The Biden administration has revived the prospects of the JCPOA agreement. However, progress in discussion on both the reinstatement of the agreement and on Iran’s broader role in the region remains, at best, uneven.

On March 9, 2021, this webinar was hosted by the Doha Forum in partnership with RUSI, draws together expert guests from the United States, Iran, and Europe to discuss the prospects of a new Iranian engagement. What shape will the engagement take, and in what ways will it define Iran’s relationship with key global actors? How will the potential lifting of the sanctions placed on Iran affect its population and the country’s broader economic wellbeing?


  • Sir Peter Westmacott, Former British ambassador to Turkey, France, and the US
  • Dr. Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, Senior Research Fellow at RUSI
  • Seyyed Mohammed Kazem Sajjadpour, President of the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) and former senior diplomat
  • Chaired by Rageh Omar, ITV News International Affairs Editor


  1. Moderator Rageh Omar: Where do you think the world is with regards to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), especially since it seems President Biden, ever since his election campaign, wants to return to the negotiating table?

Seyyed Mohammed Kazem Sajjadpour:

There is a very clear picture related to the American tradition. The maximum pressure policy exerted by the Americans during Trump’s presidency has echoed also in the EU and globally, but did not succeed.

Sir Peter Westmacott:

The maximum pressure policy did not succeed, unlike the sanctions policy which succeeded and helped deliver, at a later stage, the JCPOA concluded by the P5+1 five years ago. It served the purpose, however, without stopping Iran from achieving nuclear capabilities.

Now we are in a different place – the fact that the US withdrew from the agreement was a better approach than following the military conflict path. It has to set the path now to join the agreement.

Iran has its own explanations regarding the compliance to the agreement and it does not assume responsibility for the agreement’s failure. At present, they consider it is someone else’s responsibility to put it back together with the agreement.

The regional changes influenced and contributed to the current situation.

It is important to go back to a nuclear deal with Iran; however, it needs to be the JCPOA with some improvements. The question is what those improvements should be, for example, to include the ballistic missiles, the liberalization of Iran’s access to IMF funds, the sanctions relief. Only after the US returns to the status quo, Iran will accept the deal and changes could be discussed, which is not quite realistic.

There are other elements to be discussed, which are the regional policy, not yet included in the JCPOA and not totally realistic, since Iran might not accept it until there is a clear nuclear deal. It needs to be a clear sense of direction on the other regional problems, for example, some pressure on Iran’s proxy friends in Iraq, the military groups in West Syria, next to the Israeli border, as confidence-building measures.

All in all, there is some political role to play, while taking into account the elements that need to change sooner and the other problems which could be left aside for a later stage. The regional situation has changed, given Israel’s relation with the Arab states and also the fear of Iran.

  1. Moderator: What are the problems for the EU and what do the relations between Israel and the Arab states bring new to the negotiation table?

Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi:

On the EU side, it is very clear that it remains the coordinating actor between the two sides, Iran and the US, ever since the negotiations started in 2003. The current problem with the EU’s strategy is that it is not entirely clear. Until January, the main strategy discussed was the return of all parties into the agreement and the discussion of new provisions to be added as a next step.

Following Biden’s inauguration, there have been mixed messages from the EU’s side regarding the expansion of the agreement in terms of provisions, members to the negotiating table, and the last week’s reactions at the IAEA. Even though there is no clear path yet, the road to diplomacy should be left open and the nuclear capacity of Iran should be detailed as well. For the moment, no party has a clear strategy.

With regards to the Israeli – Gulf states relation, it has evolved since the Abraham Accords, but there is no unified position from that side. They both had different stances on Iran from before the agreement and there are also different approaches between the Gulf states themselves, for example, some are more towards escalation and engagement, while some others are more concerned about the nuclear capacity or the regional position of Iran. No single position is issued from those regional partners.

  1. Moderator: What is Tehran’s perspective on the question of the sanctions relief, while the maximum pressure policy has failed, and is the impact on the lives of Iranians and the pressure on the Iranian leadership to try and find a way out, particularly since it is coming in the midst of a pandemic which has hit Iran pretty hard?

Seyyed Mohammed Kazem Sajjadpour:

There are three things to be taken into account:

  • Iran has been able to manage sanctions – there is a great self-confidence in Iran due to many reasons, mainly because we have managed the situation and passed the worst, in the post-revolution period, since the US has opposed Iran;

Trump was the worst in terms of policies and still, Iran overcame the period.

  • It does not mean that the sanctions are justified or good – they are illegal, vicious, and moreover, they are inhuman, because they are based on the very inhuman assumption that deprives the Iranians and ordinary people and the outcome would be a change in policy or the change of national/political regime; it is a type of victimization of ordinary people, unethically implemented;

Maximum pressure is continued by Biden and this type of delay or justification is still inhuman from the side of the US towards the Iranians.

  • Returning to JCPOA does not have any relation to the other five countries because JCPOA was agreed in a UN SC resolution and it is contingent upon all member states, out of which the US accepted it, while still being the first to withdraw.

Any new issue that is brought to the table and the continuation of sanctions are illegal matters, unethical, inhuman and they have their own reaction.

  1. Moderator: The world in 2013, 2014, 2015, and the one nowadays, with everything that has happened, such as the Yemen crisis, the bombings in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, have changed with respect to other files and it brought the Iranian file much more central, requiring dialogue?

Seyyed Mohammed Kazem Sajjadpour:

Even the ongoing pandemic is important and on the same question, is the world the same as it was in 1945? Nations remain the same. While some argue that everything has changed, then it means nothing is the same. When JCPOA was signed, there was no single issue referring to the regional context. Also, at that time and still today, there are countries that are against the JCPOA. If the argument of change is brought as primordial, then all resolutions or any act of international organizations should be changed daily to fit the pattern of continuous change.

Sir Peter Westmacott:

The situation on the ground has changed (Sadjapour – we should change the UN Charter since the situation from 1945 is not the same). Biden was verbal and condemned the Iranian involvement in the regional matters.

Also, it has to be admitted that Iran is involved in the regional situation, attacking oil tankers and conducting other attacks, missile tests, etc. All of these have changed the context in which we have to look at the nuclear deal. Iran was indeed very compliant, as there were the Europeans, with regards to the JCPOA, for the first years.

Indeed, the world has changed, but we are not going to change international law because of that. It is worrisome that the Iranian people are going to continue suffering because of the sanctions, while black marketeers are going to gain. There is an opportunity to engage with the US in negotiations and there are lots of people who would like to go back to the situation of diplomacy rather than this fighting talk or conflict. This context where politics are better is favorable – before the US “killed” the JCPOA, the question in the US Congress was who does Iran hate most. Now, Congress, especially the Democrats, support the path of diplomacy with Iran and this is a good political opportunity for Iran. Also, in an interview with the Financial Times, the former head of IAEA Yukiya Amano suggested a kind of sequencing deal with Iran, a basis for a negotiating framework for further talks.

The legal basis has to be adapted to the realities in order for things to change, otherwise, the situation is going to evolve negatively for the region and the people of Iran.

  1. Moderator: What do you think are the opportunities of the current political situation in the US, what is the pitfall, and what are the obstacles of getting back to the JCPOA, both on the American and the Iranian sides?

Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi:

It is clear already from the matters discussed above. Things are better now than back in November 2020 for example in terms of de-escalation for a resolution on both sides. In terms of expectations, it is a bit more pessimism on each side which is trying to bring leverage to stick to their own red lines and the complications, compared to the past, it is that now, the regional issue or the missile issue is linked to the nuclear issue.

They are supposed to resolve together, however, the better approach is to solve them separately, as in the past, they have been dealt with together and it took too much time to solve them individually already, for example, the nuclear issue took from 2003 to 2015, making the common resolution possibly even longer. A new format for negotiation should be identified, given it has changed lately.

The wiser would be to start with the nuclear issue and close it down, not just because it is the main concern from the EU side, but also because the issue of trust and its erosion should be taken into consideration. It was already difficult to imagine moving from the nuclear issue to other issues, as it was the case in 2015 when the trust was still in place and the parties had confidence they will reach an agreement.

  1. Moderator: How complicated is that, closing the nuclear file and moving forward with the other issues? Is that doable and realistic politically in Washington?

Sir Peter Westmacott:

The political reality is the Biden administration is historically associated with the JCPOA. They are not only considering the JCPOA, but also other matters, while a new agreement should take into account elements that were excluded last time as a basis of negotiation.

There is a sense that regional partners if they are not brought as parties into the negotiation, would put forwards their fears and issues which need to be considered during the negotiation. Whether it is about some regional security framework, or about establishing a security dialogue with Saudi Arabia, these issues have to be clarified on the Iranian side. The ballistic missile discussion might not be very realistic, but many people feel very strongly about that.

However, the 2015 deal should be the basis, with some improvements, which would be in Iran’s interest. Also, in order to start the negotiation in a proper manner, regional considerations should be taken into account.

  1. Moderator: Questions about the regional dialogue

Seyyed Mohammed Kazem Sajjadpour:

Coming back to the previous matter, an important aspect to be considered within this entire process is mutual trust. Rebuilding it is a complicated matter because first, there was the engagement in the process and the deal, followed by withdrawal, while now, there is a delay in the process. Trust is important in this kind of process. Also, trust is key, but it has vanished and every day it became more complicated to rebuild.

Secondly, everybody is talking about Iran’s regional activities. However, Iran is not the only one involved. What does it do in the region, what is particular about Iran and why is not the region regarded in a much more comprehensive way? How about the Israeli’s stance in the Palestinian question, where even the International Criminal Court is involved, due to Israel’s atrocities towards Palestinians still taking place and nobody talking about it? Also, Israel has supported the sanctions regime upon the Iranian people. These are regional players.

What should be changed is the regional actions against Iran. What is being done to Iran at a time of sanctions, as mentioned before, it is something to be changed because until now, even in the context of US administration change, nothing has yet changed.

  1. Moderator: Discussion about Saudi Arabia and UAE

Seyyed Mohammed Kazem Sajjadpour:

In this context, the conflict in Yemen and the last six years of atrocities, as they still continue, are also important to be considered.

Moderator: The UN, the US, and the UK are putting a lot of effort into resolving the above-mentioned aspect, through humanitarian aid, even Saudi Arabia.

9. Moderator: With regards to the regional context, is there, in the Iranian leadership, the acceptance that in some way, countries like Saudi Arabia are going to have to be wind in these wider repercussions of this JCPOA and the regional security? The US – Iran dynamic cannot function singularly and there has to be something to get the others involved. Also, how will the results of the Iranian presidential elections affect common relations?

Seyyed Mohammed Kazem Sajjadpour:

There are several aspects to be discussed. Firstly, the JCPOA is the result of a multilateral negotiation, based on international resolution, as a result of 12 years of negotiations, a multilateral basis which convinced the parties to conclude the agreement.

Secondly, even though the talk is about multilateral issues, Iran, as a self-confident country, already has good bilateral relations with Gulf countries, such as Oman, Qatar, Kuwait.

In this context, resolution 598 of the UN SC regarding the Iraq – Iran ceasefire from 1987 organized already at that moment the regional security. Therefore, this aspect should not be mixed with the nuclear issue and the JCPOA. It is up to US to decide the return as part of the JCPOA, but things should not all be mixed together. They have to be solved within a specific frame and the frame of security is too big to be solved now.

  1. Moderator: Given the situation between Israel and Iran, with the recent missile attack, do you think there is a possibility for military engagement, especially in the short time before the upcoming elections?

Sir Peter Westmacott:

According to Mossad, the stockpile of enriched uranium from Iran could pose a problem, while already for some years, the Israeli government and the security agencies have been lobbying against the JCPOA. Also, on the other side, the Israelis are talking of lowering the regional tensions through their agreements with some of the Arab neighbors. Without an agreement like the JCPOA, Israel might have gone to intense military strikes towards Iran, an aspect that the current American administration does not support.

Although there are problems and different situations which appeared in recent times, it is very unlikely to have a military conflict between the two countries, unless some specific event comes up to disrupt the current order. The countries at the other end of the military strikes on facilities, oil tankers, etc., performed by different groups tied somehow with the Revolutionary Guard, think profoundly about the security risks and would like to see a resolution of the regional security issue. At the moment, there is no sign whether this is going well from the Arab neighbors of Iran, there is no planned or already approved framework involving all parties, the only one at present being the famous above-mentioned Resolution 598 of the UN SC, a piece of international legislation establishing the regional security framework from over 30 years ago. There is no sign from Tehran either that this entire problem is going in the right direction.

  1. Moderator: The recent change of status quo between Qatar and the other Gulf countries – what do you think are the major sensitivities and do you think the biggest issue for them is just the idea of a regional war between Iran and Israel or what is main way of thinking in the Gulf countries when it comes to JCPOA, for example, Saudi Arabia, UAE or Qatar?

Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi:

To pinpoint the main idea, the Emirati position is important since it is the most inclusive, and also it was the first Gulf country to struck a deal with Israel recently, while it reached to Iran to provide COVID-19 assistance, maritime security, etc. That really brings light to where the UAE stands, further from just the deal with Israel or anti-Iran position, being much more concerned about the regional security and possible escalation, for example, due to attacks on oil tankers or the evolution of the Yemen conflict, striking directly their position.

There is that concern on that side which means that, on one hand, there is that threat perception that remains, but there is also the understanding that without any kind of engagement, de-escalation is very unlikely and also things cannot move in a better direction.

On the other hand, from the Saudis’ side, there is the very high threat perception coming from Iran which had increased with the election of Biden because before, while they had the perception that they had someone from the White House who was their ally, that is no longer the case and the immediate repercussion of the Biden’s administration decision on Yemen was already seen and mentioned beforehand, curtailing for the military aid provision for the offensive in the war. As such, threat perception remains high in Saudi Arabia and engagement and dialogue for regional security seem far from happening over there.

Obviously, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait are somewhere in between this position, wanting to be involved in the negotiation and to avoid an escalation, as they did before, for example in 2012, as it was the case of Kuwait, depending on their interest in the region.

  1. Moderator: In the Biden administration, there are lots of people who were deeply involved in the previous negotiation of the JCPOA, the same being true for the Iranian administration. Do you think we blame the faults, the pitfalls, the obstacles of the Iranian nuclear deal? Do you think there is a genuine interest in wanting to reach some kind of agreement that is acceptable to them on the keynotes?

Seyyed Mohammed Kazem Sajjadpour:

Even though the US had a certain position in the past years, it does not mean its position today it is justified. It puts more responsibility on their shoulders in accepting the commitments, the frame.

The Iranian position, on the other hand, is consistent and its consistency is something that everybody should pay attention to. This consistency refers to JCPOA, the regional issues, the readiness to engage with neighbors, and, in comparison with the inconsistency of the others, it makes it the root of the problem. Apart from consistency, the key is acceptance, acceptance of the reality as it is, which some disregard, for example, the acceptance that Iran is a major player in the Persian Gulf, a member of the international community, and a proud nation with no territorial intention towards anybody, being the victim of the atrocities of others, such as the countries which supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the war against Iran. Accepting reality, not creating pseudo-realities, is the problematic matter in this whole issue.

Sir Peter Westmacott:

From Iran’s side, those who are in line with the thinking of Mr. Zarif, Mr. Rouhani, and others involved in the JCPOA negotiation, would like to see diplomacy succeed again while protecting adequately Iran’s national interest. However, there might be a lot of people who think that the survival of their position and the ability to continue blaming outside elements for the failures in managing the country, whose position might be weakened if there is a reconciliation between Iran and the US and the regional neighbors; some have their own reasons which might not take into account the real, legitimate feelings of the Iranian people towards the move to a position with lower tension with the Americans and the neighbors.

On the American side, there is a desire to move forwards, with much fewer tensions and hostility in the Congress towards doing anything with Iran, as it used to be, but it cannot be a restoration of the status quo at any price.

The Europeans’ perception is that the US walked away from the deal and it is not fair to ask Iran to pay the price for Trump’s decision, while the JCPOA needs to be put back together as it is, a slightly in-between deal due to Tehran’s and Washington’s positions. Also, the Brits have defended as much as possible the JCPOA and the UN against the snapback provision from the side of the US, even after they walked away from it, and as Europeans, they have tried to give Iran the economic benefits as they were supposed to be part of the JCPOA. Moreover, the Europeans would like to get back to serious diplomacy, with fewer risks, less proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the region. However, the main relationship in all this is the Washington – Tehran relation and the others can play along, though not being the principal protagonists.

Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi:

The picture is quite complex and complete, as illustrated above. There is a desire to go back to negotiation, simply because the JCPOA is still alive, against all odds. Most people were not expecting that to be the case after three years. After Trump administration walked away, the expectation was that the deal would quickly unravel and that negotiation would not reprise and yet, the current situation proves otherwise. Even though it is a shell and it is weakened, the deal still exists and that is a testament of its strength, despite all weaknesses, and of all the commitment of all different sides, despite all their differences, on the fact that they eventually want a dialogue to take place and the crisis to be over.

Moderator – Q&A:

  1. How will Russia and China play in this negotiation, considering their dynamics with the US? Although signatories of the JCPOA, the two countries are very keen on exploiting the American blind spot?

Sir Peter Westmacott:

Russia and China were part of the whole initiative to get the JCPOA together because they realized sanctions have done their business in the sense of getting Iran ready to negotiate because Iran’s nuclear programme was continuing and it grew the risk of proliferation in the region. Also, all the ambassadors of the P5+1 were all together in the discussion in the American Congress regarding the negotiation, which is also an accomplishment of the agreement in working together.

Since then, there was less enthusiasm coming from Russia and China, partly because of the changing dynamic in Washington, them not being keen on seeing an American diplomatic success, and because of them happily carrying on trading with Iran crude oil or other things, so there is a very strong interest there unless they see their own security interest threatened. Also, since then, there was a strong dynamic in the Russia – Iran relation due to their support of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, a powerful dynamic in which Russia is not interested in putting pressure on Iran.

However, they all have the responsibility in the UN SC for the JCPOA, with less enthusiasm though, all of the members even having less interest to take risks in order to get the show back on the road again.

  1. How will the results of the Iranian election affect or not the situation with regards to the JCPOA and wider Iranian – US relations? Some say it might be a more conservative or hardline success in the elections and therefore, the approach on JCPOA.

Seyyed Mohammed Kazem Sajjadpour:     

Firstly, any type of contemplation and guessing at this moment is incautious, less decisive on the results of the elections. Secondly, the policies on JCPOA are a matter of national consensus, not just the decision of a faction or political party, the faith of Iran is above.

Thirdly, the US’ policies, especially now with Biden, which take into account the dissolution of the mistrust, would impact not just a faction or the other. Also, in Iran, in all fields of society, there is this trend of dissolution of the mistrust, psychologically, being a very important turning point and it is a verification of this political position that the US and, more the general, the West is not trustworthy, which could impact the Iranians’ view. The Iranians’ Eurasia perspective is getting better, it gets more legitimacy, framing, and ground, being rather a consensus.

  1. Would Iran be interested in the same JCPOA, given that the EU did not fully commit, the banks are still blocking Iranian businesses, or wouldn’t it be better than Iran renegotiates the deal anyway?

Seyyed Mohammed Kazem Sajjadpour:

It is not in the interest of Iran to renegotiate because it was already difficult to reach a result and a restart would deny the interest of the state.

  1. Do you think Iran would want to go back to the status quo, even though it is not foreseeable, would this still be a possibility?

Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi:

One of the perceptions is that Iran is demanding concessions and compensations from the US, due to their withdrawal. Also, one of the longer-term considerations is that the deal, for many reasons, did not necessarily translate in all the initially outlined benefits, such as the UK and the EU’s broader engagement with Iran as part of the deal.

The focus should be on what happens next: whatever negotiation or deal is put in place, this not just abided by all parties, but also it translates into all parties getting what it is on paper, because it is one thing to say something and another one getting something and even when it was the 2016 implementation, the difficulties in different aspects were quite obvious, for example on the European side, with the blockade of the Trump sanctions, and the policies, and it is an area which has to be looked at, especially from the European side, as strategic autonomy, to ensure that this thing does not happen with Iran or any other country.

Sir Peter Westmacott:

Other turning points regard for example the question of trust. There are a number of things to do in order to change the atmosphere, whether it is America’s or Iran’s suggestion, similar to Saudi Arabia’s position towards Yemen, or whether it is or not JCPOA-related. This would be the easier path than actually renegotiating the JCPOA. The US should be the main driver behind it, plus it should take into account that it is JCPOA, plus other important matters.

  1. Main thoughts regarding where we are now, where all countries in the JCPOA want to get to.

Seyyed Mohammed Kazem Sajjadpour:

It is important not to make issues too complicated and complex in the JCPOA. Things should be similar to the good relation between Qatar and Iran.

 Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi:

The situation is less optimistic than it was back in November or December 2020, but there is still de-escalation to take place for the resolution of the conflict, now everything being under the influence of Iran’s nuclear activity, the upcoming elections. However, all sides are inherently interested in the resolution of the disagreement. Once the red lines have been established, things should be clear on both sides and the process should easily move forward.

Sir Peter Westmacott:

A resumption of the negotiation should take place in good faith, the past relations could be proof of the possible relation between the main capitals involved and it could be better to move ahead before the elections, so the Iranian people can see the possible scenarios before the change of government. It would be interesting to see Iran having better relations and fewer tensions with its neighbors, which would be a benefit for the oil market or the trade in general. Also, better political relations between Iran and others would be beneficial for Iran in the struggle to reduce the international sanctions and becoming a stable partner in the struggle to make the region a safer and more prosperous place.

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