Path to Restored Iran Deal Set to Be Long and Politically Toxic

U.S. President Joe Biden vowed on the campaign trail to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Six years on, the deal is so controversial in both countries that getting there looks set to take months of wrangling, if it can be done at all.

Europe-brokered talks aimed at restoring the accord, which limited Iran’s nuclear fuel program in exchange for lifting sanctions, could begin as early as this week. With the deal badly broken by both sides and any trust eviscerated over the past few years, the first stage will be just to agree on a roadmap for negotiation. This comes after a Trump-era standoff had risked military escalation and rattled global oil markets.

The agreement reduced Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile from within weeks of a potential breakout -- the moment at which it would have enough fuel to dash to produce a nuclear weapon. Yet many in Washington and Iran’s opponents in the Middle East saw the pact as too favorable to Tehran.

The accord was equally contentious in Iran, and President Hassan Rouhani’s opponents say the Trump administration’s withdrawal vindicated their warnings that the U.S. couldn’t be trusted to keep its side of the bargain between Iran and six world powers. The Trump administration followed its 2018 abandonment of the deal with a policy of sanctions and “maximum pressure” meant to crush Iran’s economy and force Tehran back to the negotiating table.

On Monday, Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament reacted with fury to the government’s agreement to delay the full impact of a new law curtailing the access of international nuclear inspectors unless the U.S. lifts sanctions immediately.

Rouhani’s decision in effect creates a three-month window for talks, yet additional de-escalatory measures will be needed for more serious U.S.-Iranian negotiations to begin, according to Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group and a former adviser to Robert Malley, Biden’s special envoy on Iran.

Vaez said the most likely initial outcome of the European talks would be a “freeze for a freeze.” Iran would halt its most provocative breaches, such as the threat to roll back access for inspectors and enrichment of uranium to 20%. The U.S. would relieve some sanctions pressure.

“That would buy time for the two sides to get to mutual compliance, which would have to be done in stages,” Vaez said. Agreement may not be possible until after Iran’s presidential elections in June, or Rouhani’s departure in August, he added.

The U.S. maximum pressure policy tipped the Iranian economy into deep recession, slashing oil export revenue. More than a year after Trump quit the deal, Iran began to accelerate its atomic activities in breach of its terms. It’s rebuilt uranium stockpiles and is working with more advanced centrifuges, again moving closer to a potential breakout that would force the U.S. to choose between a nuclear-armed Iran or a military strike against its atomic program.

Iran has always maintained that its nuclear program is for civilian use only.

The standoff has brought the sides to the brink of military conflict and menaced global oil supply. Attacks attributed to Iran or its proxies targeted tankers on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, and a Saudi oil facility big enough to briefly disrupt global oil markets when it was forced off line. Last year, the U.S. killed one of Iran’s top generals in a drone strike.

The Biden administration’s task may be complicated by its endorsement of the need to expand the terms of the deal to address Tehran’s missile program and support for militant proxies in the region. Anything less would expose him to accusations of capitulation.

“This has proven to be good politics for the Republicans,” said Suzanne Maloney, a specialist on Iran and Gulf energy at the Brookings Institution, a think tank.

A deal to relieve sanctions could deliver a political boon that Rouhani’s conservative opponents are loathe to grant, either to the president’s allies or to his own ambitions to one day succeed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei intervened on Monday to call for compromise and to give Rouhani’s government time. His interest is to bolster the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy through “a high turnout in elections and economic growth,” according to Sayeed Leylaz, an economist and former adviser to Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s president from 1997 to 2005. A U.S. return to the accord could help with both.

“It is a very tough sell” for both administrations, Vaez said. “But the reality is that what was case in 2015 remains true now – the alternative is even less attractive to both sides.”

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