A guide to final stretch of Iran nuclear negotiations - analysis

5 subtexts to sift through the spin of the Iran nuclear deal

Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in April 2008, shortly before its centrifuges were destroyed by the Stuxnet virus. Why is responsibility now being taken for attacks and involvement being admitted with bluster and bravado? (photo credit: PHOTO BY THE OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENCY OF THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in April 2008, shortly before its centrifuges were destroyed by the Stuxnet virus. Why is responsibility now being taken for attacks and involvement being admitted with bluster and bravado?
(photo credit: PHOTO BY THE OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENCY OF THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN VIA GETTY IMAGES)

In the coming days or weeks, the US and Iran may return to a nuclear deal.

What are the key points and subtexts to look out for underneath the spin machines that all sides will undoubtedly activate?

1. Subtext one: Iran doesn't care

Iran doesn't really care about guarantees that the US will not pull out of the deal beyond the term of US President Joe Biden, it simply wants to neutralize any possibility that Washington will seek a "stronger and longer" deal to fill the 2015 JCPOA deal's holes.

This statement is not entirely true. Obviously, in an alternate universe where it could get anything it wanted, the Islamic Republic would want such guarantees. But it knows very well that America has elections in 2024 and that there is no way to prevent a future Republican president or Congress from pulling out or damaging the deal.

A number of new generation Iranian centrifuges are seen on display during Iran's National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran (credit: IRANIAN PRESIDENCY OFFICE/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)A number of new generation Iranian centrifuges are seen on display during Iran's National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran (credit: IRANIAN PRESIDENCY OFFICE/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

So really, the almost half year delay between the spring 2021 negotiations and this winter's negotiations, the slow pace and the constant drumbeat about guarantees has been to ensure that the Biden team is so exhausted and relieved to get any deal to slow down Tehran's nuclear progress, that any push for filling the holes (Biden's original policy) will have zero chance and leverage.

The fights about the sequence of the restoration of nuclear limits and which sanctions are lifted in what order are more about this subtext than gaining economic benefits from the US.

Sure, Tehran will regain access to enormous frozen funds once the sanctions are relieved. Yet, the fact is that even during the Obama administration, much of the Western world did not want to invest in Iran because of the culture of corruption, the lack of guarantees that the rule of law would be enforced, and the real possibility that all deals could fall apart come the next US presidential election. 

But Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has likely won on this point. Biden and his negotiators are exhausted from the drawn-out negotiations and just want the issue to go away, so they focus on Russia/Ukraine and China.

2. Subtext two: Battle over sanctions

The fight over removing all Trump era sanctions was a public relations spin and Khamenei's lieutenants have set the ground for compromise on this.

A subtle change happened in quotes from top Iranian officials in recent weeks. Until now, they had demanded that all Trump era sanctions be removed, even though connected to human rights and terror and with no nuclear component.

But in recent weeks, Iranian officials switched to "removing all sanctions contravening the JCPOA" or "an agreement in which the sanctions that form the maximum pressure are not lifted will condition the country's economy and cannot be the basis of a good deal."

Read carefully, this is actually exactly what the Biden administration has been saying. It will remove all Trump era "maximum pressure" sanctions, including those labeled as human rights, but which in truth were nuclear - but it will not remove Trump era sanctions that truly related to human rights or terror.

In the meantime, if Khamenei's spin-doctors keep using verbiage emphasizing removing all sanctions violating the JCPOA and which were part of "maximum pressure" - they can claim to their public that they won, even if they are conceding something here.

3. Subtext three: Advanced centrifuges

This is maybe the most important issue for Israel. Will Iran's new fleet of advanced IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges - which were significant upgrades from its IR-1 and IR-2m models - be: 1) destroyed; 2) dismantled and put into storage in Iran, or, 3) shipped to Russia?  Or will the reality be some mix of these options?

The option of destruction is really the only one that would give Jerusalem some relief, but it was leaked months ago that the US would not demand this. 

Dismantling and putting the centrifuges into storage in Iran would be a disaster for the Jewish state because it would mean that Khamenei could reactivate the program in a matter of weeks, shrinking any theoretical timeline to weaponizing uranium, making it substantially lower than whatever is publicly claimed.

Shipping the centrifuges out to Russia is a fascinating option. That is what the Islamic Republic had been doing with excess enriched uranium under the JCPOA. 

What really happened to all of this shipped-out uranium?

Could Tehran get back its advanced centrifuges at will if it asked its ally Russia?

Or are Israeli intelligence estimates that Moscow still prefers a non-nuclear Iran over a nuclear one enough to make this a real solution for the present?

4. Subtext four: Acquired 60% enrichment and advanced centrifuge knowledge

Even if the above issue is resolved in a way that Israel is happier with, does it really matter at this point?

Hasn't Iran proved that it can reproduce cascades and cascades of advanced centrifuges in under a year even after three facilities relating to production in this area were reportedly blown up by the Mossad between July 2020 - June 2021?

With all of the experience Tehran has gained from enriching uranium up to 60% - before the JCPOA it had never enriched above 20% - haven't the ayatollahs shown that they have acquired enough knowledge and experience to throw together a whole new program much quicker than the world and even Israeli intelligence estimated?

Moreover, former prime minister Ehud Barak and others have said that Iran may have taken advantage of the last year of delays and the several months when the IAEA was blind, to hide already existing 60% enriched uranium in smaller facilities. He and others have noted that once uranium is at the 60% level, the facilities needed to enrich it up to the 90% weaponized mark can be much smaller and harder to find. This is because fewer centrifuges are needed.

5. Subtext five: Existing unfixed holes from the JCPOA

The JCPOA's nuclear limits are set to expire in 2025 and 2030, depending on the limit. While 2025 was still 10 years away in 2015, it is now fast approaching. This is a looming crisis waiting to happen, and it will probably stop destabilizing the situation in 2024, regardless of who is the next US president.

With no stronger and longer add-on, there are still no real limits on Iran's ballistic missile weaponization efforts or its terror in the region. Throughout the nuclear negotiations, Iran and its proxies made sure to attack US troops and American allies like the UAE and the Saudis to ensure that it has precedent to continue to do so even after a deal.

The Mossad's 2018 raid on Iran's nuclear archives unearthed much of the past nuclear military dimensions which Khamenei was trying to hide. It gave the IAEA a new level of strength to push for access to new previously unknown sites and to explain new previously unknown illicit nuclear materials.

But how hard will the IAEA press Iran on these issues or on access to future undeclared sites which the Mossad and others may expose once the nuclear deal is restored?

The answer is that it is likely they will not press them at all and that certainly with the threat of IAEA condemnation and a referral to the UN Security Council - threats which the Islamic Republic has taken seriously, the option would be off the table.

All of the above points will be crucial in sifting through the spin of the nuclear deal and understanding future threat levels for Israel.