Revival of the Iranian nuclear deal after a stalemate since America’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (JCPOA) in 2018, is once again garnering traction with the release of European Union’s (EU) “final” text proposal on the longstanding issue. Fresh negotiations on combating the challenges pertaining to revival of the deal has been discussed between the US and Iran for the past 17 months. Claiming that the EU’ proposed text is inclusive of the negotiations between the two parties, the Union has emphasized on no further revision to the draft and had called on both the stakeholders to make their final decision in “very, very few weeks”.[i]
While both the countries are weighing in on the EU brokered proposed offer, the US seems to be “ready to quickly conclude the deal”. This shows its wariness with regard to Iran’s alleged incessant demands since the countries have begun to discuss the return of the deal.[ii] On 16 August, both Washington and Tehran submitted their respective responses to the proposal and their probable comments on each other’s terms and conditions will decide the fate of the nuclear deal.[iii]
In the aftermath of Trump administration’s withdrawal from JCPOA in May 2018 citing futility of such a deal with a one-sided approach, it was speculated that under Joe Biden’s presidency the deal would be back on table given the US president’s professional commitment to it during his tenure as the Vice President of the country under Obama administration.
Notwithstanding the intentions, Biden administration had been mired by multifaceted challenges in its beginning years, to name a few, onset of COVID-19 which compelled the administration to focus on inward-oriented policies, Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Galwan crisis and China’s aggressions, chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Israel-Hamas conflict and the ongoing European war between Russia and Ukraine and many more issues that required US attention given its political commitment. Thus, for the first one and a half years, the newly elected administration could not bring itself to fully commit to the Iran deal. To complicate the issue, the US’ unilateral Iran China Accountability Act reintroduced in May this year, created further disruption to the Iran nuclear pact.[iv] The China-centric bill called on Iran to terminate all agreements involving the receipt of funds (specially hinting towards the U$400 billion strategic deal[v]) from China and to sever its strategic and defence related ties with the East Asian nation and to stop any funding or transfer of cash to Iranian proxy forces strengthened in the region.[vi]
Given that both the aspects, that is, relations with China and the Iranian regime’s net investment in building proxy forces, are crucial for the Shia regime to maintain its regional power status, it is unlikely that Iran would kowtow to such demands. Besides, the bill seemed to be a far-fetched idea given that in Realpolitik each country engages with the other based on its national interest. Relationship with the Chinese is crucial to Iran and the Biden administration is seemingly under pressure from the Congress to not give any further leverage to Persian Iran in this regard.
If this was not enough, a week after the conclusion of President Biden’s visit to the West Asia/Middle East which included discussions on I2U2, Jeddah Summit, and talks with the Palestinian Authority; Russian President Vladimir Putin held a summit in Tehran with the region’s heavyweights, Iran and Turkey, to deepen ties with his country, especially on Syria and Ukraine.[vii] From the US perspective, the trilateral meeting is envisaged as Iran joining an anti-American alliance.[viii] This has further upset the US and it is obvious that such concerns must have been duly notified to Iran while discussing the nuclear deal.
Similarly, the deal is crucial to the Persian state as the second round of sanctions imposed post-US withdrawal (2018-21) have negatively impacted the country’s economy wherein it’s GDP further decreased by 2.7 per cent each year, unemployment rate rose by 10.7 per cent and inflation increased dramatically to 36.2 per cent.[ix] The situation worsened during the pandemic, however, internal political dynamics, that is, disagreements between the Reformists and the Hardliners on negotiating with the US, played a significant role and further contributed to the deadlock.[x] Additionally, during mid-2021, Tehran was much invested in its presidential elections.[xi] Contrary to the speculations, the new hardliner regime under Ebrahim Raisi’s presidency agreed to negotiate with Washington, however, with many preconditions, which have furthered the impasse.
To make matters worse, Iran’s repeated caution of inflicting heavy repercussions post Major General Qasem Soleimani’s and Nuclear Scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s targeted assassinations, also included enriching Uranium beyond the agreed upon standard as stipulated in the 2015 JCPOA deal. Furthermore, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN nuclear watchdog’, latest inspection of Iranian nuclear facilities was mired by controversy with Tehran blaming the UN sponsored agency of towing Western power’s lines. The IAEA in its reports submitted this June criticised Iran for its lack of progress in cleaning two of its facilities of Uranium traces.[xii] On the other hand, IAEA noted that Iran barred it from inspecting some of its uncleaned facilities.
Cut to the current dynamics, in response to the EU brokered proposal, Iranian spokesperson has categorically insisted on his country moving ahead with the deal only if it is assured of its demand on ‘safeguards, sanctions and guarantees’ are met by the US administration. To decipher, what Tehran implies by ‘safeguard, sanctions and guarantees’ is a guarantee that the IAEA will close its probe on the unexplained uranium traces in Iranian facilities and that no upcoming US administration post-Biden’s presidency can unilaterally renege the deal; lifting of sanctions imposed on it thereby ensuring economic benefits to Iran post its removal and finally striking off Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qud’s Force (IRGC-QF) (which is Iran’s extra-territorial force) and other IRGC affiliated groups’ names off the US Department of the Treasury’ list which has designated the affiliated Corps a terrorist organization since June this year.[xiii]
Notably, these are additional demands raised by Iran and are not in congruence with the 2015 JCPOA deal. Besides, JCPOA deal is merely a political understanding between Iran, US and other P4+1[xiv] and not a legally binding treaty. This inhibits the US President to make any ironclad assurance of the sort, that is, in ensuring any future administration’s decision to not pull out of the deal. Iranian administration’ other demands are similarly doubtful to be met as they involve upsetting the US Senate which already has concerns over Tehran’s nuclear programme. For all practical purposes it does not appear that the US will agree to Tehran’s demands any time soon. In addition, given the bonhomie shared between Iran and two members of the P5+1, Russia and China, may further disrupt the deal with the two countries supporting Iranian demands which once again adds to the existing quandary.
Likewise, the Iran China Accountability bill if enforced by the US (which it will be as the President is accountable and has to abide by the Act as it has been passed by the Senate) does not seem acceptable to Iran given its strong bonhomie with China, its outreach and regional supremacy that the regime has garnered through its heavy capital, military and tactical support and investment in strengthening proxy militias in the region that has provided it a stronghold over its arch-nemesis Israel and Saudi Arabia. Thus, given these unresolved and multifaceted complexities existing between the countries and the unacceptable terms and conditions to both the parties, once again, the nuclear deal is likely to face an impasse with no immediate solution.
[i] The Hindu (2022), “Iran may accept EU proposal to revive nuclear deal if demands met: Report”, 13 August, Available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/iran-may-accept-eu-proposal-to-revive-nuclear-deal-if-demands-met-report/article65762199.ece, Accessed on 17 August 2022.
[ii] Michael Crowley, Steven Erlanger and Farnaz Fassihi (2022), “US and Iran weighing ‘final’ EU offer on nuclear deal”, The New York Times, 9 August, Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/09/us/politics/iran-nuclear-deal-eu.html, Accessed on 17 August 2022.
[iii]VOA News (2022), “US says it is studying Iran’s latest nuclear pact proposal”, 16 August, Available at https://www.voanews.com/a/eu-confirms-iran-has-responded-to-final-nuclear-proposal/6703410.html, Accessed on 17 August 2022.
[iv] Author’s interview with China Daily. For more details, see: Jan Yamul (2022), “US’ unilateral bill seen as ‘further disruption’ of Iran nuclear pact”, China Daily, 8 June, Available at https://www.chinadailyhk.com/article/274958, Accessed on 17 August 2022.
[v]Farnaz Fassihi and Steven Lee Myers (2022), “China, with $400 billion Iran deal, could deepen influence in Mideast”, The New York Times, 27 March, Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/27/world/middleeast/china-iran-deal.html, Accessed on 17 august 2022.
[vi]US Congress (2022), “S.4290 – Iran China Accountability Act”, 24 May, Available at https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/4290, Accessed on 17 August 2022.
[vii] The Hindu (2022), “Putin holds talks in Tehran with leaders of Iran, Turkey”, 20 July, Available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/putin-holds-talks-in-tehran-with-leaders-of-iran-turkey/article65659672.ece, Accessed on 17 August 2022.
[viii] Steven Erlanger (2022), “Seeking ‘Axis of Good’ against US, Russia Taps Allies of Convenience”, The New York Times, 20 July, Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/20/world/europe/russia-turkey-iran-axis.html, Accessed on 17 August 2022.
[ix] Ebad Ebadi (2022), “Iran sanctions raise doubts about the success of economic pressure on Russia”, Atlantic Council, 3 May, Available at https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/iran-sanctions-raise-doubts-about-the-success-of-economic-pressure-on-russia/#:~:text=In%20the%20second%20round%20of,percent%20each%20year%20on%20average., Accessed on 17 August 2022.
[x] Banafshe Keynoush (2020), “Reformist-Hardline Rivalries Dull Iran’s Parliament Elections”, Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), 20 February, Available at https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/reformist-hardline-rivalries-dull-irans-parliament-elections, Accessed on 17 August 2022.
[xi] Vivian Yee (2021), “Iranian Hardliner Ebrahim Raisi Wins Presidential Vote”, The New York Times, 5 August, Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/19/world/middleeast/iran-election-president-raisi.html, Accessed on 17 August 2022.
[xii] Francois Murphy and John Irish (2022), “Exclusive: IAEA found Uranium traces at two sites Iran barred it from, sources say”, Reuters, 21 February, Available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-nuclear-iaea-idUSKBN2AJ269, Accessed on 17 June 2022; See also: Author’s interview with China Daily. For more details, see: Jan Yamul (2022), “IAEA resolution jeopardizes Iran nuclear talks at key time”, China Daily, 14 June, Available at https://www.chinadailyhk.com/article/275960, Accessed on 17 June 2022.
[xiii] US Department of the Treasury (2022), “Terrorist Financing Targetting Center Members Jointly Designate a Broad Range of Financiers of Terrorism”, Press Release, 6 June, Available at https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0806, Accessed on 17 August 2022.
[xiv] P5+1 includes the Permanent members of UN Security Council, namely, China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, the US plus the European Union. For details, see: US Department of State (2015), “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”, Available at https://2009-2017.state.gov/e/eb/tfs/spi/iran/jcpoa/index.htm#:~:text=On%20July%2014%2C%202015%2C%20the,program%20will%20be%20exclusively%20peaceful., Accessed on 17 August 2022.