A chance to revive the JCPOA exists if the US doesn’t make it dependent on new demands that exceed the requirements of the 2015 Vienna agreements but rather delays this discussion until the atmosphere for reviewing mutual concerns improves, writes Valdai Club expert Alexander Maryasov.
Developments around the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on settling the Iran nuclear issue are rapidly deteriorating. Having withdrawn from the nuclear deal and tied the hands of its European partners by threatening them with secondary sanctions if they continue trade and economic relations with Iran, the United States is stepping up its efforts to kill this unique non-proliferation document.
Apart from increasing its own economic, political and military pressure on Tehran, Washington is actively using international political and -diplomatic instruments to provoke Iran into withdrawing from the JCPOA. Thus, it is trying to push through an extension of the arms supply embargo on Iran, which expires in October, in the UN Security Council. The end of the embargo is envisaged by UN Security Council Resolution 2231 that endorsed the JCPOA. The US is also trying to engineer the return of international sanctions against Iran. It is planning to use the JCPOA mechanism for settling differences between the parties to the nuclear deal. Washington wants to present Tehran as the main violator of the agreements reached and to restore the anti-Iran sanctions. But, ironically, this mechanism can only be used by the direct participants in the deal. Having officially withdrawn from the deal, Washington has formally lost this right. Yet, it is clear that the US will use any legal loophole to reach its goal, if not directly then via its European allies by imposing its will on them, again.
The IAEA is also being used to pressure Iran. Under US consent, the European parties to the JCPOA initiated the adoption of a resolution by the Board of Governors that demands that Iran strictly observe the safeguards in the agreement and give IAEA inspectors access to several nuclear facilities to verify any “possible undeclared nuclear activities” of the past.
Iran refuses to do this on the grounds that in 2015 the IAEA decided to close the issue of Tehran’s past nuclear activities. Yet, the US intends to persuade the IAEA to bring the issue of “Iran’s non-compliance with its commitments” to the UN Security Council for the further adoption of sanctions.
Tensions are also being fueled by the sabotage of Iran’s nuclear facilities in Natanz and Parchin. Israel and the US are suspected of engineering them.
Despite growing criticism from both Iran’s conservatives and radicals, that demand a tough response to US pressure up to and including withdrawal from the JCPOA, the Hassan Rouhani government is showing restraint in trying to avoid encouraging the Americans from isolating Iran. Considering the discordant domestic political struggle in the US, the Iranian President is obviously waiting for the outcome of the presidential election. If Democrat Joe Biden who promised to return to the JCPOA, wins the election, Rouhani and his pragmatic supporters will have enough time to recover the nuclear deal before the election in Iran if, of course, Biden’s promise is not just a tactical step in the election campaign.
A chance to revive the JCPOA still exists if the US doesn’t make it dependent on new demands that exceed the requirements of the 2015 Vienna agreements but rather delays this discussion until the atmosphere for reviewing mutual concerns improves.
At the same time, based on Biden’s campaign statements, there is little difference between the Democratic and Republican positions on a nuclear deal with Iran. A US Democratic administration is unlikely to return to the JCPOA in its current form. If Biden initiates talks with Iran, he will most likely work to extend the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities, maybe even for an indefinite time, and he will also probably raise the issue of limiting Iran’s missile programme and ceasing its regional activities. Practically, these will be the same negotiating positions now taken by Donald Trump who is urging Tehran to sign a new, “better” nuclear deal. Even Rouhani who is inclined to reasonable compromise, will find it impossible to accept new demands without a serious response with concessions and firm guarantees of their implementation by the US, which is not likely.
This scenario is bound to lead to the defeat of Iranian pragmatics in their 2021 presidential elections. Their role in Iran’s home and foreign policy will become marginal and conservatives and radicals will seize any leverage of power in the country.
In this case, just as a Trump reelection with a continuation of a tough policy towards Iran, Tehran’s new radical government, supported by a conservative parliament, is most likely to initiate a withdrawal from the JCPOA and, probably from the NPT as well. Iran will also step up various areas of its nuclear activities, speed up its missile programme and increase support for pro-Iranian groups in the region in order to strengthen its positions and negotiating chips in any new talks with the US and the international community on its nuclear activities and other urgent issues.
This could lead to a repeat of the situation in the 2000s when after the US-provoked failure of the talks between the European Three (Britain, France and Germany) and Iran, reformer Mohammad Khatami was replaced by ultra-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Under his rule, Iran’s nuclear programme was given serious impetus for development and Tehran stepped up its military development and regional activities considerably. At that time, Iran and the leading world powers managed to find a compromise on resolving Iran’s nuclear issue. Will this be achievable in today’s new historical reality? This is a question.