European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Tehran, June 25, 2022

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (L) with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Tehran, June 25, 2022

Schrodinger’s Cat? Is The Iran Nuclear Deal Dead Or Alive?


Two days after State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US was mulling European Union proposals over Iran’s nuclear program, there are no signs of progress.

The English-language Tehran Times warned the “western media” Friday against “early judgment” on the fate of the 2015 nuclear deal, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell recently produced new ideas to bridge differences between the United States and Iran and allow both to return to the agreement.

The Tehran Times highlighted the Wall Street Journal, which July 25 ran an opinion piece by Walter Russell Mead, Professor of Foreign Affairs at Bard College, New York, comparing the JCPOA to Schrodinger’s cat, a hypothetical feline in an indeterminate state that is neither alive nor dead.

Some analysts believe that agreement remains likely to revive the JCPOA, which the US left in 2018, with Iran by 2019 expanding its nuclear program beyond the deal’s limits. This remains the assessment of Mossad, Israel’s extraterritorial intelligence agency, Al-Monitor’s Israel correspondent Ben Caspit reported Friday.

But some European diplomats have this week privately expressed pessimism to journalists, arguing Borrell’s proposals will not achieve the necessary concessions from either Iran or the US, each of whom blames the other for the failure of seven-party talks in Vienna paused in March and June’s bilateral US-Iran two-day round in Qatar.

EU coordinator Enrique Mora (L) meeting Iranian negotiator Ali Bagheri-Kani in Qatar, June 28, 2022

The basic challenges remain agreeing which US sanctions breach the JCPOA, what guarantees Washington offers over respecting a revived deal, and exactly how Iran’s expanded and refined nuclear program should be brought back within JCPOA limits. There have also been reports that Iran has demanded that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) drop enquiries into nuclear work Iran conducted before 2003, although Tehran’s explanations deemed unsatisfactory by the agency led to a critical resolution passed by the IAEA board in June.

Russian, Chinese calculations

Analysts also suggest that wider factors, including the Ukraine crisis, have come to play a growing role in calculations made by all parties. Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, said this week that Iran might judge that Europe’s need for oil and gas come the winter would lead it to put pressure on the US to compromise, while Washington continues to think its ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions will put Iran under growing economic strain.

Vaez also noted that Moscow and Beijing, which is buying nearly all Iran’s oil exports, might both judge that as long as Iran did not ‘weaponize’ its nuclear program, the current drift would “bog down” the US “in the Middle East and divert its attention from Russia and China.”

This was also part of Mead’s argument in the Wall Street Journal. “Whatever their long-term concerns about a nuclear Iran,” he wrote, “both Xi Jinping and Vladmir Putin seem more interested in stiffening Iran's commitment to the anti-American alliance than in facilitating an agreement that would reduce the pressure on a beleaguered American president.”

The US administration appear to believe they can manage the situation. Brett McGurk, President Joe Biden’s Middle East advisor, reportedly said recently that while it was “highly unlikely” that the JCPOA would be revived soon, the administration thought it could continue to deploy sanctions “but not needlessly escalate the situation.”

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