On the 24th of February 2021, the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES) President Dr. Werner Fasslabend discussed with Ali Soltanieh, F. Iran Ambassador to IAEA, and Heinz Gärtner, Prof. University of Vienna, about the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh started his speech by putting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action into context. There have been some agreements prior to JCPOA: the period prior to the EU3 – Iran Deal (up to 2003), the Implementation of the Deal and the Suspension (between 2003 and 2006), and the post EU3 – Iran Deal period (between 2006 and 2013). Then, the JCPOA can be split into three periods: Obama Era, Trump Era, and Biden Era.
The historical background of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action goes before the Islamic Revolution when the United States and the European Union had full cooperation with Iran on all elements of the Fuel Cycle. There was even competition between US and EU companies in this area. Then, after the Revolution al projects came to an end and it was replaced with non-compliance by both the United States and the European Union to their contractual obligations, including the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, the Tehran Reactor, ENTC, and the Uranium Exploration. All European and American companies left, without fulfilling their obligations. After that, the 5-year negotiations of the IAEA Committee of Assurance of Supply (CAS) failed in 1987, in Vienna.
Negotiations between Iran and the EU3 and then between Iran and the P5+1 followed. In 2003 we have the EU3 – Iran Deal, but which was suspended for two and a half years. The AP & Modified code 3/1 was concluded between Tehran, Brussels, and Paris. In 2006, they decided that the suspension was non-legally binding, voluntary, and of confidence-building and this is why sending the resolutions to UNSC was illegal. Then, between 2006 and 2013 Iran negotiated with EU3+3 (P5+1), but unfortunately, there were several resolutions sent to the United Nations Security Council against Iran. The negotiations for JCPOA went on between 2013 and 2015. On the 14th of July 2015, they were concluded and on the 16th of January 2016, it entered into force. Meanwhile, Resolution 2231 was adopted on the 20th of July 2015, endorsing the JCPOA, but adding an Appendix B, which limited the legal military activities.
After the implementation of the treaty, during the Obama administration, many sanctions and banking constraints were not removed, which was contrary to the treaty. Some EU firms signed MOUs but never did anything. Then, Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018, threatened other members of the treaty not to comply, reimposed sanctions and maximum pressure, and had some terror actions, such as assassinating General Soleimani and Dr. Fakhrizadeh. Also, the United States failed in the UN Security Council to reimpose UN sanctions and the arms embargo on Iran. Joe Biden stated the determination to return to the JCPOA during his campaign, but, until now, the administration did not do anything regarding this subject and the Iranian Parliament passed a law containing some deadlines.
According to over 16 IAEA reports, Iran continued to fully respect its obligations, even one year after the US withdrawal, following the so-called strategic patience, in order to assure the international community that they are determined to continue with the JCPOA. Of course, Iran could have withdrawn after the US did this, but they decided to give a chance to JCPOA to survive. Thus, it took incremental steps to reduce some of the obligations, according to articles 26 and 36. Now, their patience is reaching the limit and, therefore, the Iranian Parliament passed the laws, which are meant to give the last chance to put things on the right track. On the 22nd of February 2021, the Iranian Leader said that Iran has fulfilled its obligations according to the teaching of Islam, but unfortunately, the others did not do the same.
There are some Killer Proposals to JCPOA. First, the issue of the missile being a strategic integrated component of national defense and security had been disputed. Also, bearing in mind the bitter experience of Sadam missile attacks and the fact that there is no International Treaty on Missiles should make the other parties understand that they cannot renounce this. The second issue is about regional security concerns, because of the US intervention and occupation, because of the Israeli existential threat, and because of the huge military spending by states in the region. It is a difficult issue, but Iran has always opted for regional cooperation and dialogue.
Some scenarios of what could happen have been formulated. The first one refers to the situation of Post EU3 non-compliance in 2006 that could repeat. This could happen because the Parliament is determined and the people are frustrated. This time, Iran had shown more goodwill with the gradual decreasing steps as envisaged by the recent Law, leaving a window of opportunity half opened for other parties to come back to full compliance. Before the United States will rejoin, sanctions need to be lifted. Iran is not going to voluntarily implement the Additional protocol anymore, as of the 23rd of February 2021. Still, inspections under CSA-NPT Safeguards continue without interruption. The IAEA will continue safeguarding all nuclear activities, including 20% enrichment to produce fuel for TRR, the production of Uranium metal for manufacturing new types of fuel for TRR, the advancement of centrifuges, and going to the original design of the Heavy Water Reactor.
There is hope for the JCPOA, but only if all types of sanctions will be removed. There are three types of such sanctions: the sanctions expected to be lifted according to JCPOA, the sanctions imposed by Trump, and the sanctions with the new designations. Only if all of them will be removed Iran will be able to go back to the original status under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Unfortunately, there have been some unrealized expectations from the Biden administration. Iran expected President Biden, who is not a newcomer, being a member of the Obama administration, which created the JCPOA, to condemn, immediately after taking office, Trump’s policy. This should have included: a condemnation of the Trump policy and actions on Iran, specifically on JCPOA; expressing the regret and sympathy for the serious moral and financial damage inflicted on Iran by his predecessor; stating the determination to compensate the damages inflicted on the Iranian people, especially the patients that suffered due to the sanctions on medicines; insurance of the Executive Order to remove all three types of sanctions imposed by the former administration; and the willingness to come back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Moreover, there has been a negative impact of the language of threat against Iran. The Iranian Leader said on the 17th of February 2021 that there have been many nice words and promises that have not been respected and that this time Iran will only accept actions. Also, the Iranian Leader stated on the 22nd of February that the American and the European parties have used unjust languages against Iran. But, a glimpse of hope still exists, to put everything back on the right track, before it is too late. If there are the willingness and immediate actions coming from the White House, the situation could become better.
Professor Heinz Gärtner stated that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is probably the best-negotiated arms control agreement in history. It is not only technical, it has a complicated ramification mechanism, better than any other arms control agreement. It is not only technical, it also stresses, in almost every chapter of the JCPOA, that cooperation and confidence-building should be strengthened.
When Trump left the agreement and even before that, he was violating the JCPOA, because he was preventing that Iran would get the benefits of the lifting of the sanctions. Austria was the first EU state to have a visit to Iran after the JCPOA was adopted. In Tehran, the delegation saw hundreds of memoranda of understanding that have been signed. After Trump withdrew, most of these MOUs have been abandoned. Iran did not get much of the benefits from the agreement, but neither did the European Union, where many companies were also hoping for better trade and investment. On top of that, of course, the Trump administration had imposed threats to apply secondary sanctions to EU companies if they would have been willing to do business with Iran.
Now, President Biden has stressed the Transatlantic Partnership, but there was no sign that he would lift the secondary sanctions imposed on European companies. The EU can and will act for itself if the United States will continue to hesitate their coming back to the agreement. The European Union can take the initiative, as it happened before when the negotiations started with the EU3 and Iran. The United States did not want to participate in the first place, then it got involved as an observer and in 2011, when the US noticed that there is something going on between the European Union and Iran, it started secret negotiations with Iran, in Oman. So, the EU can take the initiative, but it seems like the Biden administration does not want something like this to happen.
It is clear that the policy of maximum pressure imposed by the Trump administration on Iran did not work. It weakened the Iranian economy. However, all the goals that they had for this policy of maximum pressure include missiles, regional behavior and some pressure for regime change. This was a failure and the Biden administration noticed that and, therefore, stated that they want to come back to the JCPOA. This is a test case for the Biden administration because the stress is multilateralism and JCPOA is an example of multilateral arms control.
The European Union was not very successful in implementing the JCPOA, because of the secondary sanctions and because there was a lack of courage to stand up against Donald Trump. Still, in December 2020 there has been an informal joint commission for the JCPOA, where it was discussed the return to the original agreement.
The issues of missiles and regional behavior are flawed. There is no arms control agreement in history that includes behavior. Also, there are some actors in the region for whom behavior should be addressed as well, for instance, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. Regrading missiles should be included in an arms control agreement, but it should not refer only to one party. If you include missiles, it should address the missile of several parties. So, if missiles are to be included, it should be in the regional context, addressing also the missile of Saudi Arabia, for example.
Professor Gärtner agrees with Ambassador Soltanieh that there is a small window of opportunity because all sides seem to agree that a first step would be to go back to the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The members of the agreement and the EU foreign ministers seem to agree that the original JCPOA should be the first step and that other issues should be separated. There is now the uncertainty of who should make the first step. Should the United States go back to the agreement first? As they left the JCPOA, it would be fair for them to make the first step. But the US is stressing that Iran should do it. The whole discussion is not necessary, because, if the parties agree on the substance, it does not really matter which ones make the first step. The window of opportunity is small because president Biden stressed the importance of missiles at the Munich Security Conference. There is a strong internal pressure on president Biden to include these other issues and this is why he is hesitating. But he should have the courage to say that they should revive the JCPOA in the first place.
- The first question was the following: What could one do to start the meetings to go back to the agreement?
Ambassador Soltanieh answered that Iran’s patience is coming to an end. He considers the law recently passed by the Iranian Parliament as a political bluff, which is a miscalculation by the US or EU. If they will assume that this law is a bluff, then we are in serious trouble. The Supreme Leader clearly stated that Iran wants action and that nothing will happen unless sanctions will be removed. Moreover, the EU has lost its role as an interlocutor in this agreement. But now with a new administration in the United States, it is not understood why some EU states, like Germany and France, have such a tough position towards Iran. Suddenly, everybody seems to be threatening or accusing Iran. The last point is that during the negotiations in Vienna, they put aside the other issues, which was a practical move, but some issues, such as the issue of missiles and that of regional security, are currently being brought back into attention, which is a problem. If they are put aside, there are still chances of putting everything back on the right track.
Professor Gärtner answered the same question saying that JCPOA is based on international law, provided by the UNSC. This is why when Trump left the agreement, it was a violation of international law. If the tensions will intensify and if the pressure on Iran will increase, then Iran may not only drop out of the JCPOA but also it could drop out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This would be very dangerous for the multilateral arms control system. But maybe some of the opposition in the region, for instance, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as opposition in the United States, coming from some think tanks, from the Congress and even from the Democratic Party, do not care about the multilateral arms control system. Their main argument is that Iran should not get too powerful in the region, as it is already powerful enough, ranking the 14th globally, regarding the geopolitical position, which is much better than Israel and Saudi Arabia. Such actors think that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would help Iran accumulate more economic and geopolitical power. They are not only against a nuclear power Iran, but also against a too powerful Iran. Of course, who is president also matters, both in the United States and in Iran, so the upcoming presidential elections in Iran are important. In 2015, when the JCPOA has been adopted we had this unique opportunity, the combination between president Obama and President Rouhani.
To this, ambassador Soltanieh replied by saying, firstly, that there were some actors that were very happy to see the JCPOA being adopted, as it came with unprecedented restrictions on Iran. Mr. Soltanieh sustained that those who opposed the agreement were in fact playing a political game. If Iran would announce that it will drop out of the agreement, the same people and groups that once were opponents of JCPOA will shift to sustaining that Iran should remain. The second point is that Iran is a religious decree. They are against chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, and against weapons of mass destruction, because of the religious school of thought. The next issue is that the situation is currently crucial. The elections are not so important, because Iran has a standpoint: they are ready to continue only after the sanctions will be removed. This has nothing to do with who is in the government. In Iran, most of the people are against the agreement, because they have been disappointed.
- Did the Abraham Accords change Teheran’s position?
Ambassador Soltanieh answered that the normalization of the relations with Israel is counterproductive, even to the supreme goal of having peace in the region. This is a manufactured process, an imposed sort of normalization process, it is unnatural and it will not work, just like the Camp David Accords did not work for centuries.
Professor Gärtner agrees that the Abraham Accords, which constitute an emerging alliance, are counterproductive, because they look at Iran’s strong geopolitical position in the region. This could emerge into a nuclear alliance, which would be dangerous for the area. He thinks that neither president Biden, nor the Arab states will renounce the Abraham Accords, they will stick to them.
- Is there a possibility of regional dialogue due to what Saudi Arabia said to be a part of any further negotiations and reach to kind of regional understanding?
Regarding the regional dialogue, ambassador Soltanieh said that the countries in the region should work together to have a better understanding of the context. There have been some initiatives for the Middle East free zone.
Professor Gärtner also sustains a regional dialogue. Besides that, the negotiations for an arms control agreement should continue. Also, there is a credibility gap in the Iranian attitude towards nuclear weapons, because they voted for nuclear weapons and then came to day that they do not want nuclear weapons. For this to be credible, Iran should sign and ratify the Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. To this, ambassador Soltanieh replied by saying that they have voted for it, but the reason for which they have not signed or ratified is because they have had bad experience with such security-oriented treaties.
- Which is the effect of the Corona pandemic on the prospects for a solution?
The pandemic had great importance on the Iranian public opinion, making it to be against any deal with the US and with the EU. This is why they do not sustain further developments regarding the JCPOA. The pandemic together with the sanctions left people in desperate need of medicines and the Americans prevented them from receiving the medicines.
Dr. Werner Fasslabend stated that he thinks that the most important questions should regard the impact on diplomacy because if this deal does not work out, skepticism about the effectiveness of diplomacy will rise and they will go more and more into the tendency of power play and power politics.
The second issue is that we will have a new race of nuclear weapons. One of Iran’s neighbors, Pakistan, is a nuclear power, as well as Poland, Israel, and North Korea. If Iran will also become a nuclear power, it is only a question of time until Turkey and Saudi Arabia will develop similar tendencies. This is why this deal is very important, for peace and security, not only in the region but in the whole world. Regarding the missile issue, it is clear that Iran does not have big capabilities and it is normal for each state not to completely renounce the protection of its airspace.
The third point is that the Iran question does not have priority number one in American politics and in European politics. The pandemic has changed the situation very much, the priorities have changed. The United States has not overcome the traumatic experiences with Iran and vice-versa. Iran has always been a big power and wants to keep its status of independence. But, the US could overcome its traumatic experience with Vietnam and with North Korea, but it could not overcome the Iranian Revolution. So far, it is necessary to be aware that both sides should look at each other differently than they have looked in the past. There are three words that are very important: trust, face, and facts.
About the author:
Delia-Maria MOTAN is Intern research at MEPEI, and her research interest lies in international relations and political science in the Middle East. Currently, she is studying at the Faculty of the Political Science / University of Bucharest.