The U.S. Is Quietly Leaving the Door Open to a New Iran Deal

February 14, 2023 | Richard Goldberg
About the author: Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, as the chief of staff for Illinois’s governor, and as a Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer.

On Friday, the White House announced that it will continue to waive sanctions on Russian and Chinese businesses assisting the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. The renewal of this six-month waiver, reports that the U.S. envoy for Iran has thrice met with the Iranian UN ambassador in the past few weeks, and other off-the-radar policy decisions all suggest that Washington has not given up its hopes of restoring the 2015 nuclear agreement. This despite Tehran’s support for the Russian war in Ukraine, its coziness with China, and its ruthless suppression of mass demonstrations. Richard Goldberg comments. (Free registration required.)

The fundamental failing of the 2015 agreement was its legitimization of Iran’s illicitly built nuclear infrastructure and capabilities without first requiring a complete and verifiable accounting of the regime’s past work on nuclear weapons. Thus Iran was able to keep its Natanz and Fordow uranium-enrichment facilities and continue low-level enrichment on Iranian soil without even admitting it had violated its international obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). These concessions allowed Iran to keep its pathways to nuclear weapons intact, advance its technical knowhow through research and development, and preserve its option to restart higher-level enrichment at any time.

Take, for example, the Fordow facility near the Iranian city of Qom, which Iran had kept secret until exposed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France in 2009. A peaceful civil nuclear-energy program does not require secret domestic enrichment since nuclear fuel for reactors can be imported with proper nonproliferation safeguards in place. All the more so, an enrichment facility buried underneath a mountain can have only one objective in mind. . . . But rather than require the facility’s irreversible dismantling, the deal allowed Iran to keep more than 1,000 centrifuges at the site, and invited Russia to partner on radioisotope production.

The United States, the United Kingdom, France, or Germany could kill off the [2015 deal] for good at any moment by simply sending a letter to the Security Council requesting a snapback of UN sanctions on Iran. Yet they quite intentionally choose not to do so. They also choose not formally to declare Iran in noncompliance with the NPT at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) despite Iran’s refusal to cooperate with a four-year-long investigation into undeclared nuclear sites and materials.

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