US President, Joe Biden, has found himself in a difficult position regarding how to approach the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, aka the Iran Nuclear Deal). The agreement was a major diplomatic achievement of the Obama Administration, where Biden was Vice-President, scuppered three years later by Donald Trump, who unleashed a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran and from whom Biden seeks to distance himself as much as possible. During the election campaign, Biden vowed to engage with Iran on nuclear issues and rejoin the JCPOA, but since entering the Oval Office, he seems to have no intention of rushing the move.
Faced with diverging interests in Congress, Biden is treading lightly. Only last Tuesday, 9 March 2021, a bipartisan group of 70 Democrats and 70 Republicans wrote a letter to the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, urging him and the Biden administration to address the limitations of the JCPOA and not rejoin the agreement as is. This comes after another letter, signed by some Democrats, calling for a quick return to the JCPOA, as well as one by some Republicans with the opposite message. All this while Tehran has been gradually breaching the limitations of the treaty, restricting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors’ access, enriching uranium to higher purities and reducing its “breakout time,” the time required to create a nuclear weapon should it decide to do so.
One of the most salient criticisms is that, despite the name, the agreement is not very comprehensive. It limits Iran’s ability to acquire and stockpile fissile material, but it does very little to address its ballistic missile programme, which would be capable of delivering a nuclear payload. It also does not do enough to curb Iran’s disruptive activities through the wider Middle East, such as its support for various militias fuelling conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Arguably, those militias could be expected to be among the first beneficiaries of a financial injection should the international sanctions on Tehran be lifted. Incidentally, these shortcomings are part of the reason why some key US allies in the region have opposed the JCPOA and applauded the Trump administration’s withdrawal from it: the signatories are taking notice. Offering to rejoin the JCPOA once Tehran returns to full compliance with its obligations under the agreement, the Biden Administration has moved further away from that position, and together with its European allies looks to include both the missile programme and Iran’s destabilising activities in the region in a broader agreement.
This has infuriated Iran, which expected a smooth return to the agreement and sanctions’ removal, while reassuring the US regional partners and allies of Washington’s continued commitment to the Gulf security. However, the step should not be so surprising given that the US interests in general have not changed and Biden already earlier highlighted that: ‘The nuclear deal was always meant to be the beginning, not the end, of our diplomacy with Iran. Democrats support a comprehensive diplomatic effort to extend constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and address Iran’s other threatening activities, including its regional aggression, ballistic missile program, and domestic repression.’ Within this context, Biden is delivering on his campaign promises.
The situation on the ground reflects these shortcomings. Tensions have been on the rise with Israel, which holds Iran responsible for a blast on an Israeli commercial ship in the Gulf of Oman in mid-February. Israel has also accused Iran of eco-terrorism, blaming it for the recent oil spill in the Mediterranean. Perhaps most ominously, Israel’s Chief of Staff has mentioned updating Israel’s plans to attack Iran. Thanks to the recent rapprochement with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which were penned in the shadow of the Iranian threat, Israel is now better positioned to strike targets across the Islamic Republic. It is also worth remembering that a military strike against nuclear installations would not be unprecedented: Israel attacked the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981, the Syrian reactor in 2007, and in November 2020, it was widely believed to have assassinated Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a key scientist in Iran’s nuclear programme.
Israel, however, is not the only party hardening its stance. The so-called E3 (the United Kingdom, Germany and France), traditionally a conciliatory force between the US and Iran, have also pushed back more firmly against Tehran’s recent behaviour, signalling that their patience is running out. Iran had not shown restraint in its disruptive activities since signing the JCPOA in the first place, carrying on assassinations and plotting terrorist attacks even on European soil, but the recent incidents, including frequent rocket attacks on US personnel in Iraq by Iran-affiliated militias, enriching uranium to 20% with threats to go as high as 60%, supplying its proxies, notably the Houthis in Yemen, with advanced missiles and attacking and kidnapping civilian ships in the Strait of Hormuz to use them as bargaining chips, have stoked tensions to new levels. Germany’s Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, has chastised Iran for escalating the situation and “playing with fire,” employing unusually firm language. France’s President Macron has called for Iran’s rival in the region, Saudi Arabia, which has faced frequent drone and missile attacks by the Houthis, to be involved in future negotiations, acknowledging that the old structure is unsatisfactory.
Iran’s breaches of the JCPOA limits and its acts of aggression have highlighted the old agreement’s limitations. Too narrow in scope and not involving key US partners in the region, it increasingly looks like the JCPOA will not return in its current form. The key question this leaves us with is whether Iran will return to the negotiating table and be willing to discuss issues other than its nuclear programme, or whether it will slip into further isolation. So far, the top Iranian officials have vehemently denied the former option. Despite the official stance that nuclear weapons are forbidden by Sharia law, Iranian media has recently featured analyses arguing for deterrent weapons to combat challenges to Iran’s sovereignty by foreign powers.
Looking ahead, Iran is preparing for a presidential election in June 2021. If a candidate representing the currently favoured hardliners emerges victorious, it will bode ill for a de-escalation of the situation and return to constructive dialogue. However, even if more moderate forces prevail, the atmosphere is less conducive to agreement now than it had been in 2015, and more of Iran’s adversaries are likely to have a voice in future talks. Thus, for the time being, we should not expect a diplomatic breakthrough but hope that tensions are mitigated before the fire spreads.
16 March 2021