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Sep 4, 2021
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The fate of the Iran nuclear deal hangs in the balance

Biden shares one goal with Trump: to negotiate a new agreement that replaces the JCPOA in favor of the United States

France and Germany are calling on Iran to return as soon as possible to the stalled talks on the renewal of the nuclear deal. However, Tehran appears to be in no hurry to respond.

New Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahiyan said negotiations on the nuclear program would not resume for 2-3 months. Iran is not trying to “run away” from attempts to revive the faltering 2015 pact, he said, but the new government, which was approved by the Majlis on August 26, must first define its policy. In a telephone conversation with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Iranian Foreign Minister warned that Iran would only participate in negotiations that would bring tangible results in ensuring the rights and interests of the Iranian people.

Hossein Amir Abdollahiyan and the late Qasem Suleimani

Hossein Amir Abdollahiyan and the late Qasem Suleimani

Recall that after six rounds of negotiations held in Vienna in April-June 2021 with the participation of Russia, Great Britain, China, France and Germany, who signed the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA), the fate of the nuclear agreement with Iran hangs in the balance. Discussion of the problems of restoring the JCPOA against the background of a change of government in Iran and the coming to power of President Ibrahim Raisi was suspended at the initiative of the Iranians on June 21, at the end of the sixth round.

The United States hoped that Ayatollah Khamenei would authorize Iranian negotiators to complete the deal before the presidential election, but instead, Iran’s supreme leader suspended negotiations until a new president takes office and forms his Cabinet. At the same time, Khamenei did not negate the results of the negotiations in Vienna and stated: “The Americans have remained in their stubborn position. On paper and in words, they promise to lift the sanctions, but they did not and will not lift them. “… Critics of the nuclear deal with Iran saw in this statement Iran’s intention to make the negotiation process more rigid.

Negotiations on the resuscitation of the JCPOA have not yet been resumed. Photo: REUTERS / Handout

The Iranian leadership has reason not to trust the new US administration. Biden shares one goal with Trump: a new deal that will replace the JCPOA in favor of the United States. The main threat that Iran poses to the United States is not nuclear. US plans are hampered by Iranian policies towards Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. To date, there are no signs that, under American pressure, Iran’s regional policy is changing or that Tehran is ready to obey the demands of the Biden administration. The fact that Iran does not pose a serious military problem for the United States does not mean, however, that Iran can be controlled.

Since 2017, America has been tightening the loop of sanctions against Iran. There can hardly be any doubt that this policy of “maximum pressure” caused significant economic damage to Iran. The economic growth that followed the lifting of sanctions in 2016 turned into a recession. The Iranian currency has lost two-thirds of its value, and oil exports, an important source of government revenue, fell from 2.5 million barrels a day to less than 0.5 million barrels a day. Iran has lost about $ 100 billion in oil revenues in three years due to US sanctions.

Despite the sanctions, Iran seeks to pursue an independent foreign policy. Photo: REUTERS / Lisi Niesner

Nevertheless, Tehran continues to pursue policies that it considers optimal for its national security, regardless of the degree of economic prosperity at home. Seeking to lift the sanctions, Iran is setting new conditions. The Iranians insist on compensation for the consequences of Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the agreement and on the provision of assurances that Biden and subsequent administrations will not do the same.

Washington, for its part, is demanding that Iran agree to extend and strengthen the initial conditions of the JCPOA, as well as begin discussions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for its allies in the region. Tehran has publicly stated that it will not do either one or the other. In response, the Biden administration not only refused to ease the “maximum pressure” policy, but also launched airstrikes against Iranian militias in Syria.

However, in the case of Iran, this does not work. Iranian officials say that because the Biden administration is not taking action to lift the sanctions that Trump imposed in violation of the JCPOA, Iran has a legitimate right to disregard the terms of the agreement. Since the United States withdrew from the JCPOA, Tehran, although it has not completely abandoned it, admits of non-fulfillment of some of its obligations.

Missile arsenals of Iran. Photo: REUTERS / Wana News Agency

Tehran expanded its nuclear fuel production, used more sophisticated centrifuges, and began producing uranium enriched to 20%. In February of this year, Iran began the process of producing enriched uranium metal, which, according to IAEA inspectors, could be used to create a nuclear weapon nucleus. Iran also warned that it could restrict the access of IAEA inspectors to its nuclear facilities. This would be the most serious violation, since inspector access is a key element of the agreement.

The likelihood that Iran will soon develop a nuclear arsenal has been the subject of much speculation after Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz told the UN Security Council on August 4 that Iran has 10 weeks left before it accumulates enough weapon material for a nuclear bomb. “The time has come for action – words are not enough”– he said and added: “Iranian regime threatens us and ignites regional arms race”

However, to what extent are fears about Iran’s progress in nuclear technology justified? As before, there is no evidence that Iran has enriched the material to 90% the level required for nuclear explosive devices. The Arms Control Association estimates that Iran does not have an emergency nuclear weapons program and appears willing to take a tougher bargaining stance to try to use its nuclear violations to win big US concessions.

Full nuclear status would in principle give Iran a significant deterrent against attack, but the unwanted consequences are much greater. For example, withdrawal from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will inevitably reduce the existing nuclear cooperation with Russia, on which Iran relies with regard to its nuclear power plant in Bushehr, since otherwise Russia would violate the NPT.

Iranian ballistic missile “Zulfikar”

In addition, it could undermine the region’s non-proliferation regime if countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia decide to create their own nuclear arsenals. In addition, Tehran is involved in a military conflict with two nuclear powers (Israel and the United States) in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the Persian Gulf. The real danger of Iran getting nuclear weapons from their side is likely to be followed by preemptive attacks on its nuclear infrastructure. Until now, the Iranian leadership has limited its participation in these countries, relying on proxies and avoiding armed confrontation with their opponents.

History shows that many countries with advanced nuclear technology but no nuclear bombs – so-called hidden nuclear states – prefer to stay that way rather than rush to develop nuclear weapons. There is reason to believe that Iran, too, may decide to remain non-nuclear, at least for the foreseeable future, regardless of US sanctions decisions and even long after the end of the JCPOA. So for America, the question is not whether the deal could be resumed, but rather whether it will significantly change Iran’s behavior or allay regional security concerns. Leaving the JCPOA, Trump sought to revise the nuclear agreement with the mandatory inclusion of restrictions on Iran’s missile programs. Biden’s team is trying, under the guise of resuming American participation in the JCPOA, to achieve the same goal. The US is making it clear that it is ready to return to negotiations, but is unlikely to change its course.

According to of critics of Biden, the president does not consider that the deal was based on the assumptions of the Obama administration, which ultimately proved to be erroneous and overly optimistic. US politicians often express concern about Iran’s ballistic missile activities, which are limited by UN Security Council Resolution 2231 but not covered by the nuclear deal. Biden is reminded that the agreement did not restrict Iran’s regional policy, did not expand the opportunities for moderates in the country, did not pave the way for normalizing relations with the Iranian regime, and did not block all paths to nuclear weapons for it. Biden is under pressure to force Iran to stop supporting its allies – Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen.

Nonetheless, the Biden administration continues to insist that if the nuclear deal is renewed, the United States will have additional tools to deal with issues outside the deal, including ballistic missiles. The president promises to continue negotiations with Iran to develop a nuclear deal and address regional security concerns.

The policy of the new Iranian president may complicate the achievement of the set tasks. As Raisi promises, Iran will strive for a balanced relationship with the outside world, and the country’s foreign policy does not begin or end with a nuclear deal. He ruled out that Iran’s ballistic missile program could be negotiated. Raisi sees no opportunity to engage with the United States on a broader range of issues if Washington has failed to honor its commitments to the nuclear deal.

Modern Iran. Photo: REUTERS / Wana News Agency

Tehran’s maximalist demands that all sanctions imposed by former President Trump be lifted and that this must be done before Iran resumes compliance with the JCPOA comes from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. If he was ready for a compromise with the Americans, the negotiations could have already ended.

While insisting on the resumption of negotiations, the United States continues to give Iran reasons to doubt the advisability of resuming the JCPOA. President Biden signed a letter reaffirming the United States’ commitment to multi-year strategic agreements with Israel over its alleged nuclear arsenal. He reaffirmed the commitment, backed by every president since 1969, not to pressure the Jewish state to join the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in exchange for a promise not to use nuclear weapons.

The fate of the nuclear deal with Iran remains unclear. In the absence of any visible shifts in the US confrontational policy towards Iran, it is unlikely to expect concessions from Tehran. And Iran’s tough stance could doom the negotiations to failure.

Cover photo: REUTERS / Wana News Agency

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