Vienna II: What Next for the JCPOA?
by Nikola Zukalová
Nuclear diplomacy over the past five years has been a nail-biting experience. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — a landmark agreement that intended to both restrict Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and act as a regional confidence building measure — was wracked in controversy from its inception. Most Arab states and Israel viewed the JCPOA, and its European and American proponents, suspiciously while Iran, flush with cash, continued to develop its ballistic missile programme and financially (and materially) endow an assortment of insurgent groups around the region. Trump’s election marked a reversal of fortunes for the Islamic Republic but did nothing to repair regional stability. The US withdrawal from the JCPOA and the introduction of Washington’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy did not force a recalibration in Tehran and the US failure to support Saudi Arabia in the wake of the missile and drone attack at the ARAMCO facility in Abqaiq had many scratching their heads. Iran may have been humbled by the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani, but it did not dent its nuclear ambitions. If anything, Iran has doubled-down on its nuclear strategy and is playing a game of brinkmanship—increasing its centrifuge production and the enrichment of uranium to levels unseen before. The election of Biden has not changed Iran’s nuclear trajectory but it has prodded the international community towards renewed summitry.
Five years since concluding the JCPOA and the representatives of the signatories — China, Germany, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Iran — have returned to Vienna to end the impasse, bring the US back to the deal and Iran away from the point of nuclear breakout.
Initial enthusiasm about positive engagement with Iran has gradually been replaced by more sober assessment. While the US has signalled its willingness to return to the deal after Iran returns to full compliance, Tehran seems to have moved past that point and instead has developed a more coercive approach to scare the US and Europeans into making concessions without having to alter its current policies. This has manifested itself in several ways such as: direct and indirect attacks on commercial vessels traversing the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Seas, drone and missile attacks on energy transmission infrastructure, and civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, the deliberate targeting of US personnel in Iraq and elsewhere. Iran’s recent hijacking of a South Korean tanker pressured Seoul into unfreezing billions of dollars of Iranian funds that had been locked away as part of the international sanctions regime against Tehran. This might have cemented Tehran’s view that risky policy actions may pay off.
It is also worth noting that the US and the European delegations feel that time is of the essence and are eager to reach agreement before the upcoming (June) presidential elections as it is anticipated that Hassan Rouhani’s successor will represent the hardline wing in Iran’s domestic political scene; though, ultimately it is the combined weight of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the all-powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) which decides on nuclear and foreign policy issues.
The JCPOA delegations in Vienna are not the only ones to affect Iran’s nuclear decisions however. Soon after the launching of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium at its main underground nuclear facility in Natanz — on the occasion of its National Nuclear Technology Day (9 April) — the site was the target of a massive disruption attack that destroyed most of the centrifuges’ infrastructure and set back Iran’s capabilities by, at least, nine months according to the New York Times intelligence sources. Three days later, with US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, meeting NATO allies in Brussels, Iran announced that it will start enriching uranium to up to 60% (much higher than the set limit of 3.67%) — as declared by the country’s Supreme Leader in February — and plans to add a thousand, even more advanced, centrifuges at Natanz, prompting a ‘grave concern’ statement from the European powers. This followed the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) earlier reports that Iran was producing uranium metal, another crucial component in nuclear weapon development, which was limited until 2031 as part of the JCPOA, possessed low-enriched uranium stockpile 14 times larger than the limit agreed under the Nuclear Deal and failed to explain the presence of man-made uranium particles found at several of its nuclear facilities and undeclared locations in early 2019 and mid-2020—a point further complicated by Iran’s banning of IAEA inspectors, which was later replaced by a limited inspections regime set to expire at end of May. There is no credible reason for enriching uranium to such a high level or producing uranium metal for civilian purposes. These steps support the argument that Iran is developing a military nuclear programme.
The current situation shows that no matter how many parties sign the agreement with Iran, it is the US with whom the deal stands and falls — when Washington walked away, Tehran signalled to Europe that their continued participation was not enough and the deal required US engagement. This is equally applicable to China and Russia, which have been more in-line with the Iranian position throughout. They are all circling the wagons; demanding that the US takes the first step. But the view from Washington — and, to an extent, the E3 — is clouded by some of the implications of a wholesale removal of sanctions and the fuel rehabilitation of the US-Iran relationship in the context of the JCPOA.
Since 2015, it seems that Iran has pursued an aggressive set of clandestine operations on European soil, including in the Netherlands, Denmark and France. Intelligence services have also noted Iran's efforts to acquire material and know-how for its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, notably in Germany, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.[i] Those efforts involved covert companies and third countries to reexport questionable cargo from Europe to Iran, with the possibility of payments being transferred through, for instance, Russia and Turkey.[ii] In 2015, the same year the JCPOA entering into force, German intelligence registered heightened, illegal activities, to acquire proliferation-sensitive goods that could be used for Iran’s nuclear technology and ballistic missile programme development, which could serve to deliver nuclear payloads, some missiles in Iran’s arsenal are already nuclear-capable.[iii]
According to Czech intelligence agency, various companies — notably from China, Turkey and the UAE — were involved in reexporting those parts to Iran illegally. The far-reaching implications of such reexports for the Gulf’s security (and global economy) came to light for following the 2019 attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil stations in Abqaiq and Khurais, which suspended about 5% of the world’s daily oil production. An analysis of the missile debris used in the attack identified replicas of Czech motors constructed through reverse engineering, using also some original components of the motors.[iv] Iran also intensified cyber-attacks on European countries’ ICT infrastructure to circumvent sanctions and acquire know-how and sensitive information about the EU countries’ security and foreign policies, emerging alongside China and Russia as the major state sponsors of cyber-attacks against Europe.[v] While such information regularly appears in the European intelligence services’ assessments, they seldom make the headlines which seem preoccupied by nuclear diplomacy.
Preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is crucial—particularly considering its past proliferation record. However, the nuclear issue should not come at the expense of other files, notably the support to and financing of terrorism, small arms proliferation to non-state actors, drug smuggling and religious radicalisation in Europe, the US, the Middle East and beyond. The US and European delegations to the JCPOA should be clear-eyed about the end-game and avoid risking too much over a deal set to expire in a decade, while the repercussions of continuing to overlook other problems for short-term commercial and political gains could have much longer, and more profound, impact.
[i] BIS, ‘Výroční zpráva Bezpečnostní informační služby za rok 2015,’ https://www.bis.cz/public/site/bis.cz/content/vyrocni-zpravy/2015-vz-cz.pdf; BIS, ‘Výroční zpráva Bezpečnostní informační služby za rok 2016,’ https://www.bis.cz/public/site/bis.cz/content/vyrocni-zpravy/2016-vz-cz.pdf; General Intelligence and Security Service, ‘Annual Report 2017 AIVD,’ 13 March 2018, https://english.aivd.nl/publications/annual-report/2018/03/09/annual-report-2017-aivd; ‘Letter of 8 January 2019 from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, and the Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, Kajsa Ollongren, to the President of the House of Representatives on sanctions against Iran on the grounds of undesirable interference,’ 8 January 2019, https://english.aivd.nl/publications/publications/2019/01/08/letter-on-sanctions-against-iran; Bundesministerium des Innern, ‘Verfassungsschutzbericht 2015,’ 28 June 2016, https://www.verfassungsschutz.de/SharedDocs/publikationen/DE/2016/verfassungsschutzbericht-2015.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=8.
[ii] BIS, ‘Výroční zpráva Bezpečnostní informační služby za rok 2015’; BIS, ‘Výroční zpráva Bezpečnostní informační služby za rok 2016;’ Bundesministerium des Innern, ‘Verfassungsschutzbericht 2015’; Bundesministerium des Innern, ‘Verfassungsschutzbericht 2016,’ https://www.verfassungsschutz.de/SharedDocs/publikationen/DE/2017/verfassungsschutzbericht-2016.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=9.
[iii] Bundesministerium des Innern, ‘Verfassungsschutzbericht 2015.’
[iv] BIS, ‘Výroční zpráva Bezpečnostní informační služby za rok 2019,’ https://www.bis.cz/public/site/bis.cz/content/vyrocni-zpravy/2019-vz-cz.pdf.
[v] Bundesministerium des Innern, ‘Verfassungsschutzbericht 2016; Bundesministerium des Innern, ‘Verfassungsschutzbericht 2018,’ https://www.verfassungsschutz.de/SharedDocs/publikationen/DE/2019/verfassungsschutzbericht-2018.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=9; Bundesministerium des Innern, ‘Verfassungsschutzbericht 2019,’ https://www.verfassungsschutz.de/SharedDocs/publikationen/DE/2020/verfassungsschutzbericht-2019.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=10; General Intelligence and Security Service, ‘AIVD Annual Report 2019,’ 3 September 2020, https://english.aivd.nl/publications/annual-report/2020/09/03/aivd-annual-report-2019; General Intelligence and Security Service, ‘Offensive cyber-programmes - An ideal business model for states,’ 26 February 2020, https://english.aivd.nl/publications/publications/2020/02/26/publication-aivd-offensive-cyber-programmes---an-ideal-business-model-for-states.