The Natanz Blackout: Can the Iran Deal Talks Still Succeed?

Washington and Tehran seem determined to revive the deal that freezes Iran’s nuclear program, despite domestic criticism on both sides and the apparent sabotage of an Iranian facility.

Did the April 11 explosion at the Natanz facility, which Iran blames on Israel, significantly set back Iran’s nuclear program?

It is always difficult to assess how effective such attacks are. The recent explosion will likely set Iran’s nuclear program back, but it is impossible for outside observers to say by how much. The one thing that seems clear is that Iranian nuclear infrastructure is susceptible to infiltration. Natanz is Iran’s main nuclear facility, and a new generation of centrifuges is being developed and installed there. It has been the target of multiple attacks, both cyberstrikes and direct physical assaults. And yet, the Iranian government seems incapable of protecting a nuclear asset that it knows is being targeted by its adversaries. This is a serious intelligence failure on its part.

Will this incident derail or delay the Vienna talks on returning to the nuclear deal? 

It is unlikely that the recent attack will derail the Vienna talks. The United States and Iran both wish to get back to the agreement in a way that serves their own interests. This attack will generate its share of Iranian condemnation, but it will not prove an obstacle to diplomacy. The Iranian nuclear network was attacked before, and the two sides still managed to forge the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

If Iran seeks to move its nuclear program deeper underground, the issue of inspections could be even more crucial. Could inspections prevail after such a move?

Iran has already scaled back the inspection regime. The agency responsible for inspections, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been in contact with Iran over its lack of cooperation. The program moving deeper underground should not further impede inspection if Iran reveals the location of its facilities, opens them up to regular inspection, and answers unresolved questions. The parties to the JCPOA can be expected to press for such transparency.

What are the main takeaways from the Vienna talks so far?

Iran insists that since the United States is no longer a member of the nuclear deal, Washington should come back into compliance before it can be a regular participant in the talks. The United States argues that Iran should come back into compliance itself before the United States rejoins the deal. Thus, the so-called proximity talks are designed to provide a step-by-step plan for both sides to gradually come back into compliance. Two working groups were established, one to identify sanctions that the United States should lift because they were imposed after the U.S. withdrawal in 2018, and another to discern the adjustments Iran should make to its nuclear program to return to compliance.

Can the countries reach a deal before the Iranian presidential elections in June? If not, how could those elections affect diplomacy?

It is not clear whether an agreement will be reached before the Iranian presidential election, but doing so is not crucial. The question of whether Iran will adhere to the agreement should the United States return to compliance is not a factional issue. Compliance is the position of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the official position of the state. Nor is it clear who will be the next Iranian president, since the results of these elections are impossible to predict in advance.

What are the consequences for regional security if the deal is never revived? 

Many U.S. allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, are wary of the United States returning to an agreement that they believe provides Iran with economic benefits without sufficiently obstructing its path to a nuclear weapon. Thus, the regional tensions and the pattern of attacks and reprisals are likely to persist no matter the prospects of the agreement.