Negotiations in Vienna to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have been in limbo while the transition to Ebrahim Raisi’s government takes place, and there are several troubling signs that the effort to bring the U.S. back into the agreement may not succeed.
Raisi’s government is more hard-line and inflexible than its predecessor, and the reported choice of Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to serve as foreign minister confirms that Iran will be even less inclined to compromise than before. U.S. officials emphasize that time is running out to conclude the negotiations, and last month Secretary Blinken warned that “this process cannot go on indefinitely.” To make matters worse, the Biden administration may think that it can still extract major concessions that Iran has never been willing to grant in the past.
There is a worrisome report that the Biden administration is entertaining the idea of demanding that Iran abandon domestic enrichment and participate in a regional nuclear fuel bank. Not only would this proposal be a non-starter with the Iranian government, which has never been willing to give up on domestic enrichment, but it might also give the new government under Raisi a pretext to walk away from the talks. The proposal for the fuel bank comes from two die-hard opponents of the JCPOA, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bob Menendez, and they proposed it earlier this year in a transparent attempt to sabotage the Biden administration’s negotiations.
The report that the administration is apparently taking their proposal seriously is a very bad sign for the talks. It suggests that Biden and Blinken believe they can force Iran to agree to much larger concessions than ever before, and it indicates just how much influence the very hawkish Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee wields with the White House.
Menendez and Graham have always seen the JCPOA as an unacceptable accommodation with Iran, so it is absurd to think that these Iran hawks genuinely want to rescue the agreement from collapse. Everything that they and other opponents of the agreement have done for the last six years has been aimed at undermining and wrecking the agreement. The fuel bank proposal is just the latest in a series of unserious suggestions for how the U.S. might get a “better deal.” In theory, the idea might have some merit, but there is no way that Iran could accept it under the circumstances without being thoroughly humiliated. Insofar as the nuclear program has become tied up with Iran’s sense of national dignity and pride, that proposal obviously won’t work.
Just like other hawkish ideas of “improving” agreements, talk of getting a “better deal” is a smokescreen for trying to kill the deal that already exists. If the Biden administration is listening to their counsel and considering possibly embracing their proposals, the nuclear deal is in greater danger of collapsing than most people have supposed.
Retaining domestic enrichment has been the sticking point for Iran in negotiations going back to the beginning of the Obama administration’s engagement on the nuclear issue. As far as their government is concerned, domestic enrichment is something that they are entitled to as a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and they see demands to give up domestic enrichment as an encroachment on their national rights and independence. No Iranian government would make this concession, and Raisi’s administration certainly won’t. Accepting that Iran would retain the capability for domestic enrichment was the main reason that the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 made any headway in the negotiations that produced the JCPOA. Any proposal that sought to undo that accommodation is guaranteed to be dead on arrival in Tehran.
The Biden administration’s rhetoric about working towards a “longer and stronger” follow-on agreement has been unhelpful to say the least. Raisi has made it clear that there will be no negotiations on non-nuclear issues, and it would be a major error to make U.S. reentry into the nuclear deal contingent on an Iranian commitment to discuss things unrelated to their nuclear program. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei flatly rejected this condition in public remarks in June: “By adding this sentence, they want to provide an excuse for their further interventions on the nuclear deal and [Iran's] missile work and regional issues…Then if we refuse to discuss those issues, Americans will accuse Iran of violating the nuclear deal and they will say the agreement is over.”
There is no international consensus on these other issues, and they were excluded from the original negotiations precisely because doing so would have doomed the talks from the outset. When U.S. officials float the idea of imposing more constraints on Iran in other areas besides their nuclear program, they are doing Iranian hard-liners’ work for them and they make the full restoration of the JCPOA that much less likely. If the Biden administration tries to get more than the restoration of the JCPOA out of these talks, it will come away with nothing at all.
When the Biden administration warns that time is running out to conclude the talks, they may think they are putting pressure on Iran to come to terms, but that is likely not how their message is being received in Tehran. The Iranian government likely perceives these warnings as proof that Washington is looking for a pretext to bail on the talks. If the negotiating process has dragged on longer than expected, that is at least as much the administration’s fault as it is Iran’s. Biden took too long to start that process, and he and his officials have dragged their feet on providing any meaningful sanctions relief. As the party responsible for breaching and endangering the agreement, the United States had the responsibility to make amends first and to take the first steps in repairing the damage, but that didn’t happen.
Iran’s demand for guarantees that Washington won’t turn around and breach its obligations again in a few years’ time is understandable, but it is impossible for the Biden administration to satisfy that demand. Any guarantee that the administration might make would have no teeth, and the next administration could easily undo everything that Biden does. The core problem of U.S. diplomacy with Iran right now is that promises don’t count for anything. No one can trust our government to honor its commitments for more than a couple years, because one of the two major parties is dead set against making the compromises required for successful diplomacy and there is no political price to be paid at home for tearing up important international agreements.
Rejoining the JCPOA was a comparatively straightforward task, and it should not have taken this much time or effort to complete the task. Keeping Trump-era “maximum pressure” sanctions in place all year was a significant and avoidable mistake, and when all is said and done it will stand out as one of the biggest reasons why the negotiations have not been more productive. The Biden administration still has time to salvage the nuclear deal, but they will squander it if they heed the bad faith advice of Iran hawks that have never wanted their diplomacy to succeed.