Ever since Democrat Joe Biden won the US presidential election, speculation has swirled of the possibility of Washington’s return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which his predecessor Donald Trump withdrew the US from in May 2018 and subsequently restored sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The expectation of a US return to the deal – officially termed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – both in Iran and abroad has been on the strength of Biden’s campaign pledges.

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said in an interview that Biden “can lift anti-Iran sanctions with three executive orders” and return to the JCPOA. Nonetheless, President Biden has not so far, although he has signed a number of executive orders on other issues.

Amid mutual mistrust, Iran and the US appear to be in a standoff over who should take the first step; Iran has scaled back on some of its nuclear curb commitments in retaliation for the US exit and ongoing sanctions.

The White House and senior officials in the Biden administration have called for Iran’s full compliance with JCPOA obligations before it would rejoin the historic agreement. For its part, Iran says the US should act first as Tehran is in no rush to see the US return to the deal.

The Biden administration has called for Iran’s full compliance with JCPOA obligations before it would rejoin the historic agreement.

The more time passes, the dimmer the hopes for the preservation of the JCPOA in its current format. The stances taken by Tehran and Washington hint at another unnecessary crisis over Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

“At the moment, it seems that both sides are playing for time with the hope that a sense of urgency would eventually compel the other side to take the first step,” Hamidreza Azizi from the German Institute for Security and International Affairs (SWP) told Inside Arabia.

Despite Iranian officials’ claims that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has failed, those sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic have significantly harmed the Iranian economy and official data in December showed that over 35 percent of Iranians were living below the poverty line.

“Refusing to make foreign policy concessions to gain economic relief, would make the Iranian leadership more vulnerable to popular uprisings by its increasingly disgruntled population,” Mohsen Solhdoost, an international relations researcher at University of Queensland, told Inside Arabia.

Still, that may not mean Iran is desperate for sanctions relief. Over the past few months the country’s oil exports have risen steadily, and, according to experts, Iran’s unofficial economy, formulated to bypass US sanctions, is worth over US$20 billion a year. Furthermore, there are powerful groups inside the country benefiting from such sanctions, that have been opposing any attempts to change the status quo.

At the same time, for the United States, Iran’s gradual move toward becoming a nuclear threshold state creates a sense of urgency.

Exactly one year after the US pulled out of the JCPOA and restored tough sanctions on the Islamic Republic, Iran embarked on a phased reduction of its nuclear commitments. However, it has noted time and again all these measures were reversible provided the US returns to the deal.

After the assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last November, which Israel was blamed for, Iran’s conservative dominated parliament adopted a legislation known as “Strategic Action Plan to Lift Sanctions.” The bill required the administration of President Hassan Rouhani to stop the ongoing voluntary application of the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and increase uranium enrichment purity should the US fail to lift sanctions by late February 2021.

The Iranian government has officially announced it will stop implementing the IAEA Additional Protocol as of February 23.

Now, the Iranian government has officially announced it will stop implementing the IAEA Additional Protocol as of February 23.  The country has already ramped up its nuclear activities beyond what the JCPOA permits to the extent that the three European powers party to the JCPOA – Britain, France, and Germany – have warned Iran about the consequences of its nuclear upgrade, fearing those violations would undermine any chance of reviving the deal.

In recent weeks, Tehran has cautioned “the window is closing” to resolve the impasse and preserve the JCPOA. Currently, positive developments in the short-term are improbable, due to the extent of differences between the two sides and the complexity of the issues.

“Given Iran’s solidified distrust of the US and the Biden administration’s reluctance to give up the leverage it has right now, it is unlikely that a mutually acceptable process that would lead to full compliance by all sides could be reached by the February 21 deadline,” Solhdoost told Inside Arabia.

Iran Could Pursue Nuclear Arms

Yet it was perhaps the remarks by Iran’s Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi on February 8 that elicited mixed reactions and caused the most controversy inside and outside of Iran.

In a televised program, while reiterating “the peaceful nature” of Iran’s nuclear program, Mahmoud Alavi referred to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa (religious pronouncement) banning the development of nuclear weapons, but noted: “If Iran chooses to develop atomic arms, those who are cornering Iran to do so will be to blame.”

“If Iran chooses to develop atomic arms, those who are cornering Iran to do so will be to blame.”

While media close to conservatives and the powerful Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) said Alavi had only expressed his “personal views,” and President Hassan Rouhani reportedly later chided his minister for making those comments on national television,  some analysts believe there might be a deeper rational behind those remarks and an indication of a possible nuclear policy shift in the future.

According to Mostafa Najafi, a foreign policy and Middle East researcher at Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University, “one assumption is that Alavi’s statements were destined merely to pressure the West to take its decision about the nuclear issue as a matter of priority,” Najafi told Inside Arabia. “It could also be a new component in the strategic thinking adopted by Iranian decision-makers to step on a new path in the nuclear program,” he further explained.

As Iran’s deadline approaches, Tehran and Washington would have to reach a compromise through direct or indirect talks to head off more critical times than during the Trump era.

Nonetheless, according to Iran’s Foreign Minister, “there is no consensus in Iran” over direct negotiations with the US. Therefore, Zarif proposed an initiative calling for the European Union to mediate the “simultaneous return” of Tehran and Washington to the JCPOA. Oman and Qatar have also offered to mediate in the dispute, but analysts say since conditions are getting more complicated, and in light of Tehran’s threat to incrementally roll back its nuclear commitments, Iran could even “alienate” its traditional allies like Russia and China.

“That would push Russia toward taking side with the Western powers against Iran and may even bring Iran’s nuclear file back to the UN Security Council,” Azizi noted.

Russia has thus far sympathized with Iran over its reduction of nuclear commitments, attributing it to the US’ JCPOA withdrawal. However, following the IAEA report on metal uranium production in Iran, Moscow called on Tehran to show restraint.

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Zero Chance of Flexibility

The Biden administration seems to be following an on-and-off policy towards Iran and the JCPOA, which would not be finalized any time soon. Washington has been sending mixed signals like affording economic incentives in return for Iran’s reversal of nuclear activities outside the JCPOA. The White House also apparently seeks to win over regional allies and foster alliance with the Europeans in a bid to gauge the chances of winning concessions from Iran.

Nonetheless, after years-long experience of intensive talks over its nuclear program with Western governments, Iran has learned quite well when to adopt a tough stance and when to show flexibility. Although the JCPOA was struck after Iran adopted the “heroic flexibility” policy, Tehran had its right to enrich uranium recognized despite opposition from the US at the beginning.

Tehran says a US return to the JCPOA would mean nothing if oil and banking sanctions are not lifted.

For Iran, however, showing flexibility is not an option this time. Tehran says a US return to the JCPOA would mean nothing if oil and banking sanctions are not lifted. This is why Azizi believes “ideas like limited economic incentives by the American side could, in the best-case scenario, only convince Iran not to take further steps in reducing its commitments and would in no way be enough to encourage Iran to make a substantial change in its current approach.”

Meanwhile, hardliners in Iran would like to see the JCPOA founder fail and the deal unravel as they continue to blame and mock its proponents  for being novices in politics for trusting the US. The Iranian leadership has so far behaved in a way to avoid blame for the possible collapse of the nuclear deal. Tehran argues that in exchange for the obligations it agreed to under the accord, the opposite parties have failed to honor their commitments. Iran cites Articles 36 of the JCPOA to justify its nuclear activities deemed by the West as violation of the nuclear accord.

Moreover, insistence on requiring Iran to take steps beyond the JCPOA’s contents and agreeing on what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken describes as “deeply problematic” issues may further intensify tensions. In other words, when unrelated issues are tied to the JCPOA, the agreement would lose its course and this already complicated problem will grow more complex.

Based on its specific strategy, Tehran would not agree to undermine its defense and missile power, nor would it engage other regional countries in any new talks. “Even in the case of a successful revival of the JCPOA, there’s no real guarantee that a diplomatic engagement on other fronts is possible,” Azizi asserted.

Iranian decision-makers believe the US’ foot-dragging in returning to the JCPOA and buying time has cost Iran’s national interests and foreign trading dearly. Thus, if the nuclear deal collapses some analysts believe Iran will have to reconsider its nuclear program.

In Tehran, Najafi maintains that “the experience of about two decades of negotiations with the West over Iran’s nuclear file has led [some] security and military policymakers and elite in Iran thinking that the West is not willing to see Iran’s nuclear dispute closed and prefers to keep the cycle of talks running in order to contain and undermine Iran.”

“Therefore, Iran might be left with no other option but to spell an end to this cycle and decide to embrace nuclear deterrence,” he added.

The US is unlikely to take any serious action in the final months of Rouhani’s term.

Despite efforts and initiatives by the Iranian government to persuade President Biden to return to the JCPOA as Rouhani’s “only political legacy,” the US is unlikely to take any serious action in the final months of Rouhani’s term. Iran is holding presidential elections in June with the next government expected to be dominated by hardliners.

As early as March, all eyes would turn to election campaigning, thereby overshadowing the possibility of settling the Iran-US dispute over the JCPOA. Still, the election outcome may not change Iran’s nuclear policy, as Iran’s Supreme Leader has the final say in foreign policy decision-making.

“In my opinion, it is not a hardline administration per se that would jeopardize the JCPOA. Rather, it is the absence of a qualified person like Javad Zarif in the hardliners’ camp that portends an abysmal failure of diplomacy,” Solhdoost pointed out.