The revival of the nuclear deal with Iran was never going to be a simple or straightforward affair. But the difficulties facing even the start of preliminary talks have alarmed Western officials and made them question whether Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and hardliners are keen to restore the deal before the Iranian presidential elections in June.
For hardliners in Iran, blaming current President Hassan Rouhani for the shortcomings of the nuclear deal is the best strategy to win back the presidency. There is uneasiness in the West that the internal power struggle in Iran might throw nuclear deal revival efforts into chaos.
Few expected a breakthrough in the first month of the new Biden administration in the US, but Tehran’s uncompromising stand has surprised Europe and America, especially given the condition of the Iranian economy.
The fundamental problem remains disagreements over who will take the first step. Iran wants the US to lift all sanctions before demanding its full compliance. America, on the other hand, wants Iran to comply first before it lifts the sanctions.
If there is a compromise to be found between Washington and Tehran, it will fall on the shoulders of Britain, France and Germany. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that Iran was playing with fire because of its refusal to positively engage with symbolic steps taken by the Biden administration to reassure Iran.
“The talks are being significantly complicated at the moment because Iran obviously does not seek de-escalation, but escalation, and this is playing with fire,” he said.
Biden has delivered three confidence-building measures to Tehran. He has agreed to return to multinational talks with Iran about reviving the deal, and he has rescinded former US president Donald Trump’s determination that all UN sanctions on Iran must be restored. He has also eased onerous travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats posted to the United Nations.
Yet, Iran has held firm to its demands that it will not respond to anything less than a full lifting of the sanctions, blamed by many Western capitals for the current deadlock.
A UK government spokesperson told Al-Ahram Weekly that “we are deeply concerned by Iran’s continued and systematic non-compliance with its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA,” the nuclear deal with Iran.
“We welcome President Biden’s commitment that if Iran returns to compliance with the deal the US would re-enter the agreement, seeking to both strengthen and extend it. This is an important opportunity to restart engagement between Iran and the US, and to realise the objectives of the JCPOA,” the spokesperson said.
He emphasised that London’s priority remained keeping the diplomatic door open for discussions on a new and comprehensive deal with Iran.
Since Trump reimposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran to force it to renegotiate the accord, Tehran has retaliated by rolling back a number of key commitments. The Iranian stance has left the US administration with a difficult choice: move ahead with sanctions relief before Iran resumes full compliance and risk losing the leverage it has, or double down on demands for full compliance first and risk Tehran walking away from the deal.
It is a delicate balance, given the different forces in Washington and regional players in the Middle East who do not want the nuclear deal to be revived.
On Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed that the US was prepared to return to the nuclear deal provided Tehran showed “strict compliance” with it.
Speaking to the UN-backed Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Blinken said the US was committed to ensuring Iran never acquired a nuclear weapon and pledged to work with allies and partners to “lengthen and strengthen” the deal struck between Iran and Germany, France, Britain, Russia, China and the US in 2015 during former president Barack Obama’s administration.
“Diplomacy is the best path to achieve that goal,” Blinken said.
Despite its tough stand, Iran has showed flexibility to avert increasing the tension. On Sunday, Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agreed to temporary measures to offset Iran’s decision to restrict access to inspectors.
These would enable the agency to retain the “necessary degree of monitoring and verification work,” IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said, without going into detail. The move comes ahead of a deadline set by the Iranian parliament to stop intrusive checks of sites unless US sanctions are lifted.
The “temporary technical” arrangement “salvages the situation,” Grossi told reporters on Sunday after a visit to Iran. “We were able to retain the necessary degree of monitoring and verification work,” he said, without elaborating, but added that “there is less access [to Iranian sites], let’s face it.”
Under the plan, for the next three months Iran will make recordings from monitoring equipment installed at sites by the IAEA but will not release the information unless sanctions are lifted within that timeframe, the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) said. If the sanctions remain, the data will be erased, it added.
Cameras and other apparatus have been put in place at sites by the IAEA to help verify that Iran does not carry out nuclear activities prohibited under the deal.
Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the talks had “resulted in a very significant diplomatic achievement and a very significant technical achievement… within the framework of the parliament’s binding law.”
The White House and State Department downplayed the significance of the move.
“Our view is that diplomacy is the best path forward to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “That does not mean they have clearly not taken the steps needed to comply, and we have not taken any steps or made any indication that we are going to meet the demands that they are putting forward either.”
At the State Department, Spokesman Ned Price addressed the IAEA mission more directly, praising the agency for its “professionalism” in keeping inspectors and their apparatus in the country despite Iran’s threat to expel them on Tuesday.
He said the US supported the IAEA chief’s success in reaching a temporary deal with Iran but lamented that Tehran remained out of compliance.
Price said the administration was concerned that Iran appeared to be going in the wrong direction but would not comment on the administration’s view of whether its outreach to date had achieved results. Nor was he prepared to say what the administration might do to push Iran back into compliance with the deal, considering its continued threat to abandon all the restrictions it had imposed.
“The United States is willing to meet with the Iranians to hash out these difficult and complex questions,” Price said, alluding to phrases that administration officials have used to refer to their initial aim of “compliance for compliance” and then “compliance for compliance-plus.”
“Compliance-plus,” according to administration officials, would include limits on Iran’s non-nuclear activities, including missile development and support for Middle East rebel groups and militias. A main reason Trump gave for withdrawing from the nuclear deal was that it did not address those issues, and his administration tried for more than a year to expand the deal to include them.
But conservative Iranian lawmakers said that the agreement reached between the government and the IAEA was “illegal” and that Rouhani must be punished for it.
In a vote on Monday, an overwhelming majority of Iranian lawmakers voted to send a report by the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission on the agreement reached with IAEA to the judiciary for review.
The report asserts that the deal constitutes a “clear violation” of a law passed by the Iranian parliament in December. The government of Rouhani must stop the voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol that gives broad authority to IAEA inspectors from Tuesday, it says.
In a statement, the AEOI said the implementation of the Additional Protocol would be completely halted from Tuesday in accordance with the law, and no access would be given to the UN’s nuclear watchdog beyond that laid out in a principal safeguards agreement aimed at ensuring nuclear non-proliferation. The AEOI concluded that the IAEA agreement was in compliance with the law.
Although Iran has avoided an immediate crisis by allowing inspections and monitoring by the IAEA, if no settlement is reached on the terms of reviving the nuclear deal a major crisis will erupt.
Iran is shaping up to be a major test of the Biden administration’s overall approach to foreign policy, which the president has said will realign itself with the kind of multilateral diplomacy that Trump shunned. Although there are other hot-button issues, Russia, China and North Korea among them, Iran has a particular significance for Biden’s top aides.
They include Secretary of State Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley, all of whom were intimately involved in crafting the deal under Obama and may have personal stakes in salvaging it.
But if the 2015 deal was difficult to achieve and took three years to negotiate, the 2021 deal might prove to be even more so.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly