By Samuel M. Hickey
Senior Iranian leaders from President Hassan Rouhani to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have been clear that they would welcome a quick return to the Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), by the Biden administration. However, Tehran appears to be signaling that there is a short window of opportunity for both sides to return to compliance. Nuclear legislation passed by the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, has been implemented with an increasingly escalatory timeline.
Pursuant to that legislation, Iran has already enriched uranium to 20% — a small step away from weapons-grade — at its underground facility at Fordow. Around the end of February, Iran will slice international inspector access to its nuclear program until it receives the sanctions relief it was promised under the JCPOA. While staunch opponents of the JCPOA argue that President Biden can use the sanctions accumulated over the past two years to extract concessions and get a more favorable deal, this legislation attempts to put pressure on the United States to return to the original deal quickly.
Iran’s negotiating plan
According to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Tehran envisions two stages for the United States to return to compliance with the JCPOA: First, the United States must lift sanctions and come back into compliance with international law — specifically, United Nation Security Council Resolution 2231 — and in return, Iran would meet its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA; then second, the United States will need to negotiate with Iran and the other members of the JCPOA (China, France, Germany, the UK and Russia) the conditions to be readmitted to the JCPOA.
However, the legal path to readmit the United States to the JCPOA is murky. There is no formal withdrawal provision and no formal re-accession provision. In addition to the leverage Iran has tried to accumulate by incrementally breaching the limits of the nuclear deal, Tehran has amassed an array of diplomatic cards it hopes will keep U.S. preconditions – such as removing the sunset clauses or including constraints on Iran’s missile program – for its return to compliance off the table.
President Biden has made it clear that he would like to restore the nuclear deal, if Iran returns to compliance, but he also wants a follow-on or broader agreement that builds on the JCPOA and takes into account other security matters. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has also suggested that Iran’s regional adversaries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE should join a broader regional dialogue that would include Iran’s ballistic missiles. Tehran has sought to maximize its negotiation leverage to manage the timeline and to keep its own deterrent, its ballistic missile program, off the table.
Maximizing negotiation leverage
Senior Iranian leaders have requested compensation for Iran’s suffering under U.S. sanctions, although Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has rejected the notion that compensation requests would hinder a compliance-for-compliance return to the deal. Senior advisors close to Khamenei have also called for eliminating the “snapback” mechanism the Trump administration claimed it successfully triggered despite global rejection.
More troubling is the fact that the aforementioned nuclear legislation requires Iran to accumulate 120 kg of uranium enriched to 20% every year and to stop abiding by its Additional Protocol with the UN’s nuclear watchdog. This move could cut in half the number of international nuclear investigators in the country and limit their level of access and verification tools. Currently, inspectors are on the ground in Iran 24/7.
Adding to the complication, the upcoming Iranian presidential elections in June 2021 will slow negotiations while Tehran manages its political process, and the United States will face a new negotiation team.
Tehran’s maximum restraint to sabotage attempts on nuclear sites and lethal provocations that have taken place on its territory or next door should not be seen as a sign of weakness. Last year’s spree of military actions against Iran, including the assassination of Quds force leader Qassem Soleimani, Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and most recently, nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh are unlikely to continue in the new year. However, the fact that events have not yet spiraled into broader regional conflict is not a vindication of these decisions.
Make no mistake, revenge is never off the table. These actions against Iran may have actually promoted the idea that military actions are controllable and can be finely calibrated for an intended political effect. The world can only hope that Tehran has not internalized this idea as a lesson.
While the world waits for Tehran’s reaction, government spokesman Ali Rabiei has already said that Iran, “shouldn’t fall into the trap of linking the assassination to past nuclear negotiations.” Therefore, Tehran’s diplomatic posture for negotiations with the United States is unlikely to shift and if anything, Tehran’s posture in any nuclear negotiations has only become more formidable.
Diplomacy remains an off-ramp
Iran received few of the promised benefits guaranteed under the nuclear deal but continues to support multilateral diplomacy and rejoining the international financial order. Despite Tehran’s apparent eagerness for sanctions relief, President Trump may well have forfeited or at the very least complicated the United States’ ability to leverage a multilateral pressure campaign when he withdrew from the JCPOA. Now, getting back to the negotiating table requires Tehran’s consent. While the Biden administration faces many urgent crises, there may only be weeks to avoid a nuclear standoff with Iran.