The following paper approaches the current situation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) and developments between the stakeholders, in the light of recent political changes in the United States of America (US). These changes have been felt in the Middle East, having a special connotation for the anti-Iranian camp. The stakes are high for both Iran and United States, as they have to face inevitable consequences of the past policies. The paper also considers European Union (EU) as a suitable mediator between the parties, with the aim of appeasing tensions. A fast track solution is proposed, as the window of opportunity for diplomacy is shrinking.
Temporary stalemate or the beginning of a new crisis?
Islamic Republic officials have repeatedly said that Iran will return to the limits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) as soon as the United States lifts economic sanctions in a concrete, effective manner. The Supreme Leader, President Hassan ROUHANI, and the Iranian diplomacy have stated that they want to see the lifting of sanctions in practice and that they are not content with anything less .
Secretary of State Antony BLINKEN has said that the United States will not relinquish economic sanctions as long as Iran fails to meet its JCPoA obligations. BLINKEN specified that the sanctions will be lifted after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms that Iran has returned to the parameters of the nuclear agreement. The US Secretary of State added that the United States aims to use the platform provided by the JCPoA in order to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with Iran, extending certain provisions of the nuclear agreement and addressing the other two problematic issues in relation to Iran – the ballistic missile program and regional policy considered destabilizing.
Iranian officials replied that the United States must take the first step and lift sanctions, as it was the TRUMP administration that (unilaterally) withdrew from the nuclear deal and imposed an economic war on Iran, in violation of Security Council resolution 2231. Therefore, Iran will comply with all its obligations under the JCPoA if sanctions are lifted. Iranian diplomacy has said that this process does not require negotiations and can take place as soon as possible. The Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht RAVANCHI, warned that the window of opportunity to save the nuclear deal is shrinking. Government officials have said that Iran will stop implementing the Additional Protocol if sanctions are not lifted by 21.02.2021. This will significantly reduce the ability of IAEA inspectors to monitor Iran’s nuclear program. Restricting access to IAEA inspectors and accelerating the nuclear program foreshadows a new crisis.
Iranian officials have rejected the option of renegotiating the nuclear deal. According to them, JCPoA is the result of over a decade of diplomacy and is the maximum that could be obtained in this case. Tehran officials all agreed that the ballistic missile program is non-negotiable. The national defense strategy is structured around the development of military deterrence capabilities, in which the ballistic missile program plays a key role. Other deterrents, such as the nuclear program, the network of regional allies, and strategic dominance over the Hormuz strait, play a secondary role in relation to ballistic missiles because they do not have the same ability to destroy. Therefore, the ballistic missile program is a red line for the Iranian regime. On regional policy, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad ZARIF said the issue was probed when the JCPoA was negotiated, but it was abandoned because Western powers were unwilling to limit arms sales in the region, to stop intervening in regional affairs, or to end their support for Saudi Arabia in the conflict in Yemen. In other words, Iranian officials have said that Western powers cannot expect unilateral concessions from Iran.
The inevitability of negotiations for the reactivation of the nuclear agreement
Iranian foreign policy observers believe that negotiations to reactivate the JCPoA are inevitable, even though Iranian officials have said that lifting US sanctions and returning Iran to the limits of the nuclear deal can take place automatically without prior negotiations. The main problem is that the TRUMP administration has sanctioned key Iranian economic agents and institutions under Executive Order 13224 on Combating Terrorism. The Central Bank, the National Petroleum Company and the National Shipping Company are some examples in this sense. Lifting these sanctions, against the will of the US Congress, would mean a political cost that Joe BIDEN and Democrats are unwilling to assume, especially as important voices among the Democrats, such as Senate Leader Chuck SCHUMER, have criticized JCPoA. Moreover, it is unlikely that the United States will abandon the sanctions policies without trying to force concessions from Iran.
Tehran officials are aware of these expectations from the US. They, therefore, accelerated the nuclear program in order to strengthen their negotiating position. Between 4 and 28.01.2021, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (OASI) produced 17 kg of enriched uranium at a concentration of 20%. On February 2, 2021, the Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic to international organizations in Vienna, Kazem Gharib-ABADI, informed that the OAS had operationalized two cascades of 348 modern IR-2m centrifuges in the Natanz nuclear installation. IR-2m centrifuges have four times the uranium enrichment capacity of IR-1 centrifuges. The OAS is preparing to operate two state-of-the-art IR-6 centrifuge cascades at the Fordow plant. At Natanz, a total of 1,000 IR-2m centrifuges are being installed by March 20, 2021. More importantly, Iranian officials have decided to stop implementing the Additional Protocol if sanctions are not lifted by February 21, 2021.
The United States is unlikely to give in to threats to accelerate its nuclear program. On the other hand, Iran’s strategy greatly increases the risk of Israeli military action against the nuclear program. The calculated steps were taken by the Iranians in order to force the lifting of sanctions, or to increase their negotiating position, carry the risk of escalating the conflict to a military confrontation. Therefore, the window of opportunity for appeasing the conflict diplomatically is shrinking rapidly. The European Union is the best-placed actor to mediate between Iran and the United States.
European Union – a mediator under time pressure
The signals from the diplomatic milieu show that the High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security Policy, Josep BORRELL, has taken an active role in resolving the diplomatic impasse. On February 1, 2021, Javad ZARIF told CNN that BORRELL, as coordinator of the JCPoA Joint Commission, could propose a mechanism to synchronize the actions of Iran and the United States for a simultaneous return to JCPoA. The events are ongoing because, on February 3, 2021, the Chief of Staff of the Iranian President, Mahmoud VAEZI, stated that BORRELL’s assistant spoke with ZARIF’s deputy, Abbas ARAGHCHI, and with Robert MALLEY, the United States Special Representative for Iran. VAEZI specified that until that date there were no direct contacts between American and Iranian officials. It is worth noting that in the first foreign policy conference of Joe BIDEN, which took place on February 4, 2021, the US President did not make any reference to Iran. This confirms that there are diplomatic exchanges between the two camps, probably through intermediaries, and BIDEN did not want to make them more difficult, because no matter what position he might have expressed publicly, there would be enough actors to challenge it, or even to sabotage it. The Europeans would need to designate rapidly a joint plan of action with the Biden administration, in order to avoid further delays and a tensioned stalemate. Even a partial return to compliance of the deal would help a détente.
Opponents of JCPoA reactivation
Reactivation of JCPoA is hampered by a number of external and internal actors. The most important in the first category are Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Israel formalized support from the UAE (and Bahrain) on the occasion of signing the Abraham Accords in August 2020. These three States are in principle opposed to the Iranian nuclear program and the normalization of relations between the United States and Iran. The most virulent opponents are Israeli officials, who look with suspicion at Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s intentions in this case. Their perception is that Iranian officials are in fact pursuing the militarization of the nuclear program. Evidence from the last 15 years contradicts these fears, as Iran stopped before 2005 the project prospecting the transfer of nuclear technology to the military. The bigger problem for these three states is that the normalization of relations between the United States and Iran would legitimize the role of regional power that the Islamic Republic aspires to, and this will reduce the foreign policy options that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have. For example, Iran will retain a high degree of influence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Moreover, Iran will be accepted at the negotiating table for resolving the crisis in Yemen, a scenario that Saudi Arabia does not agree with. To avoid this happening, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are marching on the idea of banning Iran from having a nuclear program, because they know that the Iranians will not accept this, thus perpetuating the conflictual situation. The three states opposed the signing of the nuclear deal, but without success. Currently, they are trying to prevent its reactivation, probably with little chance of success. However, they are in the mid of an obstructive campaign (including proliferating threats), for fear of Iran getting a stronger regional position. Concomitantly, the Biden administration paused arm sales to Saudi Arabia and Iran with the hope to halter violence in Yemen, complicating regional feelings, weakening the anti-Iranian coalition. Faced with the inevitability of reactivation, Saudi Arabia is making diplomatic efforts to be present at the negotiating table, a scenario recently supported by French President Emmanuel MACRON. The Iranians have said they will not accept new members joining the nuclear deal in any way.
There are opponents in both the United States and Iran over the reactivation of the nuclear deal. In the United States, the Republicans are at the top of the list. As previously mentioned, there are Democrats who oppose the nuclear deal. The Iranian opposition in the United States is campaigning to preserve economic pressure on the Iranian regime. Israeli and Saudi lobby groups are voicing opposition voices in the United States. In Iran, the conservative camp is currently opposed to the normalization of relations with the United States, as a possible diplomatic victory would give a boost to the moderates and reformists on the eve of the presidential election (the elections will take place on June 18, 2021). The radical wing of the Conservatives opposes in principle the normalization of relations with the United States and follows the idea of resistance policy. For example, Mohammad Ali JAFARI, a former Sepah commander, urged Iranians not to put their hopes in the JCPoA and to choose the path of resistance, as in the war with Iraq. Ahmad KHATAMI, a member of the Guardian Council, and Ebrahim RAISI, the Chief Justice of Iran, also remarked against the negotiations with the United States. Sepah leaders, led by Commander Hossein SALAMI, called for economic resilience and self-sufficiency. Examples of this kind are numerous. Radical conservatives fear that the normalization of relations with the West in general, and with the United States in particular, thinking it will endanger the Islamic Republic in the long run, as it further allows the infiltration of Western principles, values, and way of life.
A realistic mechanism for reactivating JCPoA
Ali VAEZ, director of Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, outlined a possible mechanism that could simultaneously bring the United States and Iran back into JCPoA terms. VAEZ proposed that, in the first phase, President Joe BIDEN signs an executive order annulling the executive order issued by Donald TRUMP, regarding the withdrawal of the United States from JCPoA. In addition, BIDEN should request the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury to initiate the process of returning to the JCPoA. At the same time, the Supreme Council for National Security of Iran (CSSN) should suspend the implementation of the plan that accelerates the nuclear program and decide the return of Iran within the limits provided by the JCPoA. In the second phase, Iran and the United States should sit at the negotiating table, in the 5P + 1 format offered by the JCPoA Joint Commission, where they can agree on a roadmap, consisting of synchronous actions, bringing both sides back in JCPoA parameters. An example of simultaneous action would be for the United States to release frozen Iranian assets abroad, whereas on that day Iran exports the amount of uranium that exceeds the limits of the nuclear deal.
https://twitter.com/IRNA_1313/status/1351825372011085825, https://twitter.com/IRNA_1313/status/1351796730275180544, https://twitter.com/m_h_mohammadi/status/1352165848887263232
About the author:
Flavius CABA-MARIA is the President of the Middle East Political and Economic Institute (MEPEI)