BICOM Briefing | Understanding the JCPOA and the nuclear issue from inside Iran

On Monday, 22 February BICOM Director Richard Pater spoke with Dr. Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, about how the nuclear issue is debated from inside Iran. Dr Zimmt outlined the arguments between the hardliners and the pragmatists, and explained how the nuclear issue could impact the upcoming Presidential elections in Iran. He also provided his assessment on how Israel should respond to both Iran and the Biden administration. Below is a transcript of their conversation.


Richard Pater: This morning we’ve seen that the Iranian government has agreed an interim agreement with the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to allow for the continuation of certain nuclear inspections despite Iranian law ending the Additional Protocol (AP), part of intrusive and snap inspections under the NPT. However, the Iranian parliament has come out and said the interim agreement is not legal and will try to stop it. Can you make sense of what is happening in Iran at the moment?

Raz Zimmt: The understanding between the IAEA and Iran seems to try and bypass this Iranian legislation passed last December. The bottom line is that the AP will not be observed by Iran from tomorrow but there seems to be some understandings with the IAEA to give the inspectors enough room to continue their duties. For example, Iran decided that whilst it will not give IAEA inspectors the video recordings from what is happening at their nuclear facilities, it will continue to record its activities with the IAEA and if the US sanctions are removed within the next three months, those video recordings will be delivered to the UN agency. The interim agreement is a way to prevent gaps in the IAEA inspection regime over the next several months in order to give more room for the US and Iran to reach an understanding of returning to the JCPOA.

RP: How do you rate this latest violation in relation to the other violations over the last two years?

RZ: I do not think we should rate each Iranian violation separately. Instead, we should look at the violations as a process, which began in the summer of 2019 and is extremely concerning as it has reduced the Iranian breakout time – the time it takes to accumulate enough fissile material for at least one nuclear weapon. Of course, some actions by Iran over the last 18 months are more troubling than others. For example, the research and development of advanced centrifuges is irreversible and even were Iran to return to compliance with the JCPOA, it cannot turn back its knowledge of R&D. Another example of more significance is the work Iran is doing on producing metallic uranium, because this material can be used to build the core of a nuclear weapon. And if there was no interim agreement between Iran and the IAEA, then tomorrow’s violation would have produced gaps in our knowledge of what Iran is doing in its nuclear facilities. So the process as a whole is very concerning, because Iran was approximately one year away from nuclear breakout after the JCPOA was signed, but today it is a few months away and could be reduced even further if Iran takes more steps in the months ahead.

RP: How would you assess the Iranians’ approach to the nuclear issue?

RZ: It depends on the political position of what Iranian you are referring to. If you’re an Iranian hardliner, then you are very suspicious of the US and even President Joe Biden – they say there is little difference between Biden and Donald Trump and the only goal in the US is regime change in Iran. On the other hand, the pragmatists like President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif believe there is a difference between Biden and Trump and are more optimistic about what a return to the JCPOA can bring, although I would add the pragmatists have been disappointed over their belief Biden would return to the JCPOA early on. But there is still a level of optimism in Iran in those pragmatic circles of being able to lift most of the Trump sanctions and a return to compliance under the JCPOA.

RP: Do you expect to see any major developments in Iran in the build-up toward the June elections?

RZ: The Iranian elections might begin in June but the campaign will begin in late March / early April, just after the Iranian New Year of Nowruz. I think it’s very unlikely we will see any sort of agreement before the elections, the most optimistic view is a kind of de-escalation process between the US and Iran and perhaps a general understanding on the ways to arrange the issue of sequencing Iran returning to JCPOA compliance and the US lifting its sanctions. But even if this process begins, it will not end before June.

RP: How is the nuclear issue and elections being played out domestically in Iran?

RZ: Going back to the division between pragmatists and hardliners, the election certainly plays a role. The pragmatists are using the elections as a way to push the Biden administration into making moves quicker, arguing that they may face much more challenging opponents and could never reach an agreement if they lose in June. The hardliners, who are very critical of Rouhani’s policy of concessions to the West, are also using the election to attack Rouhani (due to law he cannot run again) and his colleagues. One of the reasons for the December legislation in Iran was due to domestic issues. The most important factor is whether political considerations will be used again by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to make decisions. Khamenei is in a dilemma: one the one side he clearly wants to remove sanctions and see the economic situation to improve, but on the other hand he is concerned that if there is significant development between the US and Iran in the coming months, it might strengthen the more pragmatist camp in Iran against his more natural allies. Therefore, I think Khamenei would prefer to act much more slowly and cautiously with the Biden administration so that the fruits of this process will not be evident until after the elections in June.

RP: Who are the main candidates for the presidential elections in June?

RZ: I will just refer to the hardliners and the pragmatists, as the reformers or “real reformers” will not be allowed to participate in the elections. It’s still too early to tell who will be the main candidates for the different camps. In the pragmatic camp, the most significant person is Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Majlis. I wouldn’t even consider him as a moderate or reformist. He’s certainly more a pragmatic conservative but he might have the support of the reformists because they supported Rouhani as well. On the hardliners, you have the head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi who ran against Rouhani and received around 30 per cent of the vote. Then you have different candidates, some of whom have closer connection to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) than others. For instance, former Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf has not served as an IRGC commander for many, many years, but if you take someone like former defence minister Hossein Deghan, who is now a special advisor to Khamenei, he served in the IRGC more recently so has the support of the hardliners, but he may get the support of more pragmatists as he also served under Rouhani.

RP: What do you thinks is Iran’s endgame from its current policy?

RZ: The overriding goal is to remove the sanctions. The JCPOA was a vehicle towards fulfilling this goal, even if that meant delaying a little bit its nuclear ambition. I think most analysts see that the JCPOA was not aimed and did not mean that Iran gave up its objective of maintaining a military nuclear option. At the moment we are seeing the same rationale from Iran: returning to compliance with the JCPOA is only meant to lift US sanctions. But we have to keep in mind that there have always been disagreements between the hardliners and the pragmatists over the JCPOA. Before Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the nuclear agreement, there was growing criticism among the hardliners and Khamenei that the JCPOA was not working for Iran. The primary sanctions were not entirely removed, and most European countries and international companies were not ready to do business with Iran, due to other issues such as the IRGC’s involvement in the Iranian economy and corruption. Even today, when you listen to the Khamenei talk about sanctions, he is referring less toward working to removing them and more toward working to neutralise them. He is also making the point that the US has proven itself to be untrustworthy and there is always the possibility that a future US administration could reimpose sanctions.

PR: How is that working out? How long can Iran live with sanctions?

RZ: That’s very hard to say. I was of the opinion that under Trump Iran was not on the verge of an economic collapse. We have to take into consideration three main factors. Iran’s economy is very resilient and we have seen how the Iranians can adopt themselves to the sanctions regime. For example, they were able with some success to diversify their exports to new markets, they put more emphasis on expanding their economic partnerships with regional players less vulnerable to US secondary sanctions, and they diversified their products – in 2020, non-oil exports exceeded oil exports for the first time. Foreign Minister Zarif once said Iran has a PhD in bypassing sanctions. Again, regarding oil exports, just under a year ago Iran was exporting around 600,000 bpd but today it’s around 1m bpd.

There is another issue at play. Even if the US sanctions are not fully removed, the Biden administration could adopt other humanitarian measures over the next few months that could help alleviate the economic situation in Iran. For instance, there is a new report saying South Korea has agreed to remove the constraints over the issue of frozen Iranian assets. There is another possibility that the Biden administration will authorise the $5bn IMF loan to Iran. The bottom line is that even if the economic situation in Iran continues to be in very bad shape, its downward trend is slowing and even some projections by the UN and World Bank are more optimistic than they used to be.

RP: Turning our attention to Israel’s perspective, what do you make of Israel’s response so far and what should be its approach?

RZ: From my perspective, I am not against the JCPOA. Whilst I didn’t think it was the best deal ever reached in arms control, I thought it was the best way to delay Iran’s nuclear programme. And I was also against Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA, because as I said at the time, the maximum pressure campaign would not work and only push Iran closer to the bomb, let alone push them into accepting even one of the 12 demands from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Israel should try to convince the US to try to expand the JCPOA so as to eliminate the sunset clause, but we have to be realistic and unfortunately I don’t not think that Iran is going to agree to any sort of renegotiation to extend or improve the JCPOA without going back to the original deal first. Why? Because if Khamenei were to agree to reopen the JCPOA now, the meaning of that is admitting the maximum pressure campaign worked. There are people in Israel who argue that if sanctions are removed, it would be impossible to get Iran back to the negotiating table. I cannot rule out these concerns, but I will say two things: Iran have demands of their own – i.e. remove the US sanctions – so it might be possible to reach an understanding in which the US agrees to lift sanctions in return for removing some of the sunset clauses in the JCPOA; and secondly, as the Biden administration says, if Iran is not ready to extend the deal in the future, it is always possible to reimpose sanctions in the future. I’m not convinced that it will definitely work, but I think it is more realistic approach.

Israel should try to reach an understanding with the US concerning a new agreement on what the red lines are that were Iran to cross them, it would mean the US is committed to using all means necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb. And in addition, Israel should continue its own efforts to develop a military response – that no one wants to use – but it might be the only way for Israel to prevent Iran from getting the bomb in the future.

RP: Is there a complete agreement between Israel and its Arab partners about the threats emerging from Iran?

RZ: I’m not sure. For example, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are concerned about the nuclear issues, but they are mostly threatened by Iran’s missile programme and also, the smaller Gulf states are much more vulnerable to Iranian pressure. We all remember how the Saudis did nothing after the Iranian attack against their oil installations in September 2019. So I do not think we can rely on our Arab neighbours in the future. We might be able to coordinate our plans but in the end of the day, they will be unlikely to anything which would expose them to an Iranian reaction.

RP: Finally, how do you foresee this issue developing over the coming months?

RZ: When we speak about Iran and the region, we have to separate between two issues. Firstly, the maximum resistant policy adopted by Iran as a reaction to Trump’s maximum pressure policy – for instance IRGC activity against oil infrastructure in the Persian Gulf. These types of activities have reduced over the last year, but they might be renewed if the stalemate between Iran and the US continues. The other issue relates to activities by Iran to expand their influence in the region – such as their support of Shia proxies in Syria and Iraq, their financial and military support to Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. These activities have almost nothing to do with the nuclear issues; they were carried out long before the JCPOA and will continue long after the JCPOA. Their aims are to achieve Iranian interests and just as we saw last week in the attacks in Irbil, they will likely continue and can have the potential of escalating things between either US and Iran (over Iraq) or Iran and Israel (over Syria/Lebanon).

Dr. Raz Zimmt is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) specializing in Iran. He holds a master’s degree and a PhD in Middle Eastern history from Tel-Aviv University. His PhD dissertation focused on Iranian policy towards Nasserism and Arab radicalism between 1954 and 1967. He also works as a research fellow at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel-Aviv University and at the Doron Halpern Middle East Network Analysis Desk (MENAD) at Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. In addition, he is the editor of “Spotlight on Iran” published by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. His main research interests are the politics, foreign relations, society & social media of the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

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