Iranian President Rouhani and President-elect Joe Biden (shutterstock)
US-Iran meeting in Vienna signals new hope for JCPOA

It’s clear that the nuclear deal must be resurrected and protected before the Iranian elections and Biden seems to know that.

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Given the deadlock and the disappointing pace of movement in the first weeks of Biden’s term, today’s news that the United States will be participating in next week’s meeting in Vienna between Iran and global partners towards reviving the JCPOA is more than welcome.

Here is why: Privately, White House officials admit that they fumbled the Iran file early on (my words, not theirs). But the message we’re hearing now is that things have changed, and Washington is now moving full speed toward a JCPOA return. We are now seeing the first signs vindicating this narrative. 

Over the past weeks, however, mistrust between the two sides has grown. The Iranians have watched in dismay how Biden has messaged that the JCPOA is not a priority, and how coordination with Israel and assuaging hawks in Congress was seemingly tantamount to getting talks started. 

This left Tehran with the impression that either Biden wanted to use Trump’s maximum pressure sanctions as a bargaining chip, or that he simply didn’t have the will to pay the price of taking on the opponents of the JCPOA in the United States and the region. At the same time, the U.S. side saw a continuation of attacks in Iraq, a hardening of Iran’s public position and escalatory nuclear moves, and speculated that perhaps the window had already closed, and that Tehran doesn’t want a return until after its Presidential elections.

For the last few weeks, the two sides have indirectly exchanged proposals on how to break the deadlock. The U.S. proposals that have been mentioned in the media have all been lowballing the Iranians, which appears to have made matters worse. Driving a hard bargain under these circumstances only further depletes trust and is counterproductive to the intermediate objective — starting direct talks. Indeed, from the outset, it was a mistake to turn what should have been a coordination into a negotiation.

So why the breakthrough now? I suspect Washington has wisely, behind the scenes, put forward a more robust proposal. No more lowballs. I doubt that when Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov spoke of “positive movements” on the U.S. side, he was referring to the lowball proposals.

Nor would Iran — given its political circumstances — likely agree to this meeting next week unless something more robust was on the table. Moreover, U.S. officials have told the New York Times that they will “not seek to retain some sanctions for leverage” a la Trump. 

This would jive with the most important breakthrough in the history of the JCPOA — the one secured in Oman in March 2013. I detail this here in “Losing an Enemy.” This was where the real JCPOA talks began, and it was secured by the United States putting acceptance of enrichment in Iran on the table.

But the US managed to keep that secret for years. In fact, most journalists covering the issue have yet to fully acknowledge this, and have instead explained the breakthrough as a result of the sanctions squeeze on Iran.  It was a clever move by Washington to get real talks started, but also to avoid the backlash in D.C. over the fact that a major concession had been given to Iran. I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar happened here, but obviously on a much smaller scale.

But this is just the beginning of the process. As the Russian ambassador in Vienna said, “The impression is that we are on the right track but the way ahead will not be easy and will require intensive efforts.” 

The question is what the choreography will look like now. The U.S. side prefers several coordinated steps that build to the final goal of full compliance-for-compliance. The Iranians prefer a quick, one-step process that immediately cuts to the chase. There are arguments for both approaches. But Tehran is in a bit more of a time crunch because of its elections. A dragged out process— just see how long it has taken to just get this meeting! —  will make it highly vulnerable to attacks by JCPOA opponents.

This is true on both sides, but mindful of the Iranian elections, it is particularly vulnerable to politicization in Iran. It is frankly better for the United States, in my humble opinion, that the process is quick, as the Iranian elections may cause a lot of unhelpful political posturing by Tehran. 

The best thing is to get a quick choreography that binds both sides to full compliance, even though the steps may simply be binding decisions to do things within the next few weeks. The actual steps may be taken later, but the binding decision to take them will be made now.

That way, the JCPOA will be resurrected and protected before the Iranian elections — and not subject to the outcome of the elections. This clearly lies in the national interest of the United States —  as JoeBiden himself has made clear numerous times. 

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