Over the past few weeks, the United States has participated in intense discussions with the Iranians brokered by the Europeans in Vienna, about a way forward for the United States back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This nuclear agreement was brokered in 2015 by the United Nations Security Council along with Germany and the European Union during the final years of the Obama Administration intended to put limits on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program in return for the United States and other members of the UNSC to provide Tehran with sanctions relief.
Starting in January of this year, the Biden-Harris administration suggested that the policy from Washington towards Iran might change in the post-Trump era. The Democrats had been extremely vocal in their criticism of former President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign and his withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018. Before Joe Biden became president, he himself on the campaign trail gave the Iranians every reason to believe that he would return to the JCPOA on the same terms agreed to under the Obama administration if he were elected. Joe Biden is now president and so far, rejoining the deal has not happened. Instead, the Biden-Harris administration appeared to be making the same demands the Trump administration made whilst he was president. With that being said, the Biden-Harris administration also insisted that the JCPOA be broadened to include limits on Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities and its foreign policy in the region, demands that are totally unacceptable to Iran or for that matter any Iranian leader, thus undermining the country’s deterrence posture and the regime itself.
As a result, the discussions remain in a deadlock and a great deal of “good will” that might have existed in the Biden-Harris administration from Iran dissipated. Eventually, under great pressure from the Europeans, the United States did agree to resume negotiations to return to the JCPOA with Iran in Vienna. One of the factors which pushed Washington back to the negotiating table was Iran’s decision to steadily ramp up the enrichment of nuclear fuel. We are still no where near the point where Iran will enrich enough material necessary for a nuclear weapon nor does it seem that Iran has enough fuel to even create a weapon. Nonetheless, the Iranians have been steadily taking steps in that direction just as they did when Obama was president in order to put increasing pressure on the United States. This pressure has worked and is the reason why the United States is negotiating in Vienna to return to the JCPOA. However, pressuring the United States has also led to the demands that Iran concede its ballistic missile program and its regional posture be abandoned given that these demands were unrealistic in the first place.
So far, the negotiations in Vienna have run into a host of difficulties. One of those difficulties is for Iran to return to levels of nuclear enrichment initially envisaged in the JCPOA in return for the U.S re-enter the JCPOA and rescind the sanctions it has imposed. Needless to say, the Iranians have completely rejected this proposal. So far as Tehran is concerned, with the “good will” from the Biden-Harris administration having gone, they are unprepared to trust the U.S with this sort of concession. Instead, the Iranians have repeatedly said that the U.S first relieve the sanctions and re-enter the JCPOA before Iran goes back to enriching uranium at the level that was initially agreed.
Another looming factor over the JCPOA is still the hardline stances taken from those from within the United States (Republicans and Democrats alike), U.S regional allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as from more conservative elements within Iran itself. Many elements within the Iranian power structure, for example, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) were very unhappy when the government entered the JCPOA, and restrictions were imposed on Iran’s enrichment program. From the point of view of the more conservative factions in Tehran, the enrichment program provides Iran with insurance which safeguards its security from other countries in the region like Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have spoken in the past about acquiring nuclear weapons possibly from Pakistan, which is already a nuclear power. But the main nuclear weapons power in the Near East is Israel which possesses an extensive, disclosed arsenal. From the perspective of many conservative factions inside Iran, abandoning the nuclear enrichment program jeopardizes its sovereignty and national security, which leaves Iran vulnerable to external pressure from armed adversaries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
With both the Trump and Biden administrations imposing unrealistic demands on Iran, the more conservative, security minded elements within the country have become much stronger. Moreover, there are elections due inside Iran on June 18, with candidates registering their names on May 11. It is widely predicted by many analysts and experts within Iran that a more conservative-minded president critical of the JCPOA will be Rouhani’s successor.
Over the last few weeks, a concerted effort by certain powers who oppose the JCPOA are trying to sabotage it. One of these efforts was a sabotage attack on the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz when a cyber-attack was launched that did a lot of damage enraging the Iranian authorities. It is widely believed that the power behind that attack was Israel, a country that opposes the JCPOA and sees the deal as insufficient for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon.
At the same time, there was an extraordinary leak of private comments made by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in which Zarif vocalized his criticisms of the IRGC (more ideological than Iran’s conventional military force). Zarif said that the IRGC has an inordinate amount of influence in Iran that obstructs diplomatic activity and that its former commander Qassem Soleimani supposedly conspired to sabotage the negotiations leading up to the JCPOA with Russian support. This leak has been controversial in Iran and has triggered massive criticism of Zarif from conservative elements demanding his resignation. It is possible that Zarif may not survive this storm of criticism that the leak of comments elicited. While the main culprit of who delivered the leak is unknown, it may have been possible that someone close to Iran’s security apparatus got a hold of the leak and used it as a way to discredit Zarif and derail the negotiations in Vienna.
While the negotiations continue in Vienna, it is not yet confirmed that the United States will return to the JCPOA and lift banking and oil sanctions on Iran. This would be a significant concession by Washington and a major shift towards its policy regarding Iran. The time window is becoming smaller every day and time is ticking fast. A U.S return to the JCPOA cannot be guaranteed. With that being said, inconsistent decision-making by the foreign policy blob in Washington has once again put the JCPOA on life support. However, it is yet to be seen if the United States and Iran can overcome their mistrust and find a way forward or if the opponents to the JCPOA prevail.
If the United States is able to return to the JCPOA, after having made major steps to walk away from it, and entering on Iranian terms, then it will be difficult for many people in the Near East to see the deal as anything other than a major signal that the U.S will retreat from the region. Iran, at this point will be on the ascendency and will increase its influence in places like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. In contrast, the Saudis and Israel will be dismayed and may distance themselves from the Biden-Harris administration.
The alternative is much worse. If Washington and Tehran cannot agree on a way forward and if the JCPOA collapses all together, then the situation is set up for a confrontation between the United States and Iran with Iran pushing forward on its nuclear enrichment program and forging closer ties with China and Russia. The United States once more finds itself in a difficult position because it has inserted itself politically and militarily to such a degree in the affairs of the Near East in ways it does not control. Whatever happens over the next few weeks will still lead to a long retreat for the United States from the region and the end of an era. If Washington withdraws in an orderly fashion and returns to the JCPOA, it will provide the United States with a dignified farewell. On the other hand, if the negotiations fail, the eventual outcome of an American retreat from the Near East will still happen, but the sequencing of events will be disorderly chaotic and violent. The stakes are high.