Negotiations on a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) resume d on November 29, in Vienna. After a break of several months, Washington and Tehran, mediated by Russia, China and the EU, will sit down at the negotiating table and try to restore the international agreement destroyed by former US President Donald Trump.
The approaches of Iran and the United States to the negotiations are largely due to similar reasons. New presidents have come to power in both countries this year. Both are interested in a return to the nuclear deal and possible personal dividends from this. At the same time, both are not ready to stake their entire political capital on this, realizing the riskiness of the venture.
The positions of the parties are notable for radicalism, and there are not so many chances of success. At the same time, a diplomatic approach can help the parties find at least an intermediate solution that will provide a way out of the current impasse.
Biden is not the same
US President Joe Biden has repeatedly stated throughout the election campaign that he intends to return to the nuclear deal with Iran if he wins the elections. Formally, he could do this immediately after taking office with one stroke of the pen. On paper, the JCPOA continues to exist without the United States; it is simply that Tehran, in response to the failure of other parties to fulfill their obligations under the agreement, consistently reneges on its promises on the atomic program.
So, Biden could first unilaterally return the United States to the agreement to demonstrate the seriousness of intentions, but not lift the sanctions. And then it was already possible to start a dialogue with Tehran on financial restrictions.
However, the American leader is receiving criticism for being too soft on Iran. Therefore, he, fearing to appear weak, not only did not return to the agreement on his own, but, apparently, is not ready to lift all the sanctions imposed under Trump. At the same time, the administration of the last president did not hide the fact that all these restrictions are being introduced in order to prevent the United States from ever returning to the nuclear deal. However, Biden assures that not all of them were associated with the JCPOA and some were brought in for the cause.
At the same time, the American administration had a good opportunity to come to an agreement with the past Iranian government of moderate Hassan Rouhani, with whom Biden himself had previously dealt with on a nuclear deal, as a member of Barack Obama’s team. However, then the parties could not come to an agreement – the Iranians demanded the lifting of all sanctions.
Biden’s positions in the US are even weaker today – his rating has been consistently falling since about mid-summer. The American leader is unlikely to be willing to bet his dwindling political capital on a return to the deal, meeting Tehran halfway. But his rival is now different – the new administration of the conservative Ebrahim Raisi.
The new president in Iran is not opposed to a return to the nuclear deal. Rather, on the contrary, he, as a pragmatic person, perfectly understands the benefits that the lifting of sanctions brings. The economic situation in Iran is not as acute as in the first years after Trump’s demarche, but there are enough problems.
Iran’s basic infrastructure, including the oil and gas industry, electricity supply to the population and transportation services, needs renovation and investment. General inflation remains at the level of 40-50%, and the national currency regularly experiences jumps in devaluation. Finally, it is not clear how to solve the water problem – this year, the population of different cities has already demonstrated several times against the shortage of water, which led to clashes with the police. In theory, lifting the sanctions could help to at least partially stop these threats.
However, everything is not so simple here either. First, a return to the nuclear deal does not promise a golden shower. Investors remember well how many invested in Iran, and then Trump came and the problems began. Secondly, today Biden is proposing that Tehran sign a nuclear deal that is not the same as in 2015. Washington, as mentioned above, is ready to lift the main, but still not all, sanctions. That is, at the exit, Iran will receive a deal with truncated benefits.
Finally, Raisi remembers well the fate of Rouhani after Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. The reformer president looked like a man who relied on agreements with the Americans and lost everything. If Raisi suddenly becomes a man in whom the United States deceives Iran for the second time, then for him this may mean the end of his political career.
Moreover, Biden’s American opponents openly declare: the next Republican president will annul the nuclear deal.
All this determines Tehran’s maximalist claims to Washington. First, all sanctions imposed under Trump must be lifted. Secondly, it is necessary to launch a verification mechanism to make sure that there are no financial restrictions on the part of the United States. Third, Washington is obliged to provide guarantees that the history of Trump’s demarche will not repeat itself. In fact, you can start and end everything with one third demand – Biden, like any other US president, cannot give such guarantees.
Temporary salvation: If the positions of the parties in the negotiations correspond to the statements available today, then a return to the deal is practically out of the question. It must be said that Washington, on the eve of the resumption of the dialogue, began to use another instrument – threats. So, in the American press, stuffing began about a possible “plan B” of the United States in case of failure of the negotiations. It allegedly could include pressure on China to stop importing Iranian oil, as well as a military strike along with Israel on nuclear facilities in Iran.
However, the chances of such an approach to seriously affect the situation are close to zero. The sanctions against Iran are already as severe as possible, which Trump has already taken care of, so it is difficult to scare them with toughening. As for the strike, hardly anyone will seriously believe that Biden, after the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, will start a new war, even if together with Israel.
At the same time, an acceptable way out for both sides can be found – for example, an alternative agreement, the possibility of which was discussed by representatives of the American administration. This idea is also actively discussed in some Iranian media.
“If the full revival of the treaty is impossible, then an interim agreement can be concluded. It will provide respite, reduce tension, reduce contradictions and avoid the collapse of negotiations,” Diako Hosseini, who served as director of the international program, said recently in an interview with the Aharin Khabar portal. Center for Strategic Studies under the administration of the previous President of Iran.
According to member of the Rouhani administration, this issue can be taken even further: “It is likely that if mistrust and a gap in demands persist, the best solution would be a chain of temporary agreements that will revive the treaty step by step.”
The most profitable way out for Iran is the lifting of restrictions on oil sales in exchange for a partial reduction in its nuclear program and access for IAEA observers to disputed facilities. This result will allow the Iranian side to quickly receive additional foreign exchange infusions into the budget. Biden could also report on a new foreign policy success that would prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Trump’s success: Despite the fact that the upcoming negotiations are not doomed to failure, it is difficult to be optimistic about them. The contradictions and mistrust between the Iranian and American sides are too deep today.
So, Biden, unwittingly, today continues the policy of maximum pressure against Tehran, which Trump began. There was no serious relaxation after the change of power in the White House with regard to Iran. This is due to political reasons: the voter does not like the US president to show weakness in front of “a regime that poses a threat.” At the same time, let me remind you that this whole complex of sanctions in fact prevents the import of everything into Iran, including food and medicine.
Trump’s policy was aimed at regime change in Iran or Tehran’s surrender on all fronts in the Middle East. In this vein, she turned out to be too oak and uncouth and did not achieve her goal. However, in the last year, Trump has already, rather, set a different task: to completely exclude the possibility for the United States to return to the nuclear deal under any next president. To this end, in the last months of the last president’s rule, Washington imposed new sanctions against Tehran almost every week. It got to the point of absurdity when some Iranian structures were included in the sanctions lists for the second time.
And if the “maximum task” for Trump turned out to be too tough, then in the matter of ensuring the “minimum task” he succeeded quite well. Presidents in both capitals in 2021 openly declared that they want to return to the agreement, but they cannot. They have to look for workarounds, think about compromises and their ratings, push each other and bargain. As a result, at the cost of colossal efforts, they will at best expect something remotely resembling a nuclear deal in its original form. And somewhere, probably, the 45th President of the United States is sitting and laughing sarcastically.