A revised nuclear deal with Iran was nearly agreed upon in March and then again in August, but now hardly anyone seems to believe it can be saved at all. Experts describe the status of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as in a coma at best, and perhaps already dead. Despite several rounds of negotiations in Vienna since 2021 and multiple near-breakthroughs, the United States and Iran have failed to revive the pact that was long described by its supporters as critical to maintaining regional security and deterring Iran from making a nuclear bomb.
“While in a deep coma, the JCPOA isn’t dead—at least none of the parties wants to declare it dead, which would be an admission of foreign-policy failure,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. But others were more pessimistic. “It is hard to imagine that the deal could be restored,” said Ali Vaez, Iran director and senior advisor at the International Crisis Group. It is more hollowed-out than ever before, with “little room to be optimistic” about its revival, added Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow and deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Farzan Nadimi, an associate fellow with the Washington Institute, said that the deal was basically dead.
If the JCPOA is indeed dead, what comes next? Iran might already be a nuclear threshold state and could soon produce a nuclear weapon. The region might plunge into an arms race, with a ramping-up of dangerous spy games between Iran and Israel. There might even be a military confrontation, with the United States involved.
Tehran has previously been accused of deploying its proxies to attack U.S. assets in the region and target U.S. allies. In the absence of continued nuclear negotiations, Tehran could increase the ferocity and frequency of these attacks, say experts on Iranian politics.
The United States and the European Union, in turn, could impose more sanctions, make more room for Israel’s covert sabotage of Iran’s nuclear plants, and encourage the nascent defense alliance of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel that opposes Iran. The West could even consider direct military intervention. The Biden administration came to power deeply hostile to former President Donald Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran, but a similarly adversarial “Plan B” is now being discussed. This Plan B envisages penalties on Chinese entities importing Iranian crude oil, as well as accelerating the delivery to Israel of key defense systems “such as refueling tankers for long-range air strikes” to enable it to potentially hit Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
A European diplomat who spoke to Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity said that he expected Iran to build a nuclear weapon, or at least be ready to quickly build one if efforts to revive the deal come to naught. “In the end, I see (a U.S. military) intervention” to stop Iran from going nuclear, he said from his office in Brussels. Vaez added that if Iran went in that direction, it would leave the United States with two unpalatable choices: “learning to live with an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran.”
It is not widely believed in the U.S. intelligence community that Iran has already decided to build a bomb, says Geranmayeh of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Yet many experts we spoke to said that the possibility rises sharply if the JCPOA officially falls apart. Western capitals were already rattled by the way Iran responded to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal by bringing its uranium enrichment closer to the threshold needed to build a bomb. Few doubt that Iran would reduce its breakout time—the time needed to build a bomb—to mere weeks by increasing enrichment to 90 percent if the deal were not restored.
“Iran will continue to produce more highly enriched uranium, to operate more advanced centrifuges, and to limit IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) monitoring while keeping to the letter of the safeguards agreement that predates the JCPOA,” Fitzpatrick said. “Its purpose is to both put pressure on the U.S. to force them to lift sanctions and to move Iran closer to being able to produce nuclear weapons.”
U.S. President Joe Biden has said that the United States is prepared to use force against Iran as a “last resort.” But instead of pursuing another round of maximum pressure or a full-fledged war, some analysts believe he would prefer a more creative diplomatic approach: a policy of containment, in which the West dictates limits to Iran’s actions in the region backed by the threat of limited military force, paired with single-measure negotiations with Tehran. For instance, the International Crisis Group has proposed that in exchange for Iran diluting its existing uranium stockpile enriched at 60 percent, the United States could partially unfreeze Iran’s assets abroad.
But the deep mistrust that has crippled the talks in Vienna will likely cast a similar pall over any future agreements. Experts say the compromises that diplomats have painstakingly pursued to save the JCPOA by satisfying both sides’ concerns have still failed to bring the two sides together. One dispute was over an investigation by the IAEA into Iran’s nuclear activities at three undeclared sites. Iran has called for an end to the investigation and recently offered the IAEA access to the sites, but the agency is also asking for the details of what happened to the uranium found there. “If the uranium in question found its way into stockpiles that are under IAEA safeguards, and this can be verified along with the status of associated equipment, then the issue can be settled, even if the IAEA is never able to get to the bottom of why the undeclared uranium was there in the first place,” Fitzpatrick said.
But neither the experts nor the diplomats FP spoke to believed Iran would ever provide that information as it could incriminate itself. Iran believes the investigation to be an endless hunt based on intelligence passed on to the IAEA by its archenemy, Israel, which has objected to the passage of the deal from its inception.
The delisting of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp as a foreign terrorist organization was inserted as a demand by Iran earlier this year, even though that is out of the purview of the JCPOA. Media reports in August suggested that Iran had dropped this demand, but the European diplomatic source said Iran was still insistent.
More recently, any appetite to restart talks with Iran has diminished in Washington and Brussels after drones supplied by Iran to Russia were deployed to devastating effect against civilian targets in Ukraine and after protests inside Iran were met with deadly force by gangs of riot police and plainclothes security forces. The negotiating impasse is also fueled by the way that Iran and the United States have each reassessed their respective leverage in the talks. Iran believes its negotiating power has increased ever since the Ukraine war led to a spike in oil prices, with a desperate West presumably more likely to make concessions to bring Iranian oil back into the world market. The United States, meanwhile, wants to wait to see the effect on the stability of the Iranian regime of the protests triggered by the death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested for not wearing her hijab properly.
Some analysts argue these massive protests might never have flared up had the JCPOA been revived and benefited Iran’s economy. Even so, Iran’s hard-liner president, Ebrahim Raisi, has indicated that he is in no hurry to get the deal done. “We have managed to neutralize the [U.S.] sanctions in many cases,” he said at the United Nations General Assembly in September. “The maximum pressure policy suffered an embarrassing defeat. We found our path, independent of any agreement, and will continue steadfastly.” Seyed Mohammad Marandi, an advisor to the Iranian negotiating team, tweeted that Iran would be patient. “Winter is approaching and the EU is facing a crippling energy crisis,” he said.
The United States and its partners, however, insist they have placed their best offer on the table. “The space for negotiations has been exhausted, and the final text, which takes into account all sides, is on the table. The text will not be renegotiated,” Peter Stano, spokesperson for the external affairs of the European Union, told FP. Meanwhile, Iran continues to enrich uranium and avoid IAEA oversight. “Time is not on our side,” he said, “and now is the time to make a political decision.”