The Little Iran Nuclear Deal That Couldn’t

A revived nuclear pact could benefit Washington and Tehran but is proving a hard sell.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
An Iranian flag flies next to a ground-to-ground Sejjil missile at an undisclosed location in Iran.
An Iranian flag flies next to a ground-to-ground Sejjil missile at an undisclosed location in Iran.
An Iranian flag flies next to a ground-to-ground Sejjil missile at an undisclosed location in Iran on Nov. 12, 2008. AFP via Getty Images

Talks on Iran’s nuclear program have been veering between success and failure for months now, bedeviling the best efforts of prognosticators to forecast the outcome. A deal would have something to offer both Washington, in the form of greater constraints to slow Iran’s nuclear advances, and Tehran, which would gain access to a fresh pot of money that it could potentially use to finance some of its more nefarious activities, such as funding regional proxies from Hezbollah to the Houthis. But such a deal would be fraught with political risks that would make it potentially painful for both sides to swallow.

“You have to decide what’s more important: uranium enrichment or Iranian enrichment,” said Ali Vaez, an expert at the International Crisis Group and a proponent of a deal who believes there is a 50-50 chance of a new pact being sealed. “If you are more concerned about uranium enrichment, then this deal is better than the alternative. If you are more concerned about Iranian enrichment, then you would argue for a no-deal scenario.”

The ongoing Iran nuclear talks are aimed at resurrecting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a landmark 2015 pact that offered Iran relief from nuclear-related sanctions in exchange for a verifiable commitment to accept constraints on its nuclear program, ensuring it could not pursue a nuclear weapon in the near term. Former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in May 2018 and imposed additional sanctions on Tehran. A year later, Iran—which had until then complied with the pact—began ramping up its own nuclear activities, violating the terms of the original agreement and reducing the so-called breakout time required to produce enough fissile material to make a single bomb from a year to a matter of weeks.

Talks on Iran’s nuclear program have been veering between success and failure for months now, bedeviling the best efforts of prognosticators to forecast the outcome. A deal would have something to offer both Washington, in the form of greater constraints to slow Iran’s nuclear advances, and Tehran, which would gain access to a fresh pot of money that it could potentially use to finance some of its more nefarious activities, such as funding regional proxies from Hezbollah to the Houthis. But such a deal would be fraught with political risks that would make it potentially painful for both sides to swallow.

“You have to decide what’s more important: uranium enrichment or Iranian enrichment,” said Ali Vaez, an expert at the International Crisis Group and a proponent of a deal who believes there is a 50-50 chance of a new pact being sealed. “If you are more concerned about uranium enrichment, then this deal is better than the alternative. If you are more concerned about Iranian enrichment, then you would argue for a no-deal scenario.”


The ongoing Iran nuclear talks are aimed at resurrecting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a landmark 2015 pact that offered Iran relief from nuclear-related sanctions in exchange for a verifiable commitment to accept constraints on its nuclear program, ensuring it could not pursue a nuclear weapon in the near term. Former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in May 2018 and imposed additional sanctions on Tehran. A year later, Iran—which had until then complied with the pact—began ramping up its own nuclear activities, violating the terms of the original agreement and reducing the so-called breakout time required to produce enough fissile material to make a single bomb from a year to a matter of weeks.

The Biden administration committed to rejoining the JCPOA on the condition that Iran return to compliance with the pact and reopened indirect negotiations with Iran in April 2021. Those talks—which have included representatives from successive Iranian administrations—were nearing completion last month. But they have since stalled, most recently over a Russian demand that it be granted a broad exemption from sanctions imposed on Moscow in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Russia is important to the Iran deal because, for now, it is the one country willing and able to offload Iran’s uranium.

Negotiators for the key signatories to the nuclear accord with Iran—China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain, and the United States, as well as the European Union, which is facilitating the talks—have largely returned home from the stalemated talks. The final stumbling blocks include a pair of demands by Iran to remove its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations and to provide some guarantees that the pact will not be rescinded if Republicans come to power in the United States. The Biden administration was reportedly entertaining the possibility of delisting the IRGC, which would continue to be subject to separate sanctions, but the arrangement has faced enormous backlash in Washington, Israel, and the Gulf. It remains unclear whether the United States will delist the Iranian force.

A new deal

The announcement of a nuclear deal would provide some clear benefits to U.S. policymakers. It would require Iran to stop operating its most advanced centrifuges, which progressively enrich uranium from the levels needed for energy generation to the levels needed for warheads. Iran would also have to store those centrifuges in a warehouse under international monitoring and either degrade its stockpile of highly enriched uranium—the stuff that is approaching weapons-grade purity—or ship it abroad. But a deal is a hard political sell. The new pact is certain to be weaker than the original, with a significantly shorter breakout time. It would leave Iran in possession of a new generation of advanced centrifuges that it began operating only after the Trump administration pulled out of the deal.

Critics in Washington and in the Middle East have already been marshaling opposition to another nuclear deal, saying it merely postpones, rather than halts, Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon. Under the terms of the original 2015 deal, Iran can legally resume some of its enrichment activities in 2026 and 2031. Iran secured the right to expand the size of its uranium stockpile, currently capped at about 660 pounds, in January 2031 and to then enrich uranium at higher levels than currently allowed under the 2015 nuclear pact. Those provisions would shorten the estimated breakout time Iran would need to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb. It remains unclear whether a new deal would extend those provisions. But Iran has, in the wake of the U.S. abrogation of the pact, already enriched more uranium, and to greater purities, than it could have done under the deal it previously adhered to.

But Iran would still be subject to expanded international monitoring of its nuclear program for up to an additional 10 years. The original pact also required Iran to sign an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—known as the Additional Protocol—that involves more intrusive scrutiny of its nuclear program than required by signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Iran has long contended that it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons and that its nuclear program is aimed at securing the country’s energy future. But Iran had developed a clandestine program to design a warhead for a nuclear weapon. U.S. intelligence later concluded that Iran had halted its work on nuclear weapons. But the Iranian government has yet to satisfy repeated requests by the IAEA to clarify questions about its nuclear program.

It is unlikely that the U.S. Congress can, or will, block the implementation of the deal. The Senate majority leader, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, an opponent of the original 2015 nuclear deal, has expressed support for the talks this time around, and fellow Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Ed Markey have made a public case for a deal. “There is no good alternative to reentering the Iran nuclear deal,” Markey told Congress, noting that Trump’s maximum pressure policy had resulted in “maximum enrichment” and put the United States “on a perilous path to war.”

“These failed policies have led Iran closer to a nuclear weapon,” he said.

No new deal 

A breakdown of talks would have serious downsides for Washington, removing international scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program and raising the prospect of a military confrontation with Tehran. It also comes at a time when the West is craving new sources of oil and gas to offset the reduction of Russian exports brought on by sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine. For Tehran, the failure to close the deal would cut off billions of dollars in future oil revenues and frozen funds. France and Britain would likely trigger the snapback provision of the 2015 nuclear deal, which would reimpose a raft of U.N. Security Council nuclear and ballistic missile sanctions on Iran.

Those who support dumping the deal, or renegotiating a stronger pact, have argued that Iran will only be emboldened to engage in more nefarious activities, including a ballistic missile program that continues to advance in the face of nuclear diplomacy. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has criticized the emerging deal, predicting it would be weaker than the original pact, and warning that some of its key provisions would expire in the next decade, putting Iran on a “fast track to military-grade enrichment.”

“For Israel and all the stability-seeking forces in the Middle East, the emerging deal as it seems is highly likely to create a more violent, more volatile Middle East,” he added.

But Bennett has stopped short of mounting the same kind of provocative public campaign that saw his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, delivering a highly combative address to the U.S. Congress in an effort to derail then-President Barack Obama’s most important Middle East diplomatic initiative.

Supporters of a deal acknowledge that it isn’t likely to be perfect, but they say the alternative is worse: an Iranian government with few constraints on its nuclear activities and the ingredients for greater confrontation—and potentially war. The maximum pressure campaign launched by the Trump administration was an abysmal failure, they note, providing Tehran with political cover for restricting international monitoring and leaving the regime with a more menacing stockpile of highly enriched uranium, all of which has brought the country closer to being able to build a bomb.

“We don’t want Iran to have a nuclear weapon, and the best way to get to that is probably through a negotiated solution,” Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, then-head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters in mid-March. “That will not solve the other problems of Iranian behavior in the [Middle East] theater, and I don’t think anybody in the United States government is blind to that fact.” But “if you can take nuclear weapons off the table, that’s a powerful capability that you don’t have to worry about,” he added.

Richard Goldberg, an advisor to Trump’s National Security Council who was responsible for implementing the anti-Iran campaign, dismissed criticism that the former president’s policy failed to constrain Iran.

“I reject the notion that the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign failed,” Goldberg said, arguing that Iran escalated its confrontation with the United States after the election of President Joe Biden, ramping up its uranium enrichment and supporting proxies that are attacking U.S. and allied forces in the region. “We haven’t had maximum pressure since January 2021.”

Under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran was only allowed to produce low-enriched uranium containing 3.67 percent U-235, the fissile material extracted from natural uranium to generate electrical power. A year after Trump withdrew from the deal, Iran began expanding its stockpile of uranium enriched to 4.5 percent U-235, and deploying more advanced centrifuges capable of accelerating its enrichment activities, in violation of the original pact. Iran first announced it was enriching uranium at a level of 20 percent U-235 in January 2021, in the final days of the Trump administration. Tehran has since begun enriching to 60 percent U-235, which is only a short technical step away from enriching uranium at 90 percent U-235, which is weapons-grade.

Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, said that while it will be much more challenging to sell a final deal as an unalloyed diplomatic achievement, congressional opponents don’t have the votes to kill it off.

“There is a regional risk no matter how you cut it,” he said. “The Iranians would have significant new resources at their disposal, and some of it would be funneled to their regional proxies.” Still, Rome said he doesn’t expect the outcome to emerge as a central theme in the U.S. midterm elections. “As much as Iran analysts like to think their subject is at the center of the universe, I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that voters will take this into account in a serious way,” he said.

Update, April 5, 2022: This story has been updated to clarify the progression of Iranian uranium enrichment after the United States left the nuclear deal in May 2018. 

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.