The European Union’s mediator for reviving the Iran nuclear deal Enrique Mora met with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani earlier this week, as Washington and Tehran are reportedly discussing new agreements that would limit the latter’s nuclear capabilities.

While US President Joe Biden has said the Iran nuclear deal is “dead,” a new agreement of sorts appears in the making.

“Long live the Iran deal” is not a cheer raised by anybody in the Biden Administration. Nor would Biden’s political opponents, who never liked the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), ever compliment his foreign policy achievements. But anyone concerned about the prospects for nuclear proliferation and conflict in the Middle East should be pleased by recent events.

On the record, the Biden team insist that there is no new nuclear deal. Off the record, however, officials from various nations have sketched the outlines of an impending cease-fire in the escalation with Iran. An unwritten agreement is in play for release of three dual US-Iranian citizens imprisoned in Iran on spurious charges, indirectly coupled with the US release of Iranian oil sale revenues.

The United States has already given Iraq permission to use 2.5 billion euros of frozen Iranian funds to pay off a gas and electricity debt, to be used for purchase of food and medicine. Iran will also be able to use $7 billion held in South Korea for similar purchases. Humanitarian trade has long been exempted from US sanctions. Under a new arrangement, however, the US Treasury will give explicit assurances to South Korean banks indemnifying them over release of the funds.  

The arrangements also reportedly will cap Iran's uranium enrichment level at 60% and slow down new US sanctions. Iran reportedly would stop its proxies from attacking American contractors in Syria and Iraq, restore some cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and refrain from sending ballistic missiles to Russia. 

It is a cease-fire, in other words, including literally in Iraq, where Iran-backed militia are to halt attacks on US forces. A March 23 drone attack which killed an US civilian contractor and wounded more than two dozen other US personnel in Syria derailed the schedule for a prisoner release that has been in play for months. 

US Republican lawmakers are predictably unhappy. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has resolutely opposed any resumption of the JCPOA, appears to be more sanguine about what he described as a “mini-deal.” His acquiescence is crucial, because Israel can be a spoiler. Just as the March 23 drone attack by militia forces in Iraq set back diplomacy for several months, an Israeli sabotage attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities could scupper talks.  

While never officially claiming credit, Israel has repeatedly sought to impede Iran’s nuclear progress by assassinating scientists, disrupting computer controls at enrichment plants, and causing explosions. Most recently, in April 2021, a centrifuge facility at Natanz was blacked out by an attack attributed to Israel. However, none of Israel’s attacks has ever set the nuclear program back more than a year or so.  

Instead, Iran always responded by ratcheting up its nuclear program, including its response to US-led sanctions. Following former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018, Iran has turned the dial up about as far as possible short of 90% enrichment. Raising to this approximate weapons grade would be its next logical step in response to another sabotage attack. This is how Israel can apply a de facto veto on diplomacy. 

Enriching to 90% would trigger Britain, France and probably Germany to snapback UN sanctions that were lifted under the JCPOA, and Iran has threatened that in response it would pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This, in turn, would be interpreted by Iran’s adversaries as a clear sign of nuclear weapons intent that might have to be halted by military means. 

If Iran with a bomb is the worst-case outcome, bombing Iran could be the second-worst. Limited air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities could escalate into a larger conflict. Iran’s response would likely involve asymmetric attacks against Israeli citizens around the world and the use of borderless cyber warfare. Iran would expel inspectors, build new hidden facilities, and move as quickly as possible to build nuclear weapons, sparking a proliferation cascade starting with Saudi Arabia. 

The need for de-escalation is clear. When Iran rejected a good-faith effort led by the European Union last August to revive the JCPOA, and then brutally repressed domestic protests, the United States decreed that the JCPOA was no longer on the agenda. Iran then supplied Russia with hundreds of drones used to attack Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. 

Wisely, however, the United States and its partners never ceased pushing for release of the three American hostages. Those plans, and the broader arrangements, deserve unqualified applause. While the cease-fire will do little to roll back Iran’s nuclear weapons capability, it will stop matters from getting worse, preserving future prospects for peaceful restraint. 

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