Why Blame Iran in JCPOA talks?

The standoff in the JCPOA talks is a redux of past failed deals; the standoff is not attributable to Iranian “intransigence” a much as domestic U.S. constraints on Biden and prior presidents, that prevented any real lifting of sanctions, leaving nothing to negotiate with but threats of Plan B and attempts at blame-shifting.

This whole matter reminds me of the Turkey-Brazil uranium swap deal, in Obama’s first term that he killed-off after Iran had unexpectedly said Yes, by adding a last-minute demand that Iran not only export its stock of near-20% enriched uranium which Iran had made in the first place to make its own fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) due to sanctions, but to abandon enrichment of uranium totally.

The TRR had been given to Iran by the US along with several pounds of weapons-grade fissile material but after the revolution when Iran converted it to use fuel manufactured from near-20% enriched uranium in cooperation with Argentina, the US had blocked its legal, overt refueling using fuel bought from Argentina – even though the US had given the reactor to Iran in the first place and it posed no proliferation threat.

The US demanded that Iran not make the fuel and not buy it either even though hundreds of thousands of cancer patients depended on the isotopes produced by the reactor. The US demand that Iran effectively give up uranium enrichment was known as the “Zero Enrichmentprecondition had been used by the US to prevent any deals, since no country would give up a perfectly legal right, despite Iran’s repeated nuclear offers to impose additional limits on its nuclear program well beyond the legal requirements of the NPT.

Iran initially resisted the uranium swap deal because there were no guarantees that Iran would actually receive any of the promised fuel, so it took some time to convince Iran, and this was helped when Turkey was designated to act as an intermediary. The lack of trust was a problem then too, and much more so now.

However, the Obama admin rejected the deal and pressed to report Iran to the UNSC for more sanctions

The Turks and Brazilians, who were widely ridiculed and condemned as “threatening world order” in the US for being so presumptuous) were so upset that they publicized Obama’s letter, written to them just three weeks earlier, setting out the terms of an acceptable deal. Brazilian FM Celso Amorin noted that Hillary Clinton worked hard to undermine the deal, which did not include a demand for zero enrichment that was later cited by the Obama admin to kill the deal, and he indicated that domestic US pressure had led to Obama killing the deal:

Celso Amorim: I don’t want to use the word lobbyists, because I’m not sure, but I am still telling you this was proposed maybe six months before. Three weeks before going to Iran, we received a letter by President Obama reiterating the points.

Lula’s Foreign Minister on Iran Diplomacy and Brazil’s Sharp Turn to the Right (therealnews.com)

The result of this incident was that Iran kept its 20% enriched uranium, and started manufacturing its own fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, a process involving the manufacture of uranium metal that supposedly “brought Iran closer to the bomb” — which was a result of Obama’s last minute backtracking.

The Obama admin justified its rejection of the Turkey-Brazil uranium swap deal by claiming that so much time had passed from when Iran initially rejected the swap deal as presented in Vienna — since Iran had no guarantees that it would actually receive the fuel promised, until Turkey became an intermediary — that the amount of near-20% enriched uranium which was to be exported was no longer sufficient as it would leave enough for Iran to make a bomb. However, independent analysts pointed out the difference was minor and the whole point of the agreement was a trust-building measure intended to lead to other deals:

Leaving Iran with less than a weapon’s worth of uranium was a political selling point, not a long-term strategic advantage… An increase in the fuel swap amount due to Iran’s larger LEU stockpile is difficult to justify technically. A hike will not provide lasting benefits, but will surely be seen by Iran as moving goalposts and could derail negotiations.

New Fuel Deal with Iran: Getting Back to Basics » FAS Strategic Security Blog (archive.org)


Getting one ton of LEU out of Iran was a worthwhile goal last October and it still is today. Better to pocket those winnings and use the agreement to provide momentum for more wide-ranging discussions than to allow more delay. Refueling the Tehran reactor could have been a simple technical matter that disproved Iran’s constant refrain that it cannot get nuclear fuel from the West. Instead, it has been crushed under the weight of political baggage. The result is that failure here risks derailing the wider negotiations and leaving Iran still enriching 20 percent uranium. 

How We’ll Know if Iran Nuclear Talks Are Working – Ivanka Barzashka and Ivan Oelrich – International – The Atlantic (archive.org)

In regard to the Turkey-Brazil deal, analysts accused the US of “not being able to take Yes for an answer” and “giving the finger to Iran (and Turkey and Brazil)“.)

This incident, was actually one of many in which Iran made offers and concessions, even suspending enrichment for years at a time during the course of negotiations as good-faith gestures, only to have potential deals killed-off, goalposts moved, and ultimately deals blocked due to the Zero Enrichment demand. The Paris Agreement/EU-3 talks with another example, (the subject of Oborne & Morrison’s book, A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West is Wrong About Nuclear Iran, published 2013) when after almost 3 years of suspension of enrichment entirely, Iran was handed an “a lot of gift wrapping around an empty box” by EU-3 negotiators.

This, as it was shown later, was due to US pressure on the EU3 to not accept enrichment in Iran contrary to what they had promised Iran during the course of the Paris Agreement talks. And the result was the embarrassment of moderate Rouhani and election of hardliner Ahmadinejad, according to UK Foreign Minister Jack Straw:

I’m absolutely convinced that we can do business with Dr Rouhani, because we did do business with Dr Rouhani, and had it not been for major problems within the US administration under President Bush, we could have actually settled the whole Iran nuclear dossier back in 2005, and we probably wouldn’t have had President Ahmadinejad as a consequence of the failure as well.”

US scuppered deal with Iran in 2005, says then British Foreign Minister | openDemocracy

Anyway, the point is the world had to wait until Obama’s second term for US to drop the ‘Zero Enrichment’ precondition, allowing a deal to occur finally. And that could only happen because Obama didn’t face reelection. (Dennis Ross, a pro-Israeli Iran hawk, went back to the WINEP ‘think tank’ but kept a secure hotline to White House, a novel arrangement.)

Similarly, despite the US media acting as US State Dept parrots in ridiculing Iran for being “instransigent, unrealistic, unreasonable” in the talks (rather than just doing their job of clearly & accurately report on the Iranians’ position) the real constraint on talks is not Iranian “intransigence” but domestic pressures on Biden, thanks to Saudi and Israeli lobbying, that’s left him not much to negotiate with but for threats of Plan B ( the US can’t even really promise to abide by the deal even if Iran does, or that the next President won’t tear up the deal (which he can quite legally do even if the JCPOA was a treaty) or that Congress won’t just pass a law repealing it (which it can quite legally do too even if the JCPOA was a treaty) because realistically he can’t really lift sanctions anyway. Sanctions were DESIGNED to be impossible to lift, precisely to prevent any deals with Iran, as are default anti-terrorism judgments – all deliberate obstacles to improved US-Iran relations, engineered to box-in the US into a path of confrontation.

And now we see how the Biden admin is struggling to get out of this path, but literally CANNOT. As a result of all this not only has Iran’s nuclear program further expanded beyond what even the Iranians initially planned, to make up for sanctions, there are a long list of blowback consequences, ie Iranian public opinion, once the most pro-American in the Mideast is now very suspicious and distrusting, and has been totally alienated from the US, while Iran’s hardliners, beneficiaries of multiple embarrassments dealt to reformists when they tried reaching out to the US, going back to the Conoco deal, have been strengthened.