Around a week after Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi reached a “technical understanding” with Iran that extends enhanced monitoring of its nuclear work for three months, Tehran declined an EU-proposed “informal” meeting with the US to address the floundering 2015 nuclear pact, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“Considering the recent actions and statements by the United States and three European powers, Iran does not consider this the time to hold an informal meeting with these countries,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on March 1. Tehran has repeatedly stressed that for nuclear talks to resume, the Biden administration should “first” lift sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump who pulled Washington out of the multilateral accord in May 2018 before adopting a “maximum pressure” policy of economic asphyxiation against Iran.

While the rejection was widely received with disappointment and dismay, it was far from surprising, and in fact makes sense politically and strategically from an Iranian perspective. For Tehran, there is no point in negotiating under maximum pressure, which is effectively the same policy President Biden pursues in practice even as he denounces it as his predecessor’s grim legacy in rhetoric.

For Tehran, there is no point in negotiating under maximum pressure, which is effectively the same policy President Biden pursues in practice even as he denounces it in rhetoric.

Shortly before Tehran’s rebuff, Washington circulated a three-page draft among members of the IAEA Board of Governors on February 25 that urged formal admonishment of Iran over its escalating nuclear defiance. Backed by European signatories of the JCPOA — Britain, France, and Germany — the resolution suggested in particular that Tehran might continue to conceal undeclared nuclear materials and sites. This is a politically significant notion reminiscent of claims about “possible military dimensions (PMDs)” that motivated most of the UN Security Council sanctions resolutions against Iran before the nuclear agreement was clinched in July 2015. JCPOA-connected UNSC resolution 2231 nullified those sanctions and put the PMD controversy to rest.

A day later on February 15, President Biden authorized the first military action of his term — against pro-Iranian forces in eastern Syria — in retaliation for a militia rocket attack on an American military base at Erbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan that killed a Filipino contractor and wounded five Americans. According to Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby, the US airstrikes left a member of Iran-sponsored paramilitary group Kata’ib Hezbollah dead and four others wounded. Even though Washington sent a message of de-escalation to Tehran through the Swiss channel afterwards, the showdown sullied the political atmosphere for “informal” talks on the JCPOA.

More importantly, the Biden administration has not taken any substantive action to ease Trump-era sanctions even as Iran is struggling to contain a massive coronavirus crisis, the worst in the Middle East with over 60,000 fatalities and upwards of 1.6 million infections. Washington also fell short of expectations to facilitate Iran’s access to its frozen assets in other countries, including South Korea, for humanitarian purposes.

Despite a number of mostly symbolic gestures and cosmetic steps, from a “maximum pressure” point of view, basically nothing has changed since Biden assumed office on January 20. In other words, Biden’s Iran policy has so far proved practically as hawkish as Trump’s. In fact, if Iran wanted to negotiate revival or recalibration of the JCPOA under existing adverse circumstances, it would have embraced Trump’s overtures early in 2018 and spared itself the costly trouble of “maximum resistance” against pressure in response.

Given the heightened state of tensions between the Islamic Republic and the US-EU bloc, there were no realistic prospects of any meaningful results or gains in terms of sanctions relief.

Moreover, given the heightened state of tensions between the Islamic Republic and the US-EU bloc, there were no realistic prospects of any meaningful results or gains in terms of sanctions relief. The unfulfilled demand drove Iran’s hardliner-dominated parliament to pass a controversial law dubbed “Strategic Action Plan to Lift Sanctions and Protect Iranian Nation’s Interests” in early December.

As part of the law, Tehran halted voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol (AP) and restricted IAEA inspectors’ access to its nuclear facilities, including snap inspections allowed under the JCPOA, on February 23. By this token, it would have been much more embarrassing for the Iranian government to accept the offer of unofficial talks, sit at the table, but ultimately leave it empty-handed — the most likely outcome given the Biden team’s adamant quest for leverage ahead of formal negotiations.

On March 2, a hardline newspaper affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards slammed President Rouhani for ordering a pause in the production of uranium metal, which Iran recently started as part of its remedial reduction of JCPOA commitments. While such steps might pave the way for diplomacy and dialogue, most Iranian hardliners — who currently hold control of the legislature and the judiciary — prefer to embark on negotiations with the United States only after the June presidential vote, lest any prior sanctions relief and consequent economic improvement contribute to their electoral defeat.

Most Iranian hardliners — who currently hold control of the legislature and the judiciary — prefer to embark on negotiations with the United States only after the June presidential vote.

To put it more simply, there are powerful forces in Tehran which oppose removal of economic sanctions and initiation of diplomatic talks before they potentially take over the presidency in the upcoming elections. Against this backdrop, it was not surprising that most hardliners denounced the Tehran-IAEA “technical understanding,” which was in fact adopted by the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) against the parliament’s discretion.

The hardliner opposition to the provisional arrangement was so strong that it could not have been achieved without Russian pushback. After all, Iranian leaders know all too well that they cannot afford to alienate Russia and China at this critical juncture, as they did during pre-JCPOA negotiations under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

With Tehran’s threat to scrap the bilateral pact with the IAEA over possible censure at its quarterly board of governors meeting this week, it is not clear how the JCPOA will survive before a new Iranian president starts his term in August. Yet, it increasingly looks like any major breakthrough, from removal of sanctions to reversal of JCPOA breaches to commencement of talks, will not take place before the June presidential elections in Iran.

 

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