Iran's nuclear dilemmas

Bassem Aly , Friday 19 Feb 2021

The road to reviving nuclear diplomacy with Iran appears to be full of challenges

Nuclear dilemmas

The end of the Trump presidency does not clearly mark an end to Iranian-Western tensions over Tehran’s nuclear activities. On Monday, Iran said it will be “obliged to suspend the voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol” if parties to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) did not fulfill their obligations.

“It does not mean ending all inspections by the UN nuclear watchdog... All these steps are reversible if the other party changes its path and honours its obligations,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Saeed Khatibzadeh stated. However, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has already told the UN body that his country will block all inspection powers given in accordance with the nuclear deal.

Controversial statements by Iranian officials began earlier this month when its Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, said the West is pressing Iran to fight like a “cornered cat”. “The Supreme Leader has explicitly said in his fatwa that nuclear weapons are against Sharia Law and the Islamic Republic sees them as religiously forbidden and does not pursue them,” Alavi told state TV, adding that “ cornered cat may behave differently from when the cat is free. And if [Western states] push Iran in that direction, then it’s no longer Iran’s fault.”

It can be argued that Iran’s nuclear policy is somehow surprising, especially considering the US President Joe Biden was the vice president in the Obama administration, whose team members are credited with finalising the JCPOA. Later Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, imposed severe economic sanctions on Iran and pressed Europe to do the same.

This came at a time in which Iran had just started to rebuild its economy after suffering from isolation for long decades. In the last few years, according to a Reuters report, Iran’s currency lost 70 per cent of its value against the US dollar, 40 million Iranians have been living below the poverty line and hundreds of factories have been shut down.

The vice president of the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft Trita Parsi, an Iran expert who regularly provides policy recommendations for Western governments, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Iran will probably continue to escalate until the Biden administration fully rejoins the deal.

“The reality is that Iran is inside the deal, though it has reduced some of its commitments, while Biden is still outside the deal, almost a month in his presidency. It appears that the Iranians are getting nervous about Biden’s intentions, but overreacting can also ruin the opportunity for the JCPOA to be revived,” Parsi argued.  

The implications of the Iranian approach to the nuclear crisis seem to be unacceptable to Europeans. Britain, Germany and France – three powerful states that have played key roles in nuclear diplomacy throughout the past six years – recently warned Iran against “undermining the opportunity for renewed diplomacy to fully realise the objectives of the JCPOA”.

In a joint statement issued after the IAEA accused Iran of producing uranium, the European countries said Iran has “no reliable civilian justification for these activities, which are a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon.”

CBS Evening News, which interviewed Biden on 7 February, said he “nodded affirmatively” when the interviewer asked him if Iran has to stop enriching uranium first ahead of lifting US sanctions. The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also stressed that exact same policy orientation in several media appearances. 

Jason Brodsky, policy director for United Against Nuclear Iran, said the current developments do not mean that the “window is closing on diplomacy”, for Iran’s supreme leader has authorised talks under both hardline and moderate presidencies.

“The Rouhani administration is trying to make it appear as if the window for diplomacy is closing,” Brodsky explained, “because the Rouhani presidency is in its final months. But he has an ulterior motive here in trying to bolster his own legacy at home and, in the process, attempting to improve the political fortunes of the pragmatists ahead of Iran’s presidential election.”

The JCPOA came into being in July 2015 following hectic negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1, including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. The agreement says that Washington and the European Union would terminate all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in return for Iran’s approval of increased monitoring by the IAEA and severe limitations on nuclear research, production of enriched uranium, operations of centrifuges and accumulation of heavy water.

Kanishkan Sathasivam, professor of international relations at Salem State University, believes that “fixing the fundamental flaws” of the JCPOA has to be included in any discussions.

“The JCPOA has to demonstrate that even if not now then at least after some years it will permanently close off Iran’s access to a bomb. If you don’t have this, then you don’t really have a deal. And I believe the current British government also now understands this problem, so the US is not alone here.

Furthermore, the secondary issues such as Iran’s meddling in the internal affairs of various Arab states, support for terrorist groups and continuing development of long-range ballistic missiles have to be addressed in some form as well.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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