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The Nuclear Deal’s Fate Lies in Politics—in the U.S. and Iran
The Nuclear Deal’s Fate Lies in Politics—in the U.S. and Iran

The Nuclear Deal’s Fate Lies in Politics—in the U.S. and Iran

Originally published in World Politics Review

Will the U.S. offer to roll back Trump-era sanctions in exchange for Iran complying with the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions, and use the existing agreement as a foundation for follow-up negotiations?

In the four decades since Iran’s Islamic Revolution, relations between Tehran and Washington have seen deep enmity offset by brief periods of rapprochement and tactical cooperation. As a new U.S. administration settles into office and asserts its intent to, in President Joe Biden’s words, “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy,” one of those periods may be on the horizon again.

The Obama administration pursued diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic, holding direct as well as multilateral talks that culminated in the 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Under the Trump administration, the strategic pendulum swung toward an adversarial approach, largely defined by a “maximum pressure” policy of applying sweeping unilateral U.S. sanctions ostensibly aimed at delivering an improved and expanded agreement. This new arrangement would address not just nonproliferation concerns, the Trump administration claimed, but also seek to limit Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional power projection. Though the reimposed and expanded sanctions created significant economic duress in Iran, they did not result in any concessions to U.S. demands, a list of 12 wide-ranging points laid out by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May 2018. Instead, Tehran expanded its nuclear activity in contravention of its commitments under the JCPOA, while continuing its ballistic missile development and assuming a more aggressive regional posture.

Questions abound now as to what Biden’s “path back to diplomacy” with Iran could look like in practice. Will the U.S. offer to roll back Trump-era sanctions in exchange for Iran complying with the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions, and use the existing agreement as a foundation for follow-up negotiations? If so, how will the two sides sequence a return to their respective commitments to the nuclear deal—as an immediate exchange of compliance for compliance, or a gradual, mutual return? Alternatively, will the Biden team pursue a more conditional approach, offering limited sanctions relief in exchange for reciprocal measures from Tehran, but also raising demands up front that go beyond the terms of the nuclear deal itself? Even if the principle of full JCPOA compliance is something to which the U.S., Iran and the other JCPOA signatories—France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China—are all committed, getting there is unlikely to be smooth or straightforward.

There is likely to be significant opposition in Washington to reversing the previous administration’s sanctions policy.

In the U.S., the nuclear agreement is still bitterly contested. Critics believe it offered Iran too much and demanded too little in return, both in terms of nonproliferation constraints and concessions on non-nuclear behavior, which the JCPOA did not address. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign prompted Iran to breach some of the nuclear deal’s existing restrictions: It stepped up uranium enrichment and stockpiling rates well beyond what the JCPOA permits, substantially cutting the time it would need to produce a bomb’s-worth of fissile material. Yet there is likely to be significant opposition in Washington to reversing the previous administration’s sanctions policy, especially if it means only to revive an agreement that opponents believe was irredeemably flawed in the first place.

This is certainly the case that U.S. allies in the Middle East, notably Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are already making to the White House: Retain the coercive approach, rather than conceding economic or diplomatic quarter to Tehran. That underscores the challenges Biden faces, not just with Iran. The technical aspects of reversing the Trump administration’s policies, notably its sanctions, are within Biden’s purview, and are a key element to any resolution that Tehran would realistically accept. But the political and diplomatic headwinds are likely to be significant if his administration chooses to pursue a full revival of the JCPOA in exchange for full or even only incremental sanctions relief.

There are complicated dynamics on the Iranian side as well. Tehran’s breaches of the nuclear deal have increased in recent weeks, spurred by legislation passed after Iran accused Israel of killing a top Iranian nuclear scientist in November. Iran’s parliament tends to be a secondary player in major foreign policy decisions. But the fact that oversight and policy coordination bodies in the Iranian power structure rapidly endorsed its bill on “Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions”—over the grumbled objections of President Hassan Rouhani’s administration—reflects three converging trend lines in Tehran. The first is the reproach by Iranian conservatives and hard-liners that Rouhani and his team, who successfully negotiated the JCPOA, were too slow and too cautious in countering the Trump administration and placed too much effort into salvaging the deal—and now are too quick and too conciliatory in seeking to restore it. But the demands of some in Tehran that the U.S. provide compensation for the financial damage resulting from its sanctions, or other conditions for U.S. re-engagement on the JCPOA, are unlikely to be satisfied.

The second dynamic is a desire of some in Iran to show that it has room to raise pressure on the U.S. by escalating its nuclear activity, thereby precipitating a renewed nonproliferation crisis that the Biden administration would want to defuse. The clock is already ticking on a potential curb to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s access to Iranian nuclear sites under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol, which, per the Iranian parliament’s December bill, is to be suspended later this month if full sanctions relief fails to materialize. However, engaging in further nuclear brinkmanship is a risky gambit if it hardens Washington’s position and shifts the relative flexibility that other JCPOA participants have so far shown toward Iran’s increased nuclear activity over the past two years.

A third trend feeding Iran’s decision-making relates to the country’s internal politics ahead of June’s presidential elections, which Rouhani, having served two consecutive terms, cannot contest. Conservatives and hard-line factions may be setting themselves up for what, from their perspective, would be a win-win position. If the current government fails to deliver tangible returns from its diplomatic endeavors—after securing three successive wins in national polls for the political camp generally regarded as pragmatist or reformist in Iranian terms, until a setback in parliamentary elections last February—its critics will claim vindication. But if there is a breakthrough with Washington and sanctions relief begins to materialize, the conservative and hard-liner contention may well be that pushing the nuclear envelope delivered it. All three trends—existing criticism of Rouhani’s response to “maximum pressure,” the immediate scramble for leverage, and political dynamics ahead of elections in June—could converge to limit his administration’s maneuvering room in renewed negotiations with Washington.

The next few weeks could offer important indicators of how these various factors and contending interests will play out in the near to medium term. On the U.S. side, the Biden administration will likely sound out its allies—both those who support the JCPOA and those who don’t—as it prepares its strategy for reengagement. A confidence-building measure toward Iran, such as signaling approval for a $5 billion loan request from the International Monetary Fund that Iran made last year to help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, would be an important marker of its intent. Tehran could, for its part, work to resolve the fate of U.S. and other foreign nationals detained in Iran as a reciprocal gesture that sets a positive tone for dialogue between the two sides.

Such moves will not mark the end of a diplomatic process, nor even the beginning of its end. But they would indicate the beginning of a beginning of the pendulum swinging back toward some measure of constructive engagement on the nuclear front—and perhaps beyond it.