Stop Dithering on Iran!

Published April 2nd, 2021 - 08:10 GMT
All the Presidents men!
A painter puts the finishing touches on a mural of US presidents in Amritsar, India, 8 November 2020 (Narinder Nanu/AFP via Getty Images)
With China and Russia pushing their weight around the region, any further delays on a nuclear deal with Iran will end up costing the US dearly.

If by dragging its feet, the Biden administration is hoping to buy time to reach the 2023 sunset clauses in the Iran nuclear deal to satisfy the calls for a new, more comprehensive agreement with Iran, it could be miscalculating its chances. 

Signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action – also known as the Iran nuclear deal – was a revolution in terms of Iran’s foreign policy and it is highly unlikely that it will be repeated soon.

Robert Malley, the US special envoy for Iran, told BBC Persian TV that the US administration is exploring all avenues to sit down and discuss details but Iran is rejecting this call. A reported package of US offers including “some sanctions relief” was hoped to jumpstart talks, but Iran is unlikely to accept it because it is looking for full US sanctions relief.

Last week, 70 Republicans and 70 Democrats wrote a letter to President Joe Biden calling for a renegotiated, comprehensive new deal covering Iran’s nuclear program, ballistic missiles, terrorism and human rights violations. 

Israel is also deterring President Biden from reviving the JCPOA. Opponents argue that by 2024 all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment will start to relapse and there is no point in joining “an expiring accord”. 

That may be so, but the JCPOA remains the best mechanism for keeping Iran within an international framework. 

Iran is keener now than it has ever been for a synchronised return to full compliance. But if Joe Biden’s team fails by the end of April to renegotiate, the JCPOA would become obsolete for Iran. 

Political and economic dynamics are changing in Iran. After four years of 'maximum pressure', Tehran is turning a corner. With the IMF predicting that Iran’s economy is on its way to recovery, and with China wanting to acquire bulk of its oil in exchange for infrastructural developments, Iran is no longer too worried about sanctions. 

In his Nowruz speech, Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, raised the bar on US sanctions. “Things have changed to Iran's advantage,” he said, adding, “all US sanctions must be lifted.” He brought in a new element of “verifying US sanctions had been lifted before any talk of compliance.”

President Biden has expressed concern over the Iran-China agreement, which was signed on Saturday in Tehran by the foreign ministers of the two countries. The 25-year comprehensive cooperation roadmap – which has been in the making since 2016 – encompasses wide-ranging economic, military and intelligence cooperation, greatly expanding ties with China. 

Iran is calculating that it would be more advantageous to side with the economic success of China, expected to bypass the US by 2028.  Ayatollah  Khamenei has approved closer relations with China and the hardliners have always preferred China and Russia to “the Americans”. 

“Biden’s concern is justifiable,” Tweeted Iran’s National Security Chief, Ali Shamkhani, “the flourishing of strategic cooperation in the East is accelerating the US decline,” he said.

It's understandable that President Biden may want to slow the process of joining the JCPOA to move in tandem with policy priorities at home, and with important US allies in the EU or in Israel that want much tighter checks on Iran. But delaying the JCPOA is an even higher risk strategy. 

With China and Russia also at odds with President Biden, the backlash could be serious. They could veto future plans for curtailing Iran’s nuclear program at the UN Security Council. They may also form new economic and military alliances with Iran to dominate the Middle East and beyond. 

“The United States should immediately rescind its sanctions on Iran,” said China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi. And in a joint statement on Monday with his Russian, counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, they accused the United States of “bullying and interference”.

That may be partly rhetorical, but the real cost of delay the JCPOA to President Biden would be a lack of cooperation from Iran not just over nuclear inspections and stockpiles but also over all his other plans for the region, like in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.  

If the Biden team is planning to hold off until after September when a new president is in power in Tehran, it can rest assured that the call for lifting of all US sanctions will not change. Presidential elections are due in June, ending President Hassan Rouhani’s second term. The new president is expected to be an IRGC favourite, perhaps with additional demands on compensation for damages.  

If the US plan, on the other hand, is to wait until 2023, then Iran would have reached its 60 percent uranium enrichment. According to the UN nuclear watchdog, IAEA, Iran is now enriching uranium with a new type of advanced centrifuge at Natanz, and it is expected to “cold test” its redesigned Arak nuclear reactor before its full commissioning, with China’s help, later this year.

The JCPOA was designed to block all these developments and without it there will be zero control on Iran. A delay, in all likelihood, is a surrender of any remaining leverage.

Dr. Massoumeh Torfeh is a Research Associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science specialising in Iran and Afghanistan. Formerly she was a BBC journalist and UN spokesperson and director of communication.


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