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Playing the blame game won’t resolve the nuclear impasse with Iran

The JCPOA is hanging by a thread and European diplomats appear to have focused their efforts on calling out Tehran.

As negotiations to restore the JCPOA continue in Vienna, the European participants — the UK, France, and Germany (known as the E3) — issued on December 14 a stark warning before the U.N. Security Council meeting on the implementation of resolution 2231 (which enshrined the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015).

In a joint statement to the media, the E3 accused Iran of accelerating its nuclear program, curtailing the monitoring by the IAEA, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, and, as a result, “undermining international peace and security.” Iran is further blamed for “walking back” on compromises reached by the previous negotiating team and “presenting additional maximalist demands.” European diplomats warn darkly that Iran’s escalation of its nuclear program is nearing the point where the JCPOA will be “hollowed out,” and that “we are rapidly reaching the end of the road.”

The timing and the rather unbalanced language of the statement blaming exclusively Iran for the lack of an agreement are ominous. They create an impression that, more than revive the JCPOA, the E3 are preparing for its failure and seeking to assign the blame for it onto Iran. That is completely in sync with the warnings uttered lately by U.S. officials. Winning the blame game, however, won’t resolve the nuclear standoff in the long run.

The E3 statement comes curiously at a time when the Iranian side is sounding more result-oriented than previously — which is noteworthy considering that the chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri-Kani, used to be known as a staunch critic of the JCPOA. The foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian himself invested in building domestic consensus for a renewed deal by engaging key stakeholders within the system, such as a number of senior ayatollahs whom he visited in the holy city of Qom.

Russian chief negotiator Mikhail Ulyanov also stroke a cautiously optimistic note, by emphasizing in his frequent tweets from Vienna the “businesslike atmosphere” in the talks and urging against rushing to “hasty conclusions” about the deal’s imminent collapse. And the Russians cannot be accused of complacency when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program — in 2010 they joined the United States in the Security Council in imposing tough sanctions against Iran.

The tone of the Russian and Iranian negotiators stands in contrast with the multiplying warnings from the European and American officials about Iran’s escalating transgressions in the past few weeks. Under closer scrutiny, however, these accusations present only a partial picture.

Iran’s escalation of its nuclear program, while negotiating the renewal of the JCPOA, is indeed unhelpful and provocative. It is, however, not irrational. One of the main criticisms the Iranian conservatives levelled against the Hassan Rouhani–Javad Zarif team was that under the JCPOA Iran gave up its leverage — its nuclear program — in exchange for, essentially, nothing, as the promised sanctions relief not only never materialized, but was replaced by “maximum pressure” campaign under the President Trump. Once seizing power, the Iranian conservatives seek to rebuild that lost leverage. And it is none other than the U.S. Republicans who constantly vindicate their strategy by promising to tear down any agreement as soon as the GOP regains power in Washington.

It is hardly irrational for the Iranians, in this context, to bargain for more stringent guarantees that, should they come back to a compliance with the JCPOA, Washington won’t renege on its commitments again. That, for Tehran, means ensuring that the sanctions are effectively removed, which means creating enough security for international economic actors to engage in business with Iran — hence an emphasis on verification. Considering that the EU-adopted “blocking statutes” against Trump’s extra-territorial sanctions failed to translate into meaningful trade with Iran, it is not surprising that the Iranians seek tangible, verifiable lifting of sanctions this time around, rather than purely legalistic measures with no effect on the ground. That hardly qualifies as a “maximalist demand.”

By expanding its nuclear program, Tehran is pressuring the United States and the E3 to deliver those concessions, not rushing towards nuclear weapons. CIA chief Bill Burns recently reconfirmed the consensus of the American intelligence services that there is no evidence of Iran seeking nuclear weapons. That conclusion relativizes the whole “time is running out” mantra permeating the E3 and other Western statements. However unhelpful Iranian nuclear advances, they do not, at least for the time being, herald an Iranian bomb. That only means that the negotiations in Vienna should proceed as long as it takes to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement.

That may not be easy. The frustration expressed by the E3 that the new Iranian team “walked back” on compromises reached during the previous rounds of negotiations is understandable. Reportedly, there are also communication issues in Vienna, as, unlike the previous Iranian team, the current one has relatively little experience negotiating with the European counterparts.

However, that should not prove an unsurmountable obstacle. When governments change, it is nothing out of ordinary that their approaches to foreign relations also change, in both personnel and policies. It would have been preferable to simply pick up where Zarif and his deputy Abbas Araqchi left off, but those were draft compromises. There is a reason, after all, why the current Iranian government is considered “hardline.” The current predicament also discredits the notion, propagated by some at the outset of the Biden administration, that there was no need to “rush” to negotiate with Rouhani as Iran would crawl back to negotiating table regardless of who is in charge. The reality, predictably, could not have turned out more differently.

Yet there are no credible alternatives to continued negotiations. Winning the blame game could absolve the Biden administration from the necessity to make politically painful decisions to normalize relations with Iran. And it did a fairly good job in winning the E3 over to its side. However, not only would that not solve the nuclear impasse with Iran, but it would also create a headache for Biden far bigger than the apparent need to appease few hawkish Democrats skeptical of the Iran diplomacy. It would land him in a familiar dilemma of U.S. presidents since 1979: a war or a deal with Iran?

However unpalatable the deal, whatever difficulties it may cause Biden in the short term domestically, a permanent tension in the Middle East, liable to degenerate into war with Iran, would erode Biden’s reformist agenda and endanger his legacy. To avoid that, now that the E3 issued their warning to Iran, they should equally strongly urge Washington to do its part to revive the JCPOA.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

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