U.S.-Iran Standoff Shows Difficulty of Salvaging Nuclear Deal
(Bloomberg) -- The Biden administration sought to extend an olive branch to Iran in order to entice the Islamic Republic back to talks on resuscitating the 2015 nuclear deal.
Leaders in Tehran quickly made clear it’s not going to be so easy.
After the U.S. said Thursday it was ready to meet with Iran along with other participants in the accord that former President Donald Trump quit three years ago, Iran signaled that there would be no fast re-entry into the deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said his country will rejoin talks only after the U.S. drops sanctions -- something the U.S. has repeatedly ruled out.
“Before any negotiation, there is the chest-thumping phase, and so that’s what we’re seeing from Iran now,” said Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to the U.S. and the United Nations who helped negotiate sanctions on Iran before the 2015 accord was reached. “Both sides are looking for a way back in that allows them to save face with their constituencies back home.”
Whether or not it was posturing, the back-and-forth between the two countries was a sharp reminder of just how difficult the process of reviving the nuclear deal will be. Any notion that President Joe Biden could quickly get Iran to return to compliance with the accord, allowing the U.S. to re-enter and then negotiate a stronger deal, feels a long ways off.
Iran’s government has little incentive to make concessions with conservatives likely to make gains in its national elections this summer. Opposition from Republicans and some Democrats in Congress means Biden can’t afford to look weak even as he tries to reverse course from the Trump era strategy of “maximum pressure” on Tehran.
The European parties to the deal welcomed the Biden administration’s move to return to diplomacy with Iran and the revival of their own “confident and in-depth” dialog with the U.S. They urged Iran not to follow through on threats to halt surprise nuclear inspections and risk undermining diplomatic efforts.
A senior European diplomat said there’s now a realistic chance of a breakthrough but cautioned that a lot will depend on what steps Iran is willing to take, noting that Tehran has so far not given a strong signal that it wants to come back into compliance.
The immediate next step is for the European Union to convene the meeting that the U.S. has agreed to join, in the hope that it will act as a trigger for Iran and the U.S. to work out individual steps that might be coordinated to revive the deal, the person said.
Yet on Friday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested in a tweet that the U.S. measures didn’t go far enough, and he repeated demands that the Biden administration first reverse Trump’s sanctions before the Islamic Republic pulls back its nuclear activity to within the terms of the nuclear deal. Zarif used the hashtag #CommitActMeet, implying that a meeting depended on the U.S. officially returning to the accord and lifting sanctions first.
The back-and-forth exposes some uncomfortable realities -- chief among them that despite the U.S. sanctions, Iran doesn’t feel a great sense of urgency to get back into compliance with the deal soon, according to Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
“I fear the Iranians are convinced that making an agreement will take away their last shred of leverage,” Alterman said. “So I’m not sure you can get the Iranians to another agreement, and you certainly can’t do it quickly.”
The U.S. offer to hold talks was aimed at restoring a diplomatic pathway with Iran, which has been gradually abandoning its commitments under the nuclear deal since Trump quit the accord in 2018.
“This is about having a conversation about the path forward,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday.
Politics loom large on both sides. President Hassan Rouhani wants to save the accord and his legacy before he leaves office later this year, but he’s determined not to cave to U.S. demands. His hard-line opponents -- who control most of Iran’s powerful state institutions and are likely to dominate June’s presidential elections -- oppose any engagement with the U.S. and want closer ties with Russia.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month that if Iran returns to compliance with the accord, the U.S. would seek to build a “longer and stronger” agreement to address what he called “deeply problematic” issues.
But first, the two sides would have to agree to meet.
The first test of the renewed effort at a detente comes next week: Iran says it will stop letting the International Atomic Energy Agency conduct snap inspections by suspending the so-called Additional Protocol from Feb. 23. Doing so would leave the international community less able to accurately track Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.