On July 15, the Valdai Club held an online discussion titled “The Fate of the JCPOA Under the New Leadership in the US and Iran”. The moderator of the discussion, Ivan Timofeev, Programme Director of the Valdai Club, noted in his opening remarks that after the change of administration in the United States, a light dawned at the end of the tunnel for the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan, but the question remains how far away this light is. He invited the participants to discuss prospects for a “nuclear deal” against the backdrop of the elections held in Iran and the actions of the new US administration.
Hamidreza Azizi, Visiting Fellow at the German Institute for International Security Affairs (SWP), spoke about the situation from the Iranian point of view. He stressed that, although Ebrahim Raisi, the new President of Iran, is known for his tough positions, issues related to the JCPOA are resolved at the level of the Supreme Leader, so many believe that there should not be any big changes. A number of experts, however, according to Azizi, believe that strengthening and consolidating the positions of conservative forces in the Iranian foreign policy sphere will make Iran’s approach more uncompromising. Azizi called for discerning between the strategic level and tactical level on this issue. Strategically, all significant forces in Iran support the restoration of the JCPOA, although, from Iranian point of view, the revival of the deal implies the complete and unconditional lifting of sanctions. However, at the tactical level, factors of internal competition between different political factions are important, and there are forces in the country that, for various tactical reasons, complicate the return to the JCPOA.
Alexander Maryasov, a former Russian ambassador to Iran (2001–2005), noted that the “nuclear deal” is now paralyzed and is on life support. It did not completely collapse only thanks to the strategic patience of the team of former President Rouhani. However, further negotiations will be continued by the team of the new President Raisi, who is less inclined to compromise. The former ambassador said that the main Iranian demand was the lifting of all sanctions, primarily American ones. The United States, for its part, is not ready to do this. In addition, Iran wants to receive clear guarantees that under the next US administration Washington will not withdraw from the JCPOA, although the Americans argue that the legislation of the United States does not allow such guarantees to be provided. Another point of disagreement: since many of the restrictions on the JCPOA are expiring, Washington is proposing, after the deal is restored, to begin negotiations on an expanded “nuclear deal”, which includes Iran’s missile programme and regional activities. President Raisi is categorically against this. Now neither the United States nor Iran is clearly ready for unilateral concessions. As a result, they may face a choice: to agree to some compromise arrangement or continue to hold their ground, which can lead to the destruction of the JCPOA and to an aggravation of the military-political situation in the region, with unpredictable consequences.
Richard Weitz, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, shared an American perspective. Emphasising that he spoke in an individual capacity and didn’t represent either the US government or any organisation, he highlighted three key aspects: the goals of the US administration, tactics in negotiations, and challenges and recommendations. Speaking about his understanding of the goals of the American administration, the expert pointed to the consensus that Iran should not have nuclear weapons. At the same time, administration officials are divided between seeking a clean return, that is lifting the Trump nuclear sanctions in exchange for the limiting and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear development, and seeking to leverage the Trump sanctions to wait for a better and longer deal. The general sense is that for the current administration, the Middle East, including Iran, is not as important a theatre as Europe or Asia. Talking about the tactical side of the matter, Weitz noted that a complete lifting of the sanctions is not to be expected. Non-nuclear sanctions, such as those related to human rights or the missile programme, were not lifted with the adoption of the JCPOA. Iran then agreed to the JCPOA and so can now rejoin the deal without the removal of these sanctions. Speaking about the challenges and recommendations, the expert emphasised the administration’s concern that the renewal of the JCPOA may undercut US leverage on other issues, in particular on the issue of the missile programme, and that even if Iran returns to the restrictions of the JCPOA, the next government may decide to abandon them. Therefore, a detailed, comprehensive study of Iran’s latest activities in the field of nuclear development is needed, as well as some means of verifying it. In conclusion, Weitz called on Russia and the United States to jointly provide support to the IAEA, especially in enforcing the JCPOA.