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Ben Rich: Senior lecturer in History and International Relations, Curtin University
Leena Adel: PhD student, Political Science and International Relations, Curtin University
With nuclear talks between Iran, the US, and the other members of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) resuming on November 29, one question looms large. Is engagement with Iran likely to bear diplomatic fruit, or be squandered?
Negotiated in 2015 by the Obama administration (alongside Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia), the JCPOA represented a major effort to curtail Iranian nuclear ambitions.
The 159-page agreement committed the US and its European partners to lift longstanding sanctions to allow Iran to bring back foreign investment and sell its natural resources globally without restriction.
In exchange, Iran agreed to put a wide array of dampers on its nuclear program for 15 years. These included:
- keeping uranium enrichment levels below 3.67% (the level used to produce fuel for commercial nuclear plants)
- limit centrifuge numbers and the amount of stockpiled uranium
- allow for greater monitoring, verification and transparency of its nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
- and shut down several facilities.
These steps would allow limited civilian activities to remain, but potential military applications would, for the time being, be neutralised.
Importantly, the JCPOA avoided addressing other Iranian actions viewed as destabilising by the US and its partners. These included Tehran’s support of insurgents like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and various Iraqi and Syrian militias, as well as its ever-expanding ballistic missile and drone programs.
The agreement explicitly noted that sanctions for these activities would remain in place and be treated as separate issues.
Beyond addressing the immediate crisis of possible nuclear proliferation, the agreement was intended to act as a trust-building exercise. US leaders believed that by offering an olive branch to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and acting in good faith, they could pave the way for a broader US-Iranian rapprochement. The deal would demonstrate the US could be a reliable partner for future negotiations.
Confidence not built
Of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the US once again failed to anticipate arguably its biggest foil in foreign affairs: itself.
The surprise upset election of Donald Trump in 2016 threw the JCPOA into disarray. Whereas Obama had separated the issues of Iran’s nuclear program from its other destabilising acts, Trump viewed both through the same lens.
This jarring shift occurred despite Iranian compliance with the JCPOA framework. The agreement actually continued for a year after the US withdrew in hopes the other signatories could guide Washington back to the table.
Such hopes proved fruitless, however, as Trump scorned the Europeans, levied new sanctions against Tehran, and engaged in other provocative behaviours. This included the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, a greatly respected figure in Iran.
Trump’s about-face confirmed longstanding elite Iranian views about American duplicity and sullied Obama’s uncharacteristically liberal attempt at building a working relationship with Tehran.
Feeling betrayed, Iran began escalating tensions in the Middle East – including strikes on Saudi oil processing facilities – and resumed enriching uranium well beyond the levels agreed to in the JCPOA.
Heels dug in
Many hoped that with Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 US presidential election, Washington would rapidly move to reengage Tehran and return to the JCPOA agreement. Time was of the essence with Rouhani, the chief proponent of the deal in Iran, due to finish his term this August. (He was replaced by the more conservative and hawkish President Ebrahim Raisi.)
Nevertheless, Biden was not Obama, and despite sharing many of the same staff, his administration quickly displayed more conservative and bullish foreign policy chops.
Rather than offer an act of good faith to clear the bad air, Biden signalled he expected Iran to resume adherence to the JCPOA before any US concessions would be made. At the G20 meeting last month, the US, Germany, France and Britain reaffirmed this message in a joint statement, saying
Return to JCPOA compliance will provide sanctions lifting with long-lasting implications for Iran’s economic growth. This will only be possible if Iran changes course.
Iranian diplomats, however, want the US to right its betrayal and remove sanctions before Tehran begins to comply with the agreement again.
These two intractable and incompatible positions have so far scuttled any efforts to make meaningful headway in negotiations.
For both parties, it is clear the previous terms of the JCPOA simply won’t cut it – especially now that demands from both ends are no longer limited to the nuclear discussions and the wider strategic conditions in the region have changed.
Under Biden, the US focus has shifted towards confronting China in the Asia-Pacific and recovering domestically from COVID-19. This has meant a slow disengagement from the Middle East, placing the Iran issue on somewhat of a backburner (at least compared to 2015).
Iran may also be apprehensive due to the significant possibility of Biden as a one-term president (with a chance, however slim, he could be succeeded by Trump). Iran is also aware the US commitment to the region may not be what it once was, and that biding its time may be the best course of action.
Flickers of hope?
Despite such gloom, there is cause for limited optimism through subtle gestures on both sides.
Iran has agreed to return to negotiations on November 29 without the lifting of US sanctions first. This can be considered a mild olive branch.
And US officials recently met with representatives from Persian Gulf states in Saudi Arabia to discuss potential channels of diplomacy with Tehran. They also discussed deeper economic ties once sanctions are lifted under the JCPOA.
Such an optimistic declaration suggests US policymakers are at least entertaining the possibility of a positive outcome and path forward from negotiations – despite significant pressure from Republicans in the US and Israel to the contrary.
But making predictions in the current muck of diplomatic negotiations is difficult. There may be a path towards resuscitating the JCPOA. If possible, however, it will require reestablishing a level of trust that neither side seems open to embracing, nor fostering in the current frosty diplomatic climate.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the writer(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.