Will the patient revive or finally expire? That is the critical question regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The landmark nuclear agreement reached between Iran and world powers in 2015 seemed to have so much potential. But it has been experiencing a steady decline since President Donald Trump stuck a knife in it in 2018 and quit while Iran was in full compliance. Iran has since busted out of the deal’s restrictions and advanced its nuclear program to near breakout status while talks with the Biden administration have stalled.
US officials, such as Secretary of State Tony Blinken, most recently have insisted that the deal is not dead and that the United States still considers it in its national interests. But even though the technical details of an Iranian nuclear rollback have long been finalized in indirect talks between Iran and the United States, Iran’s demand for lifting one of the many US sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seems to have stymied the chances for resealing the deal.
What is stopping the Iran nuclear deal from going forward now?
THE DOMESTIC CONSTRAINTS
The problem is domestic politics in both Iran and the United States. The hardliners now in control of all aspects of Iranian governance say they want to return to the JCPOA and certainly would appreciate the boost to the Iranian economy that sanctions relief would provide. With oil at $100 a barrel, Iran is losing an estimated $4 billion a month so long as it stalls on completing the nuclear negotiations. It also lacks access to $100 billion in revenues frozen by the Trump administration’s sanctions, which the Biden administration has kept.
As time goes by without even a meeting, the appetite for compromise for parties to the Iran deal seems to be diminishing, which comes with its own risks.
The current Iranian negotiators want to show that they have gotten more from Washington than their predecessors in the Rouhani administration, who negotiated the deal. However, Iranians of all stripes also fear that even if the agreement is restored, its shelf life will be almost as short as the original. If a Republican is elected president in 2024 — especially if it is Trump — the next US administration is likely to withdraw from the deal again. So the argument in Iran goes: Is it worth reducing our nuclear leverage for economic gains that will be ephemeral? Especially when we have gotten used to “maximum pressure” and managed to get around sanctions by increasing its oil imports to China and all manner of goods to our neighbors?
US officials acknowledge privately that the Biden administration has not clamped down on Iranian evasion of US secondary sanctions to the extent it might have. This is partly an acknowledgment that the US blew up the deal, not Iran. Of course, the US could go after Iranian oil exports to China and middlemen in the United Arab Emirates more forcefully if the agreemet dies. But when much of the world is trying to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels, the attraction of sanctions enforcement against Iranian oil is less obvious. That, in turn, gives Iran less incentive to compromise.
US politics is another complication. Polls show that a majority of Americans now support the agreement — unlike in 2015 — but the partisanship around the deal rages unabated. Republicans continue to insist that Iran is bent on getting a bomb, conveniently leaving out that a Republican administration made it easier for Tehran to move in that direction. And some Democrats, especially those who opposed the deal, to begin with, don’t like the optics of removing the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation from the IRGC, even if that will have almost no real-world effects.
The Biden administration has sought some kind of assurance from Iran that it will not target former Trump officials for their role in assassinating Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s external branch, in 2020. Blinken told the Senate on Apr. 26, “Iran knows what it needs to do” to satisfy US concerns. Iranians have so far refused to provide this, but the Raisi government has sought improved relations with its Arab neighbors, including archrival Saudi Arabia, and has supported a ceasefire in Yemen. Some sort of vanilla statement about a need for the region to resolve its conflicts peacefully might assuage US concerns.
GETTING BACK ON TRACK
Still, as time goes by without even a meeting — the last sessions in Vienna were in mid-March 2022 — the appetite for compromise seems to be diminishing. There is a sense that, given domestic constraints and the much more compelling crisis in Ukraine, the parties to the Iran deal are willing to live with an extended limbo that requires no gestures on either side that would cause them to lose face.
Of course, inaction is not without risks. As Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association pointed out recently in a Twitter thread, “Limbo is not sustainable — I would flag two risks that are increasing the longer Biden waits: 1) Iran crosses nuclear threshold that poses an intolerable risk to the US & 2) Iran’s research activities significantly reduce the nonproliferation value of the accord.”
There is also the danger of an incident in Iraq or Syria in which an Iran-backed group kills an American, pushing the United States to retaliate. In addition, Israel could resume its covert campaign of cyber and other attacks on Iranian personnel and infrastructure, leading to a dangerous escalation of its long hostilities with Iran.
Momentum is a precious commodity in diplomacy that, once lost, is very hard to recover. Just as the JCPOA, for all its imperfections, was much better than no deal. It’s time for the negotiators to return to the table and reseal the deal.
Barbara Slavin is the Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.