By Brooke Siegler
During the first days of his presidency, Joe Biden announced that he wanted to resurrect what Trump called ‘the worst deal ever’, the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The deal between Iran and the P5+1—the UNSC permanent members plus Germany—was signed under Obama and limits Iran’s nuclear programme, whilst simultaneously opening it up for more intrusive and spontaneous inspections by international monitors. The deal, through dizzying and convoluted provisions, made it essentially impossible for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. In exchange for Iran agreeing to nuclear limitations and a monitoring regime, the UN, EU, and US all agreed to lift their nuclear related sanctions and weapons embargo on Iran. It was a quintessential ‘quid pro quo’ agreement; Trump loves these types of deals! So why leave?
The deal was hailed as a landmark accord by Western nations but was opposed by Saudi Arabia and Israel. The two enemies of Iran said that they should have been consulted in the deal because a nuclear Iran affects them the most, and Israel specifically cited the deal as too lenient. The agreement was initially smooth sailing, with international inspectors certifying that Iran had met its preliminary pledges, coming into line with the agreement provisions. Sanctions and embargos were lifted, and more significantly secondary sanctions covering Iran’s oil sector, which were not covered in the deal, were lifted by Obama as a show of good faith.
Then in 2018, despite Iran being in full compliance of the agreement, and after years and years of tedious negotiations, the deal crumbled to the ground because the author of The Art of the Deal believed it to be ‘the worst deal ever’. Citing the fact that the deal was not permanent—restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme relax after about 10 years—and that the deal didn’t cover Iran’s other problematic undertakings, like their support of Hezbollah, Trump thought it best to withdraw from a deal that was working and was the product of decades of negotiations. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, echoes this sentiment writing, ‘The U.S. president tried to torpedo a major multilateral diplomatic achievement and then initiated a campaign of blunt economic warfare targeting the Iranian people, in effect punishing Iran for its adherence to an UN-endorsed agreement.’
Trumps withdrawal from the agreement prompted the reimposition of secondary sanctions that target Iran’s oil sector, which affects international entities that want to do business with Iran, incentivising them to not conduct business with them. Iran, in response, stayed within the parameters of the deal initially. In 2019, however, Iran started to exceed agreed upon limits of uranium stockpiles, enriching uranium to higher concentrations, and developing new centrifuges. Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign thus produced the exact opposite of its intended results. Instead of curbing Iran’s nuclear programme, it actually accelerated it. Moreover, it is important to note that Iran’s expansion of its nuclear capabilities has been in ‘full conformity with paragraph 36 of the nuclear agreement, which allows Iran to “cease performing its commitments” under the deal should another signatory stop performing its own.’
Thus, Biden’s task is no easy one. Not only are both the US and Iran now performing outside the scope of the deal, but more importantly, Trump’s withdrawal from the deal soured relations with Tehran, even bringing the two countries to the brink of war in January 2020. Incentivising Iran to even come to the negotiating table will be the first major hurtle, as recently demonstrated by Iran’s rebuff of EU offers to hold direct talks with the US. So, what is Biden’s plan to tackle this seemingly insurmountable undertaking? Does Iran want to negotiate again with the US? How has Iran been responding to Biden’s attempts to bring Iran to the negotiating table?
Both the US and Iran have differing expectations when it comes to negotiating coming back into the terms on the deal. Biden, on the one hand, has called on Iran to bring its nuclear programme into compliance with the deal before the US will lift sanctions. Moreover, Biden wants to not only toughen restrictions of Iran’s nuclear programme under the JCPOA, but he also wants to negotiate a successor deal that imposes restrictions on Iranian missile behaviour. Iran has seemingly rejected the proposition of seeking to renegotiate the nuclear deal and a successor deal. Rather, Iran wishes for the US to retake its seat at the table and resume under the guise of the 2015 deal. Iran has offered to attend EU mediated talks with the US, but has refused to speak with the US directly until Washington lifts its sanctions.
Iran has called on the US to lift sanctions before Iran returns to compliance, citing that the US breached the deal first, so the US should be the one to come into compliance as a show of good faith. A seemingly reasonable request, right? Well, not so much. Despite ceasing to perform its own commitments first, Washington has unilaterally ruled out sanctions relief to bring Iran to the negotiating table. The situation is akin to a chicken-egg metaphorical dilemma. Washington claims that the metaphorical chicken of Tehran’s nuclear compliance must come first in order for it to relieve sanctions. Tehran, on the other hand, claims that the metaphorical egg of US compliance by lifting sanctions must come first in order for it to curb its nuclear programme. So, what comes first? Zarif posits that ‘International agreements are not revolving doors, after all, and it is not an automatic right to return to a negotiated agreement—and enjoy its privileges—after one simply leaves on a whim.’ Thus, the US should lift its sanctions on Iran to show it is seriously ready to take a seat at the table they willingly left in 2015. Even regular Iranians, whom the sanctions have affected the most, agree that the US should come into compliance with the deal first. A recent opinion poll confirmed that “Iranians are staunchly opposed to negotiating with the Biden administration before the United States returns to full compliance with the [nuclear deal].”
Although this was not Biden’s doing, he should seek to redress, not exploit, the ‘maximum pressure’ mess Trump made. More importantly, Biden should abandon his ambitions of expanding the deal and negotiating a successor deal. Multiple bargains and sacrifices were made by Iran in the construction of the deal. The JCPOA was meticulously and painstakingly negotiated over years, and the scope of the deal was limited for very pragmatic reasons. As Zarif rightfully posits, ‘The United States cannot insist that “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable” and expect to have its way with Iran.’
The JCPOA is not perfect, and it will never be able to satisfy all affected actors. The deal, for its faults, was working and Biden should not try to alter an arrangement that satiated both sides. The international inspectors repeatedly insisted and proved that Iran was complying with the nuclear restrictions set out in the deal. Just like any other nation, Iran has legitimate security concerns, interests, and rights, which include access to nuclear material set out in the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty regime. The United States must recognise Iran’s concerns and rights ‘rather than subscribe to the tired delusion that Iran should not enjoy the same rights as every other sovereign nation,’ and thus delegitimising Iran’s security concerns. Biden should accept Iran’s proposal to attend EU mediated discussions that will bring both parties back into the deal, and he should not attempt to undo bargains and sacrifices that were made to secure the deal. The initiative rests on Washington, not Tehran, to make amends to restore the deal.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.
PHOTO: VAHID SALEMI/ASSOCIATED PRESS