By John Erath
As of the latter half of July, prospects for some kind of revival of the Iran nuclear deal remain uncertain, and it is worth taking a few moments to examine the state of play. The Biden administration came into office favoring a return to the Joint Cooperative Plan of Action (JCPOA), as originally negotiated in 2015. Without going into a lengthy discussion about the merits and shortcomings of JCPOA, the White House approach was based on logic: everyone agreed to the JCPOA at its inception, so returning to a status quo in which Iran resumed full compliance and the U.S. removed sanctions since imposed should be achievable. This, after all, was what Iran has repeatedly stated it wanted, and if Iran’s non-compliance was a consequence of the sanctions, the way should have been open to reach agreement.
Only, this is not how things have worked thus far. Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and without being privy to the negotiations, and the many necessary details to be settled, it is not possible to understand the difficulty of completing an international agreement. There needs to be, without a doubt, much further detailed discussion of verification, uranium metallurgy and numbers of centrifuges. These are important specifics to a final deal, but the basic outline remains clear: sanctions relief for a verifiable halt to enrichment activity that could contribute to a nuclear weapons program. Rather than move toward restoring such an arrangement, signals from Tehran are troubling, including talk of higher levels of uranium enrichment and production of uranium metals with few, if any civilian applications. This may be a negotiating tactic. Everyone who has been to the Middle East knows that one does not buy a rug in that region without threatening to walk out of the shop at least once. Iranian diplomats, however, know their business and understand that the U.S. has little flexibility to do more than restore the JCPOA. A new agreement, even if the White House would agree to one, would require Congressional review, an uncertain prospect.
If Iranian hesitancy is not an ill-judged negotiation ploy, the alternatives are troubling. One possibility is that Iran had little intention, even in 2015, of engaging in a diplomatic process whereby it might improve its security without nuclear weapons. For the U.S. and its allies, the primary benefit of the JCPOA was that it was a means to an end, not an end in itself. It not just that it halted Iran’s nuclear activity, but that it opened the door to a longer term dialogue on regional security and nonproliferation. The pause in Iran’s nuclear program was intended to create room for such a process. Iran has been unwilling to create that space, but was dealing with an administration in Washington that was skeptical of JCPOA and wanted out of it. If the obduracy persists with the Biden administration willing to engage, Iran will put at risk the assumption that a diplomatic solution is possible at all. The other possibility is that Tehran hopes for a better deal. The abrupt U.S. withdrawal in 2018 and the minimal consultation with other JCPOA parties that accompanied it has fostered a perception that Washington must be to blame for the current impasse, and Iran, as the wronged party, should be in some way rewarded for resuming its commitments. Arguments over whether the U.S. was right in three years ago should have no bearing on the present. In 2021, there is a higher level of coordination between the U.S. and its European partners, particularly on the goal of halting progress toward nuclear weapon capability, and Iran should not count on benefiting from disunity.
In either case, the course of action should be the same. The parties to the JCPOA should remind Iran that the Iranian position has been that it would comply were the sanctions to be lifted. Should the Iranian government decide to hold out for a better deal that will not come, negative consequences, which could include calls for snapback sanctions, will follow. Whether the current obstacle is a negotiation tactic or a hope for a better deal, it will still be up to Iran to make the decision to resume compliance.