Biden and Tehran are running out of time to salvage the Iran nuclear deal
This past week, Iran's lead negotiator for the Vienna talks on the Iran nuclear deal, Ali Bagheri Kani, announced Iran will continue talks on November 29. Four months have elapsed since the sixth round was adjourned in June.
This prolonged delay, alongside interpretations of both Washington and Tehran's negotiating positions, has raised many questions as to whether the gaps can be narrowed and the JCPOA restored. While diplomatic efforts are picking up momentum, the only viable pathway to resolve differences, restore confidence and build trust in the process is through diplomacy.
In past months, Iran has engaged in delaying tactics attributed to the Raisi administration's realignment of its JCPOA strategy: whether it be the appointment of hardliners to key diplomatic positions or continuing to accelerate its nuclear programme unabated. These moves have in turn alarmed and frustrated Washington, European & British JCPOA signatories who had hoped the negotiations would return in a timely manner. The lack of clarity has seen US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken express particular frustration with Iranian delaying tactics, stating "time is running short" and that plan B options are under consideration.
Key differences between both sides remain on sequencing, sanctions relief, IAEA monitoring, long-term assurances to protect the deal, and follow-on talks to to address outstanding regional issues.
The Iranian position remains very firm on sequencing. Tehran would like Washington to take the first step in removing all sanctions imposed since 2018. Once the sanctions lifting is verified, only then would Tehran begin its own compliance process. Tehran's position is based on lessons learned from the 2016 JCPOA where Tehran implemented the JCPOA only to see that the promised economic benefits of sanctions relief were harder to achieve.
A second stumbling block remains on the issue of assurances. Tehran is hoping to protect its economy should another US president withdraw from the JCPOA and would like to see built in protections in place to protect its economy from another JCPOA withdrawal shock.
The Biden administration has not budged on this last point, as it's unable to assure what their successor will do. Recently published news revealed that the Biden administration could not even guarantee that they could stay in the JCPOA during its own term - even with Iranian compliance. This has furthered gaps between the sides and has no doubt led to an impasse that continues today.
At the same time, Iran's nuclear programme has continued to make significant and concerning advancements. In January 2021, following parliamentary legislation that was passed after the killing of Iran's nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Tehran started enrichment at 20%. After the sabotage of its Natanz facility was seen in April, Tehran started to enrich at 60%. As of August 30, Iran has 2,441 kg of uranium well above the JCPOA limit of 202.7 kg.
In the third crisis over IAEA access to Iran's facilities this year, tension was seen when Tehran's previous monitoring agreement with the IAEA expired in August. To avoid an IAEA Board of Governors (BOG) Censure that was expected in September, Tehran recommitted to the previous agreement allowing the IAEA to access and service surveillance cameras in the monitoring facilities.
At the time, this was seen as an important compromise, but then IAEA inspectors were then not given access to the TESA Karaj centrifuge assembly facility, foreshadowing that without continued engagement further escalation remains on the horizon. Iran's November 29 announcement is seen by cynics as the latest strategy to avoid censure at the IAEA's next BOG meeting in November.
Tehran's uncoordinated strategy is also being impacted by negative assessments of the Biden administration, particularly driven by the impact of the US' Afghanistan withdrawal and the US president's perceived Congressional challenges. In the context of Biden's inability to pass his infrastructure bill, Tehran sees Biden as unwilling to invest serious political capital in protecting the JCPOA.
Because of this weakness and the potential impact of the 2022 midterm elections where Biden risks losing his Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, Tehran is also foot dragging to build leverage and pressure Washington and other JCPOA stakeholders into making further concessions.
Factional infighting has also impeded the Biden administration's offerings to Iran. Despite listing the revival of the JCPOA as one of his campaign promises, Biden has not prioritized a return to the deal focusing instead on COVID, geopolitical challenges with China, and Afghanistan. The time lag on Washington's side has delayed what could have been an early negotiation process.
Fearing criticism from Congressional conservatives on Capitol Hill, the Biden administration has been reluctant to offer incentives to Tehran. Humanitarian relief to aid Tehran's COVID crisis could have been an easy win-win confidence building measure and goodwill gesture, but instead was perceived to be a concession. In hindsight, this was a shortsighted miscalculation that could have stemmed Tehran's multiple COVID waves and convinced Iranian leaders that the Biden administration was indeed seeking to turn the page away from Trump's maximum pressure.
With impatience growing in Washington and European capitals, the Biden administration's Iran envoy Rob Malley has met with JCPOA signatories alongside regional partners and Biden is in Europe this week for G20 meetings. Iran will be discussed. This should be seen as a signal of Washington's continued commitment.
Tehran too has an opportunity to end the current stalemate and setting a date for its return to Vienna is just the start. Even with this recent news, the JCPOA remains in serious peril and with its demise comes the likely return of regional conflict and Iran's own nuclear acceleration.