[In 2018 the Trump administration repudiated the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear agreement, and replaced its participation in this international treaty with a policy of “maximum pressure”, which some believed would compel Iran to accept a different agreement and others hoped would produce regime change in Tehran. With Iran rejecting the renegotiation of the JCPOA and absorbing a series of increasingly severe sanctions, neither scenario materialized. The Biden administration early on indicated its intention to rejoin the agreement, but has insisted that Iran must first reverse measures it adopted in response to the US withdrawal that reduced Iranian compliance with its JCPOA obligations. For its part Iran has maintained that the US has no standing to demand compliance while it remains outside the agreement. Mouin Rabbani, editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor, interviewed Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director at the International Crisis Group, to explore the context and consequences of the current impasse.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): The Biden administration has stated that it wants to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear agreement, but has not yet done so, nor has it reversed the sanctions imposed on Iran by the Trump administration in the context of its “maximum pressure” campaign after it repudiated the agreement in 2018. What is the rationale behind Washington’s current approach, and how likely is it to succeed?
Ali Vaez (AV): The Biden administration has taken a few, largely symbolic steps so far, such as reversing its predecessor's (widely dismissed) claim of having snapped back UN sanctions and easing the travel restrictions that had been placed on Iranian diplomats in New York. It has also appointed an experienced and skilled Iran envoy, Rob Malley, and made it clear through a joint statement with its European counterparts that its objective is to first return to the original agreement before attempting to build on it.
But it's true that the United States has not yet taken meaningful action toward undoing any of the unilateral US sanctions, the easing of which is at the core of Iranian demands. Washington's argument is that Iran first needs to come back into compliance with its nuclear obligations under the JCPOA, and it’s not inclined to commit to what would be seen as a down-payment in order to make that happen. For its part, Tehran believes that since it was the US under Trump that withdrew from the agreement and re-imposed sanctions, the onus is on Washington to take the first step and show it is serious about ending the “maximum pressure” campaign, not just in principle but also in practice. An optimist would say that the endpoint of mutual compliance is one on which both sides agree; a realist would note that getting there, as the past few weeks have shown, is no small task.
MR: Iran has stated that it will not return to full compliance with its JCPOA commitments until the US rejoins the agreement and Washington resumes its own JCPOA obligations. Yet there have been suggestions Washington and Tehran may agree to synchronize their actions. How would such a scenario transpire, and do you consider it likely?
AV: Synchronization is a sensible approach because neither side is likely to fully restore its compliance if the other side isn't doing the same - and what both sides need to undertake for that to happen can't be done overnight. In Iran's case, it has to bring its uranium enrichment rates back down from 20 percent to the JCPOA’s 3.67 percent limit, figure out how to get rid of its excess stockpile of enriched uranium, and take other steps that bring its nuclear program back within the deal's parameters - all of which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would need to verify. For the US it means setting in motion the reversal of its sweeping sanctions designations, which in some cases are layered under multiple authorities and makes their reversal a political minefield. Coordinating this process could start with a cap on the existing escalation, which in turn would create the space for negotiations on a more detailed timetable and sequence. If the political will is there, coordinating the specific steps—even though complicated—is entirely feasible within a few months.
MR: The JCPOA is an international rather than bilateral US-Iranian agreement. What role are the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese playing in efforts to revive the JCPOA and prevent further escalation?
AV: The Europeans, Russians, and Chinese have played an important role over the past three years in trying to stop the agreement from unraveling completely in the face of the Trump administration's concerted efforts to undermine it. And I think they're keen to avoid seeing those efforts go to waste on account of the impasse we're now seeing despite the desire in both Washington and Tehran to revive the agreement. That means the P4+1 parties, and especially the Europeans, have both a diplomatic role to play in bridging the massive distrust between the US and Iran, and, if that process gains traction, delivering on the economic dividends the agreement was designed to provide. But some of the Europeans’ actions, like the push to censure Iran at the IAEA’s Board of Governors for its failure to respond to the IAEA’s outstanding questions on Iran’s past nuclear activities, are ill-timed and risk undermining their role as intermediaries.
For its part, the IAEA has managed, through a bilateral, technical agreement that it reached with Iran last week, to ensure that enhanced inspection of Iran’s key nuclear activities will continue for an additional three months. This is despite a law passed by the Iranian parliament in the aftermath of the November 2020 assassination, allegedly by Israel, of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the country’s top nuclear scientist, that required the Iranian government to curtail the IAEA’s access as of 23 February. That puts another three months on the clock for diplomacy to find a way forward in bringing Iran and the US back into full compliance with the JCPOA.
MR: To what extent are the US and Iranian positions being determined by domestic political considerations? Are US options constrained by regional states?
AV: There's no doubt that there is strong opposition in both Tehran and Washington to diplomatic re-engagement. Iranian conservatives and hardliners have an eye on the June 2021 presidential election to choose a successor to President Hassan Rouhani. A breakthrough on the JCPOA, especially if it yields tangible financial benefits, could be a bittersweet outcome for them if it strengthens their centrist rivals. There's also long-standing opposition to the nuclear agreement itself, and a belief that Iran's economy is now in a position to stabilize even in the absence of sanctions relief. On the US side, "maximum pressure" continues to have strong advocates both domestically - and this includes not just Republicans but also some Democrats - as well as among regional allies, despite the fact that whether you're looking at the nuclear file or the regional front, the policy clearly backfired. Such advocates tend to be very critical of efforts to rejoin the deal, and I think the Biden administration is also mindful of having to engage with those critics, even if in some cases their criticism is unlikely to be dispelled regardless of what a diplomatic process looks like. Hence their deliberations over the past few weeks on the path forward not just with Congress, but also the remaining parties to the deal and regional allies.
MR: To what extent is the recent escalation of attacks in Iraq and Syria a proxy conflict between the US and Iran, and how might this affect a resolution of the broader JCPOA issue?
AV: I think it is easy to paint the regional situation as a US-Iran proxy conflict, but there is also a risk that in doing so one overlooks local conflict dynamics in places like Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. That said, there is no question that especially since 2019 regional tensions escalated as the US-Iran standoff grew increasingly fraught, and the situation remains precarious even if an escalation is something that benefits neither side. In that sense, progress on the JCPOA could yield some measure of de-escalation, and should certainly be supported, especially among regional actors. But it won't be a cure-all. For the US, one of the lessons of negotiating the JCPOA is that addressing the most urgent threat from Iran, i.e. its nuclear program, and the country’s regional power projection should happen simultaneously, not sequentially. No nuclear deal with Iran, regardless of its merits, will survive the broader context of enmity between Iran, the US, and their respective allies unless both sides make progress in parallel on lowering the temperature in the region.