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Tilting Balance Of The Nuclear Deal

Iran is not in a hurry to ink a nuclear deal due to rising oil prices.

Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, Credit: Hossein Ostovar, Wikimedia Commons

Talks to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have been stalled for about two months now. The reason is said to be Tehran's unacceptable demand that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) be removed from the U.S. State Department's list of Foreign Terror Organizations. With the U.S. and Iran taking uncompromising stands on the issue, a breakthrough looks unlikely.

It could be argued that Tehran has insisted on such a non-nuclear related point as a condition for reviving the JCPOA because it is not eager to restore the deal. It could also be that these are mere delay tactics to buy as much time as possible before the country is forced to scale back its nuclear program.

Iran continues to inch closer to its nuclear weapon goals with each passing week. The IAEA's latest quarterly report, issued in March, warned that Tehran's "enriched uranium stockpile continues to expand."

On The Nuclear Path

According to IAEA reports, Iran's total enriched uranium stockpile amounted to 3197.1 kilograms in February 2022. It noted an increase of over 700 kilograms from November 2021. This clearly indicates that Tehran has been pursuing its nuclear program uninterrupted even as its leaders conducted indirect talks with the U.S. to revive the nuclear deal. Reports suggest that Iran is on the threshold of becoming a nuclear state, with the timeline now reduced to a few months instead of years.

Should the hard-line right-wing regime succeed, the confirmed nuclear capability will give Tehran immense leverage at the negotiating table.

Aided By War

As it is, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has tilted the balance. The resultant rise in oil prices has been a boon to the struggling Iranian economy.

Iran has the world's fourth-largest reserves of crude. Oil exports had fallen to 200,000 barrels per day (BPD) after the U.S. and its allies imposed strict sanctions on the country. Now, Iranian officials in the know say that the country's oil sales have climbed to around 1.5 million BPD, with China as one of its biggest buyers.

The democratic world's efforts to penalize President Putin by imposing sanctions have polarized global relations. With China already at loggerheads with the U.S., the trade axis has shifted significantly. Tehran might consider it feasible to rebuild its struggling economy without the aid of the West by siding with Moscow and Beijing.

As the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) Middle East and Central Asia Department director, Jihad Azour, opined, the Iranian economy has adjusted to sanctions over the past few years. Also, despite signing the JCPOA back in 2015, very little foreign investment from the West actually made it into the country.

Tehran sees President Biden as distracted by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Skyrocketing U.S. inflation and midterm elections where his party is likely to lose also weaken President Biden. Furthermore, if President Trump wins in 2024, he might foreclose it after a two-year period.

The new world order and a perceived lack of Western support may be factors that are influencing Tehran's approach to the deal negotiations.

Larger Interest

But, for regional stability and the trade balance, it would be wise to dissuade Tehran from forming close ties with Beijing and Moscow. Without the influence and leverage of the West, the hard-line regime's interference in its neighbors' affairs could escalate, potentially destabilizing the Middle East.

Much ground has been conceded by the P5+1 (the U.N. Security Council's permanent members and Germany) to nudge Tehran towards a deal. Iran has achieved its primary objective: the Islamic Republic will be allowed to maintain its new advanced centrifuges in storage instead of destroying them.

Such concessions have raised the alarm amongst many. The U.S. Senate passed a non-binding motion, with 16 Democrats voting in favor, demanding that the new deal with Iran address concerns such as the country's ballistic missile program and support for proxies in the region.

Iran's enlarged uranium enrichment levels and stockpiles are a matter of grave concern, especially to its moderate neighbors. While Tehran has inched closer to obtaining fissile material, its timeline for creating a nuclear warhead remains mere speculation. It is imperative that the P5+1 bring Iran to sign a watertight deal to ensure peace and stability in the region.

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