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Opportunities and threats of Iran’s return to 2015 nuclear deal

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There were some conflicting speculations regarding the position of US President Joseph Biden‘s administration on Iran’s nuclear program, as optimists believed the new President would return to the nuclear deal as soon as he entered the White House, while pessimists announced that the decision to return to that deal would be very difficult if not impossible under the conditions agreed with President Barack Obama in October 2015. Many things have changed during Donald Trump’s tenure as president, as have many attitudes towards the nuclear deal, which today requires that the details of the deal be reconsidered and amended to suit the new circumstances.

Within days of taking office on 20 January 2021, the new US President Biden managed to change the face of US foreign policy towards the Middle East, thanks to a number of facts: first, his experience in dealing with challenges in the region gained over a long period of membership in the Senate (1973-2009) and in Obama’s administration where he was vice president from 2009 to 2017; second, his use of executive presidential powers as a means of taking swift action and avoiding confrontation with Republicans in the Congress; third, a clear vision, which sees the US global role from two perspectives, including  the moral principles and interests, instead of only thinking of the interests; fourth, his selection of an experienced team based on the criteria of expertise, skills and knowledge of the region; and fifth, the President and his team rely on multi-track diplomacy to implement this vision, which simultaneously stimulates and exerts pressure based on the carrot and stick principle.

The nuclear deal should be dealt separately from other issues

The Iranian issue is an important axis of the new US administration’s foreign policy. Biden’s vision of policy towards Iran can be divided into three segments, the most important of which is Iran’s nuclear programme, to save the nuclear deal with Iran and try to fix what Trump’s policy destroyed in that regard. The second segment concerns an attempt to suppress Iran’s expansion in the Middle East, primarily in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, where pro-Iranian allies are in power. The third segment of American policy is putting Iran’s missile programme under international supervision.

This vision seeks to separate Iran’s nuclear programme from regional security issues in the first phase, which Saudi Arabia insists on. From Biden’s point of view, Iran’s nuclear programme (JSPOA)[2] is an international issue essentially related to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the group (5 + 1)[3] in charge of this issue, and they differ in term of regional security issues, despite some connections between them, especially regarding the establishment of collective regional security framework, with the participation of all parties whereby talks would be held at a later stage.

Analysts believe that if Biden manages to separate the nuclear issue from regional security challenges, it will provide chances for a quick solution to the problems of the nuclear deal and unresolved regional issues. The United States and Iran have expressed readiness to negotiate on the nuclear programme, but there are major differences in terms and how to achieve that.

Iran demands that all US sanctions be lifted first before it agrees to meet the restrictions on uranium enrichment from the 2015 deal, while the US sees this scenario the other way around, which means that Iran should first meet its obligations before the sanctions would be gradually abolished. There is another scenario announced by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, namely that the two sides enter negotiations at the same time. However, the US President categorically stated in the CBS TV programme “Face the Nation“[4] that he would not lift the sanctions just to “bring Iran back to the negotiating table”. In response to a subsequent question, he explained that Iran must first “stop enriching uranium” more than what is envisaged by the nuclear deal, which is 3.67%.

On 31 January 2021 Tehran announced that it had produced 17 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium, thus bringing it a step closer to enriching uranium to 90%, which could be used in nuclear weapon production. 

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Raphael Mariano Grossi warned: “Obviously we don’t have many months. We have weeks to renew a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” which indicates that Iran’s uranium enrichment will soon reach the point of no return.

The US concerns about Iran’s presidential elections

The US administration is anxiously awaiting changes resulting from Iran’s presidential elections in June 2021 and any possibility that the future president would come from the ranks of conservatives, who have controlled Iranian parliament since 2020 parliamentary elections. This possibility is quite realistic.  
The reformists do not have any notable candidate, unlike the conservatives who already have three political “hawks“: former President of Iran (2005-2013) Mahmuomd Ahmadinejad, former Tehran Mayor and current Parliament Speaker Mohammad Qalibaf, who was Hassan Rouhani’s strongest opponent at 2013 elections, and Head of Judiciary Ebrahim Raisi, who ran in 2017 presidential elections but lost to Hassan Rouhani.

Recent aggravation of relations resulted from the violation of the agreement on international control over Iran’s nuclear programme, which led to an increase in uranium enrichment based on decisions by the conservative-controlled Iranian parliament. 

A new US path towards Iran

The Persian Gulf region and Iran have been the source of tensions and wars for the past 40 years, but it seems that with President Biden we are entering a phase of anticipating a new American policy.  Biden and his team appear to be more in favour of a truce and reduction in tensions than former Trump’s administration.

The new path that the United States will follow towards Iran requires an open dialogue, especially after years of tensions that have lasted since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. Some opinions suggesting that the ceasefire will strengthen Iranian expansion and extremism are incorrect. Iran today is not what it was in 1980. It is no longer a revolutionary Iran, but is now a pragmatic country, seeking to regulate its global role as a regional power and successor to the ancient Persian civilization.

Internal attempts to overthrow Iranian political system have failed. The US must find a model of cooperation with the present Iranian regime. Dialogue can open many doors, as did the seven-day visit by US President Richard Nixon on 21 February 1972, which opened the door to changes in China despite its communist ideology. China has supported all anti-American and communist movements around the world, including the Vietnam War against the US. American openness to China has changed many Chinese trends, and even led to the emergence of the school of capitalist economic reform in late 1970s, without changing the essence of the communist system.

The new US policy is less burdened with the protection of Gulf oil sources and it is oriented towards China. Therefore, the United States will not accept that certain Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, have the right to set ultimatums and restrictions on the US return to the nuclear deal and dialogue with Iran, but will ask its Arab allies to make compromises with Iran on common Gulf security concerns.

Some countries in the region had time to resolve their problems with Iran, but were more focused on the blockade option and the use of force, encouraging Trump administration to attack Iran. Nevertheless, this did not happen during the presidency of Donald Trump, who exploited tensions to increase arms sales deals, and it will not happen during Biden’s administration either.  It should be noted that the three countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, lead a rational policy towards Iran.

Today, Iran’s economy is no longer on the verge of collapse. It is now in a deep abyss, which had a dramatic effect on the country’s internal political situation that has been the scene of large demonstrations in many Iranian cities over the past two years. 

The official unemployment rate in Iran is 9.4%, which is 2.4 million economically active people. However, it is estimated that the real unemployment rate is at least twice as high, especially among the young. Annual GDP reduced in 2019/2020 by about 7%.  An additional 5% drop in Iranian economy is expected in 2021 if sanctions are not lifted. Annual inflation also jumped to more than 46% in November 2020.

Return to the nuclear deal – Iran’s exit from the crisis

Iranian leadership is well aware that the only way out of the crisis is to return to the nuclear deal which will be followed by economic progress.

The messages coming from the United States and Iran can be interpreted as mutual willingness to start negotiations to return to the nuclear deal. An optimistic atmosphere was established by the appointment of Wendy R. Sherman as US Deputy Secretary of State and Robert Malley as US Special Envoy for Iran, two key figures who actively participated in negotiations with Iran during former President Obama’s term in 2009-2017.

Iranian leadership has to show a high level of patience regarding the lifting of sanctions, since this will realistically not happen overnight. 

There are three types of sanctions imposed on Iran, and not all are related to the nuclear deal. For example, sanctions imposed on the Central Bank and the Revolutionary Guard are related to money laundering and aiding terrorism, and some sanctions are imposed due to human rights violations. Even if the sanctions imposed by former US President Trump are lifted, there will be still other sanctions that the two sides must discuss separately from the nuclear issue in order to be phased out.

Presidential elections will be held in June 2021. Will Iran’s supreme Islamic leader Ali Khamnei allow the negotiation process to be successfully completed during the term of current reformist President Hassan Rouhani, thereby increasing the power of reformists, or will he wait until a new president is elected, most likely coming from the conservatives?

Published by IFIMES – The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES)[1] in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses events in the Middle East and the Balkans. It has currently analysed events in Iran with an emphasis on restoring the 2015 nuclear deal. Ljubljana/Washington/Brussels, 19 April 2021            

[1IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018.
[2]  Source:
[3] P5+1 (the UN Security Council’s five permanent members China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany). All together with the EU.
[4] Source: interview with Joseph Biden, CBS, Face the Nation, 7 February 2021.

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