Melbourne: With the resumption of nuclear talks between Iran, the United States and other members of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on November 29, a question looms. Is engagement with Iran likely to bear diplomatic fruit or be wasted?
Negotiated in 2015 by the Obama administration (alongside Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia), the JCPOA represented a major effort to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions.
The 159-page agreement committed the United States and its European partners to lift long-standing sanctions to allow Iran to bring back foreign investment and sell its natural resources globally without restriction.
In return, Iran agreed to put a wide range of shock absorbers on its nuclear program for 15 years. These included:
keep uranium enrichment levels below 3.67% (the level used to produce fuel for commercial nuclear power plants).
Limiting the number of centrifuges and the amount of uranium stored allow for increased monitoring, verification and transparency of its nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the closure of several facilities.
These measures would keep civilian activities limited, but potential military applications would, for the moment, be neutralized.
Importantly, the JCPOA has avoided addressing other Iranian actions seen as destabilizing by the United States and its partners. These included Tehran’s support for insurgents like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and various Iraqi and Syrian militias, as well as its ever-expanding ballistic missile and drone programs.
The agreement explicitly stated that the sanctions for these activities would remain in place and would be treated as separate issues.
Beyond resolving the immediate crisis of a possible nuclear proliferation, the agreement was intended to serve as an exercise of confidence.
US leaders believed that by offering an olive branch to the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and acting in good faith, they could pave the way for a broader US-Iran rapprochement. The deal would demonstrate that the United States could be a reliable partner for future negotiations.
Confidence is not built
Of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the United States once again failed to anticipate arguably their biggest foil in foreign affairs: itself.
The surprise election of Donald Trump in 2016 shocked the JCPOA. While Obama had separated the problems of Iran’s nuclear program from his other acts of destabilization, Trump saw both from the same perspective.
This led to Washington unilaterally withdrawing from the deal in May 2018 and implementing the so-called maximum pressure campaign that sought to intimidate Iran into broader concessions.
This jarring change has occurred despite Iran’s adherence to the JCPOA framework. The deal actually continued for a year after the United States pulled out in hopes other signatories could bring Washington back to the table.
Such hopes have turned out to be in vain, however, as Trump has despised Europeans, imposed new sanctions on Tehran, and engaged in other provocative behavior. This included the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, a highly respected figure in Iran.
Trump’s about-face confirmed long-standing Iranian views of the elite on American duplicity and tainted Obama’s unusually liberal attempt to forge a working relationship with Tehran.
Feeling betrayed, Iran began to escalate tensions in the Middle East, including hitting Saudi oil processing facilities and resumed uranium enrichment well beyond levels agreed to in the JCPOA.
Many hoped that with Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 US presidential election, Washington would act quickly to re-engage Tehran and return to the JCPOA deal. Time is running out with Rouhani, the main promoter of the deal in Iran, who is due to finish his term in August. (He was replaced by the more conservative and hawkish president Ebrahim Raisi.)
Nonetheless, Biden was not Obama, and despite sharing much of the same staff, his administration quickly displayed more conservative and bullish foreign policy chops.
Rather than offering an act of good faith to dispel the bad air, Biden has indicated that he expects Iran to resume membership in the JCPOA before any US concessions are made. At the G20 meeting last month, the United States, Germany, France and Britain reaffirmed this message in a joint statement, stating: Returning to JCPOA compliance will lead to a lifting of sanctions with lasting implications for Iran’s economic growth. This will only be possible if Iran changes course.
Iranian diplomats, however, want the United States to end its betrayal and remove the sanctions before Tehran resumes complying with the deal.
These two intractable and incompatible positions have so far undermined any effort to move the negotiations forward in any meaningful way.
For both sides, it is clear that the previous terms of the JCPOA will simply not be enough, especially now that demands on both sides are no longer limited to nuclear talks and that the broader strategic conditions in the region have changed.
Under Biden, US attention has shifted to confrontation with China in the Asia-Pacific and nationwide recovery from COVID-19. This has resulted in a slow disengagement from the Middle East, putting the Iran issue somewhat on the back burner (at least compared to 2015).
Iran may also be worried because of Biden’s significant possibility as a single-term president (with a chance, however slim, that he could be replaced by Trump). Iran is also aware that the United States’ engagement in the region may not be what it once was, and biding its time may be the best course of action.
Glimmers of hope? Despite such gloom, optimism is limited through subtle gestures on both sides.
Iran agreed to resume negotiations on November 29 without first lifting US sanctions. It can be thought of as a sweet olive branch.
And U.S. officials recently met with representatives from the Persian Gulf states in Saudi Arabia to discuss potential avenues for diplomacy with Tehran. They also discussed deepening economic ties after the sanctions were lifted under the JCPOA.
Such an optimistic statement suggests that American policymakers are at least considering the possibility of a positive outcome and a way forward for negotiations despite significant pressure from Republicans in the United States and Israel to the contrary.
But making predictions in the current mud of diplomatic negotiations is difficult. There may be a path to resuscitation of JCPOA. If possible, however, it will be necessary to restore a level of confidence that neither side seems willing to embrace, nor to foster in the current freezing diplomatic climate. (The conversation)
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