AMAC Exclusive – By Simon Maas
President Biden declared in June that Iran will “never get a nuclear weapon on my watch.” Someone should tell that to his team in Vienna, who are negotiating to revive the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that would make that very scenario almost inevitable.
Indeed, talks in Vienna to restore the deal are producing an agreement that concedes the very thing it’s purportedly meant to prevent: an Iranian capability to develop nuclear weapons. And the Biden administration has quietly cooperated with Russia to make this happen, even as Russian troops bomb civilians in Ukraine.
Under the accord being negotiated, Iran will have the ability to quickly resume its enrichment of uranium to 60% purity, as Iranian analyst Mostafa Khoshcheshm told the Tehran Times, a major English-language Iranian newspaper with close ties to the regime. Khoshcheshm, a prominent expert inside Iran, is an adviser to Iran’s negotiating team in Vienna.
Uranium enriched to 60% can be quickly turned into 90% weapons-grade purity, the level required to produce an atomic bomb. Western officials have said there is no reason to enrich uranium to 60% for civilian purposes; the only reason would be to reach 90% purity for a nuclear weapon.
“Iran will keep its advanced centrifuges and nuclear materials inside the country as a form of inherent guarantee to make sure that its nuclear program is fully reversible if the U.S. reneged on its commitments again,” the Tehran Times added, alluding to former President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the accord in 2018.
The original agreement, which placed temporary restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for removing sanctions on Iran, was forged in 2015 under President Obama and implemented in 2016. Five other countries were also part of the agreement – including Russia and China. Many experts and U.S. officials, however, believed all along that Iran would use the lenient terms of the agreement to build nuclear weapons — a charge Tehran denies.
One of the chief critics of the deal was then-candidate Donald Trump, who made withdrawing from the deal a pillar of his foreign policy agenda throughout his 2016 campaign. When he did finally remove the U.S. from the deal in 2018, the move was celebrated by Middle East allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, in another return to Obama-era foreign policy, the Biden administration has made reviving the deal one of its chief goals.
In these new negotiations, Iran had demanded a legal pledge that the U.S. wouldn’t quit the nuclear deal again. U.S. officials have consistently said no president can legally tie the hands of a successor without a treaty, which would require the support of two-thirds of the Senate — a nonstarter given strong Republican opposition to the deal and the likely “no” votes of a few Democratic senators as well.
However, it appears Biden’s negotiators, led by Rob Malley, have found a workaround to appease Tehran’s demand, with the help of none other than the Russian government, which the Biden administration has been publicly excoriating for weeks.
That plan is still possible, although it’s unclear what quantity of nuclear materials would be sent to Russia and what would remain in Iran. What is clear is that, after Trump’s withdrawal, Iran is pushing for an agreement that will allow the regime to ramp up its nuclear program without delay in the event a future White House quits the agreement.
Since the U.S. and Iran have been negotiating indirectly in Vienna over the nuclear deal, Russia has been able to play an influential role with both sides. Malley and his Russian counterparts have been quietly collaborating even as the U.S. ramps up its pressure campaign on the Kremlin.
Iran is reportedly weeks away from having enough fissile material for a bomb and, according to the Institute for Science and International Security, has enough highly enriched uranium to produce multiple nuclear weapons.
The Biden administration has estimated that, under the new deal, Iran will be six to nine months away from enriching enough uranium for a bomb — if the regime doesn’t cheat by violating its terms covertly. Israel believes Iran’s breakout time will be shorter, just four to six months. The original deal back in 2015 had the figure at around 12 months.
In exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear program, the regime will receive large-scale sanctions relief under the new accord, with economic penalties being removed on some of Iran’s most notorious human right abusers and terrorist masterminds.
The Biden administration has also reportedly agreed under the new deal to lift an array of U.S. terrorism sanctions on Iran and may remove Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the foreign terrorist organization list. Biden’s team is also preparing to lift sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on the office of Iran’s supreme leader, according to people familiar with the matter.
These ideas have been in play for months. In a report written by the Iranian Foreign Ministry for Iran’s parliament last summer, officials said the Biden administration was prepared to lift not only sanctions waived by the nuclear deal but also the additional penalties imposed by the Trump administration — even those unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program.
All told, if the deal is finalized, Iran stands to receive a windfall of tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, perhaps north of $100 billion. Notably, the regime allocated much of its newly unlocked money in 2015 and 2016 to its military and the IRGC for repression at home and aggression abroad. There’s every reason to believe Tehran will have the same priorities this time around.
Biden’s actions also fly directly in the face of the more than 1,000 veterans and family members of those killed or wounded in battle who earlier this year asked the Biden administration not to release any frozen funds to Iran until the regime first paid some $60 billion in judgments owed to American victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism.
According to the Tehran Times, Iran will have “weeks” to verify the removal of U.S. sanctions before having to implement its own commitments. In other words, after promising early in his presidency not to lift any sanctions on Iran until the regime halted uranium enrichment (a promise already broken multiple times), Biden is apparently willing to let Iran gets its money before curbing its nuclear activities.
The original 2015 nuclear deal was already deeply flawed. But this new deal being negotiated by Biden’s team will include all those flaws in addition to further concessions. In other words, the U.S. is poised to pay more upfront with less time until the shackles are taken off Iran. Biden’s deal will be worse than Barack Obama’s.
It’s easy to see why Russian and Iranian negotiators are celebrating the way negotiations have gone in Vienna.
“Iran got much more than it could expect,” said lead Russian negotiator Mikhail Ulyanov. “Much more. … Realistically speaking, Iran got more than frankly, I expected, others expected. This is a matter of fact.” It’s never a good sign when your adversaries are almost giddy about the deal you’ve given them.
Even as the U.S. media touts Biden’s sanctions against Russia as “devastating,” for Putin, Khoshcheshm believes that Russia’s war in Ukraine has forced the U.S. to “retreat” and “give in to Iran’s requested terms for a deal.”
Nonetheless, expect Biden, Malley, and Democrats in Congress to soon join in the celebration should the deal become finalized, which is expected in the coming days. Even though the deal will pave a path for Iran to go nuclear while being richer and better armed, that’s all secondary: Reviving the nuclear accord has become a matter of honor and an ideological imperative for Democrats, U.S. interests be damned.
As a result, Iran is set to have a couple of great years ahead. The situation could prove to be a nightmare for Biden’s successor. But who cares? That’s what kicking the can down the road is all about.
Simon Maas is the pen name of a writer living in Virginia.