Iran’s ambiguous pronouncements on a possible new nuclear deal

Jun 16, 2023 | AIJAC staff

Khamenei called for Iran to create 20,000 megawatts of nuclear power capacity - which would require at least 19 more plants the size of Iran's only current nuclear power plant, the Russian-built Bushehr plant (Image: Wikimedia Commons).
Khamenei called for Iran to create 20,000 megawatts of nuclear power capacity - which would require at least 19 more plants the size of Iran's only current nuclear power plant, the Russian-built Bushehr plant (Image: Wikimedia Commons).

Update 06/23 #03


There continues to be much speculation about a “less for less” nuclear deal between the US and Iran, with even Israeli PM Netanyahu publicly stating that the US appears “determined” to reach such a deal, and unnamed Israeli officials quoted as saying a deal is now “imminent”.

Much speculation and analysis is thus being centred on the messaging in a speech on the nuclear issue earlier this week from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and this Update features some of that discussion.

We lead with Omer Carmi, who offers a detailed analysis of all the themes of the Khamenei speech in a piece written for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Carmi makes it clear the speech was carefully ambiguous, leaving the door open to a potential deal – but also stressing the limitations and demands Iran will make regarding any agreement. These demands include that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure remains untouched and sharp limitations on International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring. For Carmi’s complete analysis of the speech, CLICK HERE.

Next up is US columnist Bobby Ghosh, who interprets the speech as signalling Iranian willingness to make a deal, but argues this is actually a trap the US should avoid. Ghosh says any deal of the sort proposed will leave Teheran with all the nuclear gains it has made over the last few years and effectively allow it to benefit from the status of being a nuclear threshold state, while also getting sanctions relief to fill up its war chest. He urges a system of tighter and better-enforced sanctions as an alternative policy for Washington. For Ghosh’s argument,  CLICK HERE.

Finally,  former US official Richard Goldberg looks in more detail at the state of the IAEA inspections of Iran. He argues that Iran has successfully stymied the IAEA’s efforts to investigate new nuclear sites identified in the Iranian nuclear archive that Israel seized in 2018 because the IAEA has not received sufficient backing from Washington and Europe, who have been too focused on trying to reach a new nuclear agreement rather than making sure the IAEA can do its job. Goldberg suggests some measures that could be taken to strengthen the IAEA’s hand vis-a-vis Iran. For all the details, CLICK HERE.

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Khamenei’s Nuclear Balancing Act

by Omer Carmi
Jun 13, 2023

Brief Analysis

In line with his tendency to keep all options open when discussing nuclear negotiations, his latest speech gave only a yellow light to a potential deal.


Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s speech to his country’s nuclear industry on June 11 was intended to send a series of explicit and implicit messages regarding a return to some sort of nuclear deal. (Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo). 


On June 11, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered a speech before members of the country’s nuclear industry for the first time in years, against the backdrop of reports that Tehran and Washington have been indirectly negotiating a nuclear deal via Oman. As usual, he used the occasion to send implicit and explicit messages to domestic and foreign audiences alike, essentially setting boundaries for the government’s engagement with the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Willing to accept a deal, but not any deal. Khamenei did not explicitly mention reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Instead, he talked about a vaguer “agreement,” asserting that there is no problem in reaching a new deal, but that it must meet certain conditions. In particular, he noted that Iran’s existing nuclear infrastructure must not be changed—a requirement that met with chants of “Allahu Akbar” from the audience. After the meeting, this same idea was emphasized in television remarks by Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi and in Iranian newspapers. For example, the official government paper Iran included headlines such as “An Agreement That Keeps Nuclear Infrastructure” and “The Nuclear Infrastructure Must Be Kept.”

Cooperation with the IAEA should continue, but with limits. Khamenei argued that while Iran should maintain cooperation and communications with the IAEA, it should do so only in the framework of the agency’s existing Safeguards Agreement—in other words, the government should not consent to monitoring beyond that agreement. Referencing Tehran’s rocky relations with the agency, Khamenei reiterated his distrust of the nuclear watchdog and claimed that Iran should not fall under the burden of “coercive demands and false claims.” His comments followed criticism from IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi earlier this month regarding Iran’s implementation of a March deal with the agency.

The Supreme Leader also urged Iranian officials not to breach the parliament’s December 2020 “Strategic Action Plan to Lift Sanctions and Protect the Iranian Nation’s Interests” when giving access or information to the IAEA. This law called on the previous government to take substantial nuclear steps if international sanctions on the banking and oil sectors were not lifted, such as resuming uranium enrichment to 20 percent and limiting IAEA monitoring. In 2021, then-president Hassan Rouhani blamed this legislation for hindering attempts to revive the JCPOA. Last month, however, Khamenei declared that the law had “saved the country from confusion on the nuclear issue.”

The West cannot be trusted. Khamenei continued his longtime pattern of urging the government and the Iranian people to maintain their distrust of the “enemy.” He noted that twenty years of nuclear engagement had taught Iran whom it could trust and whom it could not. He lashed out at the IAEA and the parties to the JCPOA for allegedly not keeping their promises, and lamented that Iran had been harmed because it put too much trust in these actors.

Threats and pressure do not deter Iran. Khamenei reiterated that the West is trying to hinder Iran’s progress and humiliate the nation, sending a warning to “powerful countries” who believe that Iran is weak or helpless. In his view, the nuclear program’s continued progress is an “insult” to Westerners. And although he claimed that Iran still does not want to pursue nuclear weapons for religious reasons, he also declared that the West would not be able to prevent it if it decides to go that route.

The nuclear industry benefits the nation. A significant part of the speech was dedicated to explaining how Tehran’s nuclear achievements have improved the lives of the people in various sectors and elevated the nation’s honor. He called on the AEOI to continue developing the nuclear program in order to meet the goal of 20,000 megawatts of nuclear power—for comparison’s sake, the United States was generating 95,492 megawatts of nuclear power as of 2021, a rate that required ninety-three operating reactors. Khamenei even urged officials to commercialize nuclear products and services since they have “good demand in international markets.”

Hedging against a decision. In a May 20 speech before senior Foreign Ministry officials and ambassadors, Khamenei noted that Iran’s principles and flexibility go together, urging his audience not to engage in “imploring diplomacy.” He explained that his 2013 “heroic flexibility” speech—widely seen as a green light for negotiating with the United States—was misinterpreted, instead comparing flexibility to taqiyya (dissimulation), the practice of concealing one’s true intentions in order to achieve a goal. His June 11 remarks seemingly followed suit, maintaining the ambiguity of past speeches regarding nuclear negotiations while exhibiting the same balance between flexibility and principles—that is, allowing room for an agreement to be struck, but ensuring that his audience understands its limited scope.

Omer Carmi is a former visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 


Iran Wants to Make a Deal the US Must Refuse

Analysis by Bobby Ghosh
Washington Post, June 13, 2023

US President Biden with Secretary of State Antony Blinken: The Biden Administration has repeatedly promised to prevent Iran building nuclear weapons, but has not done enough to stop the Islamic Republic from reaching the nuclear threshold (Photo: U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Christopher Hubenthal)

Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is signaling a willingness to make a new nuclear deal with the West, but on terms that would allow the Islamic Republic to maintain its nuclear threat. The US shouldn’t fall for the trap.

Rather, President Joe Biden’s administration should step up implementation of existing economic sanctions, and rally European allies to impose even tighter restraints on the regime in Tehran.

Over the weekend, state media reported Khamenei as saying, “There is nothing wrong with the agreement [with the West], but the infrastructure of our nuclear industry should not be touched.” The implication is that Iran should be given relief from economic sanctions but allowed to keep the equipment it has developed in racing toward the enrichment of weapons-grade uranium over the past two years.

This is an attempt to break the standoff between Iran and the world powers that signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 deal that sought to severely limit Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. US President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal two years later and reimposed sanctions — to the chagrin of the other signatories.

Biden entered office in 2021 offering to ease restrictions if Tehran would adhere to its end of the deal. His officials have also occasionally talked about a “less for less” interim agreement, in which some sanctions could be lifted if Iran halted uranium enrichment well short of weapons-grade. (The White House last week denied that any such deal is in the offing.)

Yet since Biden’s election, the Iranians have accelerated their enrichment activity as well as the development of missiles and military drones, the better to threaten their neighbors and menace international shipping in the Persian Gulf. They also increased funding and training for a network of proxy militias and terrorist groups across the Middle East. These programs were aided by the Biden administration’s lax implementation of existing sanctions, which allowed the regime to export record quantities of oil.

Although Biden and his officials have repeatedly claimed that they are resolved to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, they have done little to stop the Islamic Republic from reaching the nuclear threshold, from where it is only days from acquiring enough fissile material for a bomb. Khamenei now says the West, even if it wanted to, couldn’t stop Iran from developing one. (He claims nuclear weapons are un-Islamic, but Iran was caught trying to make one, with Russian help, in 2002.)

The supreme leader knows a return to the JCPOA would require him to give up most of those gains, as well as the ability to threaten Israel and dictate terms to the Arab states in the region. That is why he is, in effect, proposing a new deal.

It is not clear whether he will consider giving up the uranium stockpile his nuclear scientists have built up — his negotiators can use that as leverage in parleys with the West — but he wants to keep the infrastructure to build a new stockpile at a time of his choosing. In return, the West would be required to lift sanctions, allowing the regime to simultaneously build a substantial war chest by increasing oil exports.

Call it “less for more.”

Khamenei’s chutzpah at offering such terms comes from his reading that his enemies are vulnerable. Like all autocrats, he interprets accommodation as weakness, and he has seen that Biden offers little more than admonishment while Iran ramps up oil exports and Arab states like Saudi Arabia look to make peace with Tehran.

Furthermore, he reckons that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in addition to creating a market for Iranian military drones, has made the West anxious about energy prices, and that much keener to bring more oil into the market, even if it is Iranian. The Biden administration’s eagerness to talk — US and Iranian officials held indirect discussions in Oman last month — will only have confirmed his suspicions.

Finally, it has not escaped the old theocrat’s attention that his regime has paid no meaningful price for its misdeeds, whether it be flouting sanctions, selling drones to Russia or cracking down brutally on peaceful demonstrators at home.

But Khamenei’s confidence masks the fact that he himself holds a weak hand. The antiregime protests may have been stamped out, but they exposed the fundamental illegitimacy of his regime. Iranians, especially women and young people, reject the theocracy and want freedom. There will be other uprisings, each more determined than the last.

Discontent with Khamenei’s rule will only grow with economic stagnation. Although the regime claims record earnings from exports, little of this windfall has trickled down to the economy, where jobs are scarce and investment is paltry.

The Biden administration should, therefore, respond to Khamenei’s proposal by tightening the screws rather than easing them. It should end the negligence it has shown toward the imposition of existing sanctions and encourage its allies to impose even more restrictions. Anger at Iran’s exports of drones to Russia gives the US leverage to break European resistance to taking a tougher stance against Tehran.

Protestors outside the British Foreign Office in London demanding the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be listed as a terrorist organisation. Such listings are one key to tightening the screws on Iran, Ghosh argues. (Photo:Alamy Live News / Alamy Stock Photo)

One place to start would be for the European Union to declare the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, as the US did in 2019. The IRGC is Khamenei’s main instrument of repression at home and intimidation abroad, and has more than earned the designation. The US and its European allies should then redouble vigilance to impose the maximum penalties allowed under the sanctions on any individual or organization enabling Iranian oil exports or doing business with the IRGC and its extensive network of commercial operations.

The message to Khamenei must be unambiguous: There will be no new deal on his terms.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.

Don’t Stop Digging Into Iran’s Nuclear Secrets

Richard Goldberg

The Algemeiner, June 15, 2023

IAEA head Rafael Grossi has been diligent and independent, but when he pushes Iran for answers and access, he has no reply when the Iranians come back with the question, “Or else what?” (Photo: Dean Calma / IAEA). 


Few Americans have probably heard of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog. Last week, the IAEA’s board of governors convened in Vienna to hear from its director general, Rafael Grossi, who decided to shelve an investigation into a secret nuclear weapons-related high-explosive test site inside Iran, after three years of stonewalling by the mullahs in Tehran.

The IAEA investigation under Grossi stemmed from Israel’s discovery of Iran’s secret nuclear archive in 2018 — a collection of tens of thousands of files documenting nuclear weapons research and experimentation that Tehran kept hidden from both the IAEA and Western diplomats who negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. The archive became something of a nuclear treasure map, with the IAEA piecing together clues in order to discover unknown sites inside Iran, which the regime has never declared as part of its nuclear program.

Iran rushed to empty and clean up its clandestine activities before IAEA inspectors arrived, with commercial satellite imagery showing containers being moved, earth being tossed, and buildings being razed. From 2019 to 2020, the IAEA would ultimately visit four sites and find traces of uranium particles at three of them. And while the cumulative evidence shows Iran is actively concealing secret nuclear weapons-related material, equipment and personnel, the details remain a mystery, because Iran has stymied the IAEA’s investigation since the nuclear archive was disclosed.

Regime apologists argue that these investigations have no bearing on Iran’s nuclear program today — that they are dredging up questions about a weapons program that Western intelligence said in 2007 was halted in 2003. But that’s simply not true. Prior to the Iran nuclear deal, the IAEA assessed that Iran continued various nuclear weapons work until 2009 — and that assessment came before the discovery of Iran’s archive.

To this day, no one can explain why Iran would preserve thousands of papers and digital files meticulously documenting its attempted development of nuclear weapons — or why Iran would preserve nuclear weapons-related sites. No one can explain what Iran was hiding in containers spotted at one of the nuclear sites under investigation, or where those containers are today. No one can account for nuclear equipment and material documented in the archive. No one has questioned the associated personnel.

There is no justification for the IAEA’s decision to stop any unsolved investigation instead of declaring Iran in breach of its most fundamental obligations as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and referring it to the UN Security Council for further consequences.

And yet that’s exactly what’s happening. Why?

The Iranian nuclear archive that Israel seized in 2018 revealed numerous new IAEA avenues of inquiry, including several secret nuclear sites, but the Iranian regime has largely succeeded in stymying the agency’s efforts to investigate them. (Image: Amos Ben-Gershom, Israeli Government Press Office)

Rafael Grossi spent years building a reputation as a maverick and he has pressed Iran for answers since his first election in late 2019. But Grossi’s power largely depends on his board’s support. If Washington and its allies were so inclined, they could pass a resolution declaring Iran in non-compliance with the NPT and refer Iran to the Security Council.

Instead, for two and a half years, the Biden administration expressed interest in negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. At the moment, it is reportedly moving to pay Iran to keep its enrichment below weapons-grade.

Accordingly, Iran has recognized it can push the IAEA around. Tehran has responded to IAEA requests by incrementally closing off the agency’s access and verification at known nuclear-connected sites — withholding video recordings at enrichment plants, removing camerasharassing inspectors, and accelerating enrichment to ever-higher levels. And late last year, Iran declared the IAEA’s investigations into undeclared sites to be a stumbling block to any deal with Washington.

Grossi has been diligent and independent by the standards of IAEA director generals. But he has no answer to the pivotal question, “Or else what?” In the absence of firm US and allied support, Grossi appears resigned to follow the path of least resistance.

Still, all hope is not lost. The IAEA still has open safeguards investigations related to two secret sites in Iran where nuclear material was discovered. And Grossi was careful not to declare now-stalled investigations officially closed. Indeed, his reports are filled with indictments of Iran’s undeclared nuclear weapons work and its NPT violations. This gives an opening for Congress and presidential candidates to publicly declare their intent to hold Iran accountable for all undeclared sites and materials whenever control of the White House next shifts, or for the Biden administration to recognize its error and change course.

Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor at FDD, directs FDD’s International Organizations program, and contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power. He previously served on the White House National Security Council, as deputy chief of staff to former US Senator Mark Kirk, as chief of staff to former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, and as a Navy Reserve Intelligence Office. 

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