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Is the old nuke deal with Iran already dead?

Unfortunately too much time has passed and there may be no compelling reason for either side to return to talks.

Analysis | Middle East

Has the nuclear deal with Iran already died an ignominious death? The difficulties in reviving it would suggest it truly has.

Ever since President Biden stated it was a priority for his administration, it seems it has been anything but. Delays by both the U.S. and Iran have plagued the negotiations. Both have stated that time is running out. The dynamics have changed so dramatically that there may be no compelling reason for either the U.S. or Iran  to return now to the negotiating table. 

Even if they did, would they make any progress? Would it be worth it for either side?

As Iran ratchets up its nuclear enrichment program to near breakout levels, and as crippling U.S. sanctions continue to squeeze Iran’s trade and financial access, a revamped deal looks increasingly remote. Even getting back to the table in Vienna looks problematic, after a hiatus of four months since the two sides last sat down to negotiate in June — negotiations that were never face-to-face, and produced a draft with major sticking points. 

So what exactly is going on? What is clear is that the old JCPOA is dead and what the two sides are haggling over is a new deal in old clothing that must accommodate realities faced by two administrations still in their first year (Biden's in Washington; Ibrahim Raisi's in Tehran). Both are facing very different domestic agendas than those who negotiated the deal. And the international dimension has changed significantly since then as well.  What is not on the cards is a "Longer and Stronger" deal (Biden's name for it), which he hoped would include restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles. But Tehran won't even hear of it. So it is to be an old deal with new tweaks — significant tweaks — and neither side seems particularly motivated.

From Biden’s perspective, the political advantages of clinching a new deal have waned. On the one hand, he has already fulfilled one foreign policy campaign promise by pulling out of Afghanistan. That was not an unmitigated success, and he showed himself maladroit, which he has paid for dearly on the domestic front. Yet, he cannot now be faulted for having reneged on a campaign promise — and that means he’s less pressured to fulfill another tricky one, such as the Iran deal. Although getting back into the nuclear deal and lifting sanctions appears popular among many Democrats, Republicans are accusing Biden of being “soft” on Iran, which could cost Biden politically in the midterm elections. 

From Raisi’s perspective, a partial lifting of sanctions is worse than keeping the status quo, especially if in three years, a change in the U.S. presidency would translate into a full set of sanctions being reimposed. Temporary sanctions relief would destabilize its economy all over again. Especially since Iran has, over the past three years since Trump rolled out his maximum pressure program, adapted economically to life with sanctions. Its economy has grown 6 percent this year. It’s less dependent on oil, and has been trading more with its neighbours to the east.

Raisi’s first foreign trip as president was to Central Asia, where last month Iran signed on as a new member of the Shanghai Cooperation Council. Although the rewards for this move will come slowly, it could be a game-changer. Iran previously focused on the West and its technological advances, but has now turned to look the other way, seeing China and India as equally good markets, and with quickly growing technological prowess. 

What’s more, Iran’s leaders have little faith that a renewed deal would lead to a return of the world’s businesses to Tehran. Even under the previous deal, sanctions relief never delivered the financial openness or corporate engagement that the negotiators had anticipated. This time around, banks and companies have already made it clear they can’t commit, since a return to new sanctions could be just around the corner.

Internationally, for both the United States and Iran, the goal posts have also shifted. Biden faces two dilemmas. First, the rapid rate at which Iran has been enriching uranium has brought it perilously close to weapons grade levels, and estimates by some U.S. experts have dropped the time it needs to produce a bomb to as little as a month. This means that Iran’s knowledge and knowhow have advanced — and that can’t be unlearned.  

Any new negotiations therefore cannot start where they left off, yet Iran’s recent appointment of hardliner Ali Bagheri to lead the Vienna team suggests Tehran has little interest in giving up this advantage. Additionally, inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which are integral to the deal, would need to be more invasive to account for the increase in nuclear enrichment capacity. These in any event are at an impasse, as Iran has barred inspectors from its sites for the past several months. At a certain point, this will make any further negotiations moot — as Iran will have so exceeded the original terms of the JCPOA that its non-proliferation value will disappear. 

How? A deal would indeed roll back the stockpile and enrichment capacity, but as it now is producing considerably higher levels of enriched uranium and uranium metal, and by using considerably more advanced and greater numbers of centrifuges, it is rapidly reaching the point where a full rollback becomes infeasible in the time limits agreed within the existing JCPOA — most of which expire in 2030. 

Biden’s second dilemma is Israel, which for the past year has been conducting a covert yet highly damaging campaign of sabotage against Iran to degrade its nuclear program. By forcing Iran to maintain a constant state of alert, and disrupting its nuclear output capacity, Israel views its approach as sustainable and effective. Yet this puts pressure not only on Iran, but on the nuclear talks, as it feeds into Iran’s deep suspicion of American motives and has hardened its posture. 

Tehran believes the United States and its international partners could halt Israeli action if they chose to, and stated earlier this month that if the IAEA wants to conduct inspections in Iran, it must publicly condemn the “terrorist attacks” against its technological centers. Israel’s military Chief of Staff, Lt. General Kochavi, in a rare moment of candor, responded by stating that the targeting of Iran’s nuclear program would continue, and in fact, be improved. Despite the Biden administration’s view that negotiation, rather than hard power, is the way forward, its failure to constrain Israeli actions indicates Washington is less committed to the Vienna talks than might appear — especially as Biden has assured Israel that should they fail, other measures will be taken against Iran.

For Iranian President Raisi, the international environment has changed too. As Washington has drawn down its forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, the strategic dynamic of the region has shifted. Tehran is now in serious face-to-face talks with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates about regional security and the war in Yemen. Trade has picked up across the Gulf as well. It is possible that if these initial negotiations bear fruit, other issues may be addressed down the line, including regional security, missiles, and even the role of non-state actors such as militias. With the wealthy Gulf states feeling less secure of U.S. military support, there is strong impetus among their leaders to take responsibility for their neighborhood. This reduces the incentive for Tehran to strike a new deal with Washington.  

This litany of reasons for both sides to drag their feet implies neither has much cause to make the next round of talks in Vienna a success. What’s more, ongoing friction between the IAEA and Iran is likely to reach a head over the next couple of months, leading the IAEA either to formally censure Iran, or send its case to the U.N. Security Council. Both would stymie further negotiations, and likely result in a snapback of EU sanctions, and possibly U.N. ones as well. 

Is there a Plan B for either Iran or the United States? Israel is already pursuing a Plan B — death by a thousand cuts, to reduce Iran’s nuclear capability, and possibly, even destabilize its government. From Iran’s perspective, outside pressure, short of a full-scale land invasion, could actually be a political boon — raising popular ire and increasing patriotic support, not a bad thing to rally a population that by most measures is currently despondent. 

For Biden, the picture is not pretty. A broad deterioration in security and stability in Iran’s vicinity would be inevitable, with a rise in military and militia conflict in the Gulf, social unrest, further regional breakdown, and cross-border terrorist attacks. As he looks to focus more on the challenges from China, a slow conflagration in the Middle East will be an unwelcome diversion. The only way around that, however, is to negotiate a new Iran deal that will stick. 

President Joe Biden (YASAMIN JAFARI TEHRANI / and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (Fars News Agency via Wikimedia Commons)
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