inherited it in 2021 before discussing how nuclear diplomacy with Iran in the past two years has unfolded, leading to this latest crisis over the removal of IAEA monitoring cameras.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

How Have Trump and Biden Interacted with the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?

Laura Rozen [00:03:20] Yes, so the Biden administration came in January 20th and the Trump administration had left the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and Iran since 2019 so for the past, about a year and a half had been steadily exceeding the deal’s limits to protest the lack of sanctions relief they were getting. Trump left the deal. So, when Biden came in, unlike with the New START treaty with the Russians, that was a first week thing that they announced that they were going to go back into, which Trump hadn’t done. But with Iran, with the JCPOA, the administration, as they were getting in place, decided they wanted to consult with the other parties who were part of the deal before they figured out what they were going to announce. Even though Biden had campaigned on saying that if the Iranians would go back to the deal, he would go back to the deal.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:18] The other parties are, to remind listeners, permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany.

Laura Rozen [00:04:25] Exactly and in particular Biden, as you’ve seen for the past two years, they’re always talking about allies and partners and working with allies. So, in particular, he really wanted to hug Europe and consult with Europeans and then in addition, Russia, and China. And also, there was the implication that Israel and the Gulf allies who were very nervous about if Biden — the pendulum swings so much with U.S. administrations between Democrats and Republicans — so you want him to consult with the Israelis and Arabs as well.

What is the timeline of current negotiations surrounding the Iran Nuclear Deal?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:57] So the upshot being that Biden did not want to rush back into the JCPOA, even though he was very supportive of it.

Laura Rozen [00:05:06] Correct. And the meantime, is the Iranian government that had negotiated the deal they were lame ducks. There were Iranian presidential elections scheduled for last June, so they only had a few months on the clock so while Biden was trying to consult with everybody and get everyone comfortable with where he was going, the Iranians were sitting there saying, we’re going to be out of here in a couple of months. And they basically, the former Iranian foreign minister Zarif and the former Iranian President Rouhani, were pretty constrained by the Iranian system at that point from diplomatic initiatives because they had been burned so badly. So, there was this terrible mismatch and I think by late February, anyhow, the Biden administration went to consult with the Europeans, and they had come out with a joint statement with the Europeans saying, we want to go back to the deal with the Iranians well, by then, the Iranians took a whole month to agree to resume talks with the United States. They all didn’t get to Vienna till last April, and the Iranians would not talk with the US directly until the US is back in the deal. So that added more time to all the negotiations that it had to go through the other parties.

What occurred in the informal talks between the United States and Iran in April 2021?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:30] So you’re saying in April 2021 there were talks, though not necessarily direct talks between the United States and the Iranians.

Laura Rozen [00:06:39] Correct. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany plus Iran, convened by the European Union, met in Vienna. They started having those multiparty talks in Vienna, but the US was not in the room, so the Europeans or whoever would go back and forth. So, this is April 2021, Iran has presidential elections in June, and the Rouhani administration is in its second term, and it can’t run again. So, by the time they start talking, the Rouhani people are really lame ducks. I mean, that’s basically the beginning of their transition out. So, the parties worked on a draft of the deal, and by June, just before the Iranian elections, they had part of the draft on a deal to return to the deal, but it wasn’t done, and they broke for the Iranian elections with many parties expecting they would get back there soon. You know, I think the US Special Envoy to Iran, Rob Malley, has been quoted saying that he left suits in Vienna expecting that they would be back after a few weeks and the hardline Raisi administration gets elected and during the transition before Raisi comes in, well, many people were thinking, oh, that’s when the Iranians will be able to rejoin the deal, right, and blame any concession on the outgoing guys. That did not happen. There were no meetings. They didn’t come back. I think you and I were both in New York in September for the U.N. events. The new Iranian foreign minister comes, and he gives a lot of speeches about, you know, why they’re not rushing back to talks. Anyhow, by the time they all get back to Vienna, it is not till the last week of November and then the hardline guys come in and they spend the first couple of weeks of December basically walking back everything they already conceded in the draft that they had till June. So, there was really a crisis. Some members left the U.S. negotiating team. I think you’ve heard of the deputy envoy, Richard Matthew, left feeling like the Iranians were giving the U.S. the runaround. At that point, Russia really had been playing an important role because the Iranians felt like Russia — so the Europeans and the U.S. are on one side, kind of the hard liners, right?

Why did the Iran-United States negotiations in 2021 come to a crisis point?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:09] From the Iranian perspective, the U.S. and Western Europe are the hard liners and Russia and to a certain extent, China are the more reasonable interlocutors.

Laura Rozen [00:09:18] Exactly, so back in December, in this crisis point when the U.S. team was having divisions and people didn’t know if they were going to walk out on the talks because the Iranian position was seen as so unreasonable with this new government after they waited months and months to come back to the talks and after they had expanded their nuclear program during those months in ways that were alarming, you know, they had increased their 20% enrichment. I don’t remember exactly when they started 60% enrichment, they were doing more underground enrichment. So, I think the Western parties felt like the Iranians were trying to boost up their nuclear program, to put pressure on the West to give more concessions and I think the West felt that the Iranians weren’t negotiating in good faith at this point. The Russians really went into overdrive and behind the scenes they worked with the Iranians and got the Iranians to walk back to the old draft, more or less. On the nuclear front, they got them to go back to the old draft and so a crisis was averted by late December. If Iran hadn’t done that, the U.S. said there was going to be at the IAEA Board of Governors meeting in late December, they were going to have a censure resolution against Iran but Iran made all these concessions at the last minute. And so, they didn’t have to do the censure and then they had two months of incredibly productive talks in Vienna, even with this hardline Iranian government, where they basically got a draft done against a lot of people’s expectations by the end of February. And I went to Vienna at the end of February with a lot of other people because negotiators were telling us they expected to get the deal and then the Russian war in Ukraine started.

How has Russia’s war on Ukraine affected the Iranian Nuclear Deal talks?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:18] So I remember reading lots of commentary from you and from others saying, wow, we are really close to a diplomatic breakthrough on the Iran nuclear front. This was like the end of February, middle of February, and then February 24th, Russia invades Ukraine and given the crucial role that you describe Russia played in bringing the Iranians back to the negotiating table, presumably that Russian invasion of the Ukraine had a profoundly negative impact on Iran nuclear diplomacy. Can you explain what that impact was?

Laura Rozen [00:12:00] Yes and actually, it wasn’t immediate. I mean, I met with the Russian ambassador the day I arrived in Vienna, which was the day after the war started. You have to know that during the 2015 talks that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2014 and 2015, those negotiations, Russia had invaded Crimea and there have been other instances in the past where everyone kind of holds their breath, thinking it’s all going to fall apart, and it had survived. The Russians see the nuclear deal as in their interests, right? So, it’s not because they’re doing any favors for the United States. It’s because it’s understood that Russia wants the nuclear deal. So, this time, for like a week or two, everything was still the same. The dynamic was similar that they actually got the draft. The Europe E3, the three European parties came to the deal and said, our work is done. There were just a few little things between the U.S. and Russia to iron out. This was like early March, as you said, this year and then Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, makes some comments. This is right after the European and US sanctions are announced against Russia for the current invasion of Ukraine and he starts making some demands that, oh well, we don’t know if the new sanctions on Russia are going to impede the Russian ability to fulfill its role in the nuclear deal, the Iran nuclear deal. So, they raised some concerns to get taken to this joint commission, which oversees implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. This maybe takes us a week or two into March. The negotiations in Vienna have basically broken off for now because the draft is done. These are some new Russian demands. By mid-March or so my understanding is the Russian concerns have been resolved that the Western sanctions on Russia are not going to impede the Iran nuclear deal, but at this point, my understanding is the Iranians have this demand that the US delist the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps from a State Department terror blacklist called the FTO List: Foreign Terror Organization List. The U.S. envoy takes it back to the NSC and it goes up to meetings and at some point, the White House, or the Biden administration, they go back to Iran and say, okay, well, if we do this non-nuclear concession, you have to give us some non-nuclear concession, right? Like agree not to target our officials; they gave them some list of options for some reciprocal gesture and the Iranians mulled this and they come back and say, no, they’re not going to do that. There were different compromises like, for instance, you could take off the IRGC and put on the Quds Force, the part of the IRGC that is considered to be the arm that sponsors foreign terrorism and proxy groups, right? It’s not that the whole IRGC is not considered to be acting abroad as much as this Quds Force. Remember, the Trump administration had assassinated the Quds Force commander, Kassam Soleimani, in Iraq in a very controversial move so the Iranians were still looking to avenge that and part of their vengeance around it was that we’ve heard that there are that the US has credible intelligence that Iran is threatening to target former U.S. officials who they consider involved with that decision and reportedly the former secretary of State Mike Pompeo has had to have $2 million worth of security from the State Department every month because of this threat. I think the former national security adviser for Trump, Bolton, is understood to have extra security out of this threat and some other officials as well. So, this is serious stuff. The U.S. is saying, right, if we take off the IRGC, you can’t target our former officials and the Iranians wouldn’t agree to that. So, it’s basically been stalemated. So, then the E.U. coordinator of the talks, Enrique Mora, the deputy secretary general, went to Iran a couple of times to try to pass messages to try to see if they could get — are there other things Iran would want on the sanctions delisting front that might be acceptable, right? And that hasn’t been successful yet.

Why did the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors vote to censure Iran?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:45] And so it’s in this context of stalemate that earlier in June, the IAEA board of Governors, which is made up of a number of U.N. member states, that kind of tilts towards the west, they voted to formally censure Iran. But what was that censure resolution all about?

Laura Rozen [00:17:07] So a couple of years before, there had been some particles found, I think at three Iranian sites, and there had been an IAEA resolution asking Iran to cooperate with the IAEA to explain what those past particles were about. This is work that I understand is before 2003 and before the Iran nuclear deal and so Iran back in March, when it seemed we might get the nuclear deal, had agreed with the IAEA that it would work on a road map to explain to them what these particles were about. The IAEA director general, Rafael Grossi, reported back to the IAEA board in June that he didn’t find Iran’s cooperation that successful or that convincing. And in the meantime, you know, there’s not that much progress on the nuclear deal and the Russians aren’t lifting a finger to help on this behind-the-scenes like the Russians had for several IAEA board meetings in the past: gone behind closed doors with the Iranians and said, you have to do X, Y, Z. That didn’t happen this time. So, the Iranian sends some messages through the EU trying to coax everybody not to do this resolution and saying that maybe they’ll come back to meetings or blah, blah, blah, and the parties went ahead and did this resolution. It was extremely mild, but urging them, not referring them to the UN Security Council. It was much more in the language of coaxing, but Iran reacted very harshly, as they tend to do, and said they were going to respond proportionally and they said they were going to turn off a bunch of cameras, IAEA cameras. They informed the IAEA that they were moving forward with installing cascades of advanced IR6 centrifuges in underground locations to do enrichment. So, they’re reacting very harshly.

What are the implications of Iran turning off IAEA monitoring cameras?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:27] You know, these cameras that they are taking offline are a significant part of the IAEA’s ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear activity. They’re sort of how the IAEA monitors the nuclear activities. They don’t have boots on the ground. They have these kinds of sophisticated cameras that they’ve set up at key locations and judging from what I’ve heard from Grossi, the head of the IAEA, this is a very significant move that could seriously undermine the ability of the IAEA to monitor Iran’s nuclear program.

Laura Rozen [00:20:08] So I have to say, I do not understand all the technical specifications of how the IAEA monitoring regime works. Speaking with a European diplomat last week when Iran was announcing their measures, I said, is this what you expected? And he said it was still within what they were expecting. I’m not sure all the parties were as alarmed by Iran’s reaction as, you know, Grossi’s. Grossi has a different job than the diplomats, right? I mean. Grossi’s all about IAEA continuity and what I understood from what Grossi was saying is they could go about three or four weeks in this state, after which he would not be able to guarantee that they had continuity of knowledge. Does that make sense? So, they could go for some amount of time with still feeling like they could reconstitute what Iran had been doing and proving that it was peaceful, so they have a certain amount of time.

How did Director General of the IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi, react to Iran turning off monitoring cameras?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:14] Yeah. I mean, it’s Grossi and the IAEA’s job to report to the board of Governors about what they’re seeing on these cameras and Grossi was saying, after two or three weeks, with these cameras off, we can’t reliably inform you, was my understanding and my interpretation of Grossi’s statement.

Laura Rozen [00:21:33] And let me just say, Grossi did something provocative before this IAEA board meeting, which was, you don’t have the Russians at this point playing a hopeful role behind the scenes, you don’t have talks in Vienna where there’s any kind of momentum to get the Iranians on your page, right? You’re in a kind of stalemate. And Grossi goes to Israel right before the IAEA board meeting, and he hasn’t really explained what he’s doing there and Israel’s not a party to the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and Israel has been pushing loudly all the parties to end the negotiations and don’t have a deal. And so, I think the Iranians found that provocative. I have to say, the diplomats I was talking to in Vienna from Western parties also found it provocative and not conducive to trying to make Iran more conciliatory. I thought that was an unusual action by Grossi because Israel has been trying to spoil the talks. In the meantime, you’ve seen reports of Israel not really denying the role and assassination of a IRGC figure in Iran and more recent reports, I think, in the past week of other IRGC affiliated figures who’ve died of suspected poisoning. I know nothing about that, but it seems like Israel’s trying to create a little bit of paranoia again and Iran and Grossi kind of lent himself to and, you know, there have been past acts of sabotage at key moments in the past couple of years of Iranian nuclear facilities that Iranians suspect were done by Israel. And there’s never I think from the Iranian perspective, the IAEA or Grossi never really condemned those and very, very seriously.

Will the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) be able to survive this moment of crisis?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:42] So, it seems that the JCPOA has been dying like a slow death since Trump ripped it up in 2018 but in recent days and weeks, it seems that that pace of death is accelerating. Is that accurate to you? Do you see this as the end?

Laura Rozen [00:23:58] I don’t know because my understanding is that the Europeans have sent something to the Iranians last week, various ideas for trying to get the talks back on track, there’s some expectation that the Iranians are supposed to respond, and they haven’t yet. But, you know, look, I mean, oil is however many dollars a barrel. Iran could be selling an enormous amount of oil all over the world if they got a deal. You’ve seen there have been protests in Iran. They implemented some economic reforms at in the spring, in May that raised prices: food prices and other prices and so Iran could really benefit from the deal. In the meantime, their nuclear program basically the breakout is less than a week or the amount of time it would take Iran if it chose to enrich enough 90% uranium for one nuclear weapon is now considered to be less than two weeks. So, all sides have an interest, I think, in still getting a deal. I think that you just have these global dynamics we were talking about are not conducive to helping the Iranians get there. There’s not meetings going on in Vienna; those definitely help when you have like a certain momentum. There’s kind of nothing really going on and you have Biden choosing to go to Israel and Saudi Arabia in July, even though I think from the Biden administration perspective, they think you can have the Iran deal and talk to Israel and talk to Saudi Arabia. The Iranians again, see it as Biden picking their rivals, their regional rivals over a deal with them. So, it’s a really tough situation. I’ve also seen some Iranian commentary that they feel like Biden won’t take risks on Iran before the midterms and I mean, the Iranians think they’re much more important, I think in the US midterms maybe than they are. When you and I look at the polling of what people are concerned about in the midterms, it’s much more domestic issues like inflation, right? But the Iranians somehow feel like Biden won’t give them this concession now because it’s too politically complicated, but maybe he will after the midterms. When I look at the things, you know, Biden’s probably not going to be in a better situation with Congress after the midterms so I feel like we could be in the midst of a tragic mistake where the Iranians see benefit in waiting and think that they can get more by waiting and I think Biden will be unable to give them more by waiting.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:50] Well, Laura, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for your time and for your excellent reporting, as always. I will plug your substack, of which I am proudly a paying member. It’s great.

Laura Rozen [00:27:02] Thank you, Mark. Thank you for having me again, take care.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:05] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Laura and everyone should follow her substack. It’s a great resource for understanding the latest in Iran, nuclear diplomacy and more. All right. We’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!