Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, could not have been more clear after the first round of talks aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal concluded this week in Vienna: We’re not making any concessions until America does.
The U.S. must first lift sanctions, he said. Then and only then will Iran be “fully ready to stop its retaliation nuclear activity and return to its full commitments.” Until now, President Joe Biden’s administration has said that it won’t lift sanctions until Iran returns to compliance.
Araghchi’s you-go-first ploy is a clever tactic. But it also begs an important question: What about Iran’s non-retaliating nuclear activity? The deputy foreign minister is counting on other countries that agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, to view America’s withdrawal from that agreement in 2018 the way the Iranians do: Iran was in compliance and the U.S. left the deal anyway.
Traces of processed uranium
That’s not quite right. There is another set of negotiations taking place in Vienna - between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran. They involve three undeclared sites where the agency’s inspectors have found traces of processed uranium. Reuters has reported that the negotiations have been delayed. IAEA inspectors would like more access and answers to the many questions their initial research has yielded.
All of this stems from revelations brought to the world’s attention in 2018 after the Mossad raided a Tehran warehouse and purloined an archive of blueprints and files that disclosed a huge nuclear weapons program dating to the 1980s.
At the time, Iran’s leaders said this was all a stunt. Nearly three years later, it’s clear that Israel was onto something: That archive is what prompted the IAEA to demand access to a host of sites in Iran that were once part of an elaborate weapons program.
Because of a last-minute U.S. concession in 2015, Iran never had to disclose the sites in question or other possible military dimensions of its program to the IAEA as a condition for the economic benefits promised in the JCPOA. As a result, the stringent inspection regime imposed by the agreement did not apply to the sites in this weapons program. Iran’s declared nuclear program was monitored, but its undeclared sites were not.
Nuclear core for a weapon
David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a co-author of an upcoming book on the Iranian archive, estimates there are nine sites revealed by the archive. These include facilities designed to build the nuclear core for a weapon and to conduct tests.
“Iran is not building nuclear weapons today,” Albright told me. “But it is preparing to do so. The program is designed to produce nuclear weapons on demand. And it will be able to make those weapons relatively quickly when a decision is made.”
At the very least, this is a major failure of the JCPOA. That deal was supposed to give the world confidence that Iran could not and would not produce a nuclear weapon. That it missed a huge weapons program is a sign of incompetence on the part of the Western countries that negotiated the pact.
More important, this weapons program is a sign of Iran’s duplicity. Even as it negotiated the JCPOA, Iran was not only holding blueprints for a nuclear weapon, but also maintaining a constellation of physical sites where it could eventually build one.
This is what’s wrong with the current talks in Vienna: The best the Biden administration can hope for from these negotiations is Iranian compliance with a flawed bargain. In exchange for that compliance, Araghchi is demanding the U.S. lift the very sanctions that are its best leverage to get Iran to come clean to the IAEA. That’s not a deal any U.S. president should make.
Eli Lake is a columnist covering national security and foreign policy