While negotiations to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) held in Vienna have stalled due to the election of the new conservative Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, and corresponding government transition, many unsolved issues suggest that restoring the agreement may be simply a bridge too far. Moreover, despite declaring interest in re-joining the deal, Biden’s administration has not shown any desire to remove the sanctions imposed on Iran. This brings some observers to the conclusion that Biden is following Trump’s rigid approach while attempting to improve the previous agreement, which could actually kill it altogether.
The Vienna talks were launched in April of this year as an attempt to revive the JCPOA, which was aimed at containing Tehran’s nuclear development and was signed by Iran, the US, the UK, China, Russia, France, and Germany in 2015.
Despite Iran’s full compliance with the agreement, former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the accord in 2018, and imposed a “maximum pressure” campaign of harsh new sanctions, attempting to force Iran into new negotiations with more concessions. Since the US abandoned the initial pact, Iran has gradually re-started banned nuclear work, causing additional headaches to the international community.
During the six rounds of negotiations thus far, no agreement has been reached, while the proceedings for the seventh – and likely final round of negotiations – have yet to be decided.
The Biden administration has warned that “this process cannot go on indefinitely,” and some observers believe that the US is trying to squeeze Tehran at the last minute, in order to gain additional concessions. Many analysts have also expressed fears that the continuation of Trump’s approach and insisting on more compromises may sabotage the effort—especially after Iran has made it clear that it will not negotiate about matters which are not related to the nuclear issues.
Iran’s new President Ebrahim Raisi is expected to replace the country’s negotiating team with his hardliners.
Thus, unyielding tactics are also being applied by Iran. Iran’s new President Raisi is expected to replace the country’s negotiating team with his hardliners, who will try to show that they are even tougher diplomats and better able to gain more concessions. This possibility has been expressed by Robert Malley, the lead American negotiator, who said that there is a great risk that the Iranian side will come back with unrealistic demands about what they can achieve in these talks.
Mark Hibbs, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program, explains that there have been two key political developments since 2020, which have made it less apparent whether the US and Iran will agree on terms for continuing the JCPOA. “The first is the emergence of a solid fundamentalist bloc running the government in Iran,” he told Inside Arabia. “The second is the resolve of the US President to take a firm position vis-a-vis Iran, concerning conditions Iran must meet as a [stipulation] for lifting [the] sanctions imposed by Trump and the return of US participation in the accord. Either or both of these may be show-stoppers.”
Dr. Rodger Shanahan, a Research Fellow at the Australian think tank Lowy Institute, believes that both sides have to worry about pleasing their domestic audiences as well as rectifying the agreement itself. Nevertheless, he states that part of any negotiating strategy is to start broadly and then narrow the unresolved issues to as few as possible. In his view, it is not wrong to have started with this approach, as long as it is seen for what it is—a negotiating tactic. He added that it may well be that the real aim of the current negotiations is to set a timetable for future talks on non-core JCPOA issues.
“Regardless of the fact that there has been a change of government in Tehran, it is the Supreme Leader who has the final say, so the same issues will be at the core of the negotiations [no matter] who is in government,” Shanahan told Inside Arabia.
Yet, in Hibbs’s opinion, Biden will not lift the sanctions unless Iran does two things: go far enough to walk back the progress it has made in uranium enrichment and other areas in its nuclear program since the US left the agreement; and also resolve concerns that it has concealed further nuclear activities and materials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Such worries had re-emerged three years after the JCPOA was concluded, when Israeli intelligence stole documents from official files in Iran. He recalls that those documents indicated that Iran had hid past activities which may have resulted in the processing of sensitive nuclear materials.
Indeed, Iran has continued with the production of enriched uranium, from 300 kg in 2018 – when the sanctions were introduced – to over 3,200 kg in June 2021.
According to Hibbs, the Israeli findings are not a trivial matter, because, as critics of the JCPOA had asserted before it was concluded, its sustainability would rest or fall upon the credibility of Iran’s nuclear declarations. However, it should be remembered that even when Trump left the agreement, Tehran initially remained committed to it and only gradually reduced its compliance over time. In fact, paragraph 36 of the JCPOA stipulates that Iran may reduce its commitments in the case of partial or substantial violation of the accord by other parties of the deal.
Iran firmly believes it has the right of domestic uranium enrichment, under IAEA verification.
Moreover, as a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran firmly believes it has the right of domestic uranium enrichment, under IAEA verification. But Hibbs points out that critics argue Tehran’s enrichment program is not justified by the requirements of its modest civilian nuclear energy program. They point out that Iran, in recent decades, launched nuclear research and development that fit the profile of a nuclear weapons program; and that the IAEA has detected and confirmed violations by Iran of its obligations concerning enrichment and plutonium separation. Although there was a proposal for Iran to import enriched uranium from Russia rather than produce its own, Shanahan and other experts think that Tehran sees this as an essential national capability, a matter of national pride, as well as its leverage for when things go awry (as they did under Trump)—and therefore will never negotiate this away.
Another obstacle is Iran’s newest demand that the US must provide a guarantee that it will not once again unilaterally abandon the pact the way Donald Trump did. Tehran fears that some future administration could undo any accord that the current administration may reach. Shanahan expects the US to take the position that it is a new administration and will likely want to change certain elements and have some type of assurance put into revised wording of the agreement.
Lead American negotiator Malley responded that the US could not offer such commitment noting that “there is no such thing as a guarantee; that’s not in the nature of diplomacy,” and that the best way to preserve the deal is to show that it is working for both sides. But this raises the core question: as the US has not been sticking to its commitments and it is not showing any signs of removing sanctions against Iran, what incentives and motives would Iran have to negotiate if the US obviously has a hard time honoring the agreement?
What incentives and motives would Iran have to negotiate if the US obviously has a hard time honoring the agreement?
Malley’s message is also a dangerous precedent that could echo much farther from Vienna, as multilateral pacts and agreements obligate signatories to respect them and act accordingly. They represent civilizational achievement which exist to avoid chaos and offer a certain degree of predictability. After all, the JCPOA falls under the category of international common law and the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which both assume that when one party to an agreement violates it (as the United States did), other parties have the right to take proportionate counter-action.
According to Hibbs, it isn’t clear if there is a road ahead that would permit the US and Iran to reach an understanding that would satisfy both sides, particularly in regards to concerns over the Iranian government’s willingness to significantly restrain its nuclear ambitions in the long term. “It may be possible for Iran and the other parties to the JCPOA to conclude a pact that would commit Iran to indefinite and specific nuclear restraints, but since 2015 none of the JCPOA parties have shown a track record of the kind of engagement with Iran, that would be necessary to obtain such a result.”
Ultimately, both sides have much to lose if diplomacy fails. While Iran would remain under the sanctions that would further hurt its economy and amplify public discontent, Biden would lose face on the international stage. The collapse of the talks could also further affect the damaged relations with European allies—especially after the precipitous and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which came as a painful blow to the entire Western world and NATO. Another diplomatic defeat, in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, would further erode the US and Western credibility—that is, what is left of it.