It is expected that Joe Biden, once he takes office as president of the United States on Jan. 20, will reverse his predecessor’s policies in many fields. One of the most urgent matters is the U.S. re-entering the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA.
Because world conditions have changed a lot over the last four years, this will be no easy task. It will be especially difficult to bridge the gap between the U.S. and Iran, which is where China comes in. Long a strong supporter of a political solution, China can now play a crucial role in reviving the dynamism of multilateral nuclear diplomacy.
There may never have been a single issue in the history of international relations like this one, which has required so much diplomatic effort and patience at high- levels. It took 13 years for the parties to reach a comprehensive deal on July 14, 2015. In the final negotiation, representatives of the U.S., China, Russia, France, Germany, Britain, EU and Iran spent 18 days in Vienna. According to reports, in Vienna in the final days, John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, would hobble into a room and look for the nearest chair, seemingly exhausted. Previously, he had been a vigorous host and cheerleader, working the room, slapping backs and driving the tempo. Kerry’s physical change over the course of negotiations suggests how difficult the talks had been.
The U.S. return to the deal could be another exhaustive diplomatic job for the U.S., Iran and other parties. In legal terms, the JCPOA has remained alive, based on UN Security Council resolution 2231. Trump’s withdrawal from the deal meant that America was unilaterally shirking the duties imposed by the resolution.
While the JCPOA always carried technical legal force, things changed a lot as a result of Trump’s withdrawal from the deal on May 8, 2018. The U.S. continued some of its sanctions, restored some of its already removed sanctions and added new sanctions. In response, Iran reduced its implementation of commitments in five steps.
It was easy for Trump to withdraw from the deal and launch sanctions, and easy for Iran to respond. But it is not so easy for the two parties to come back to the status of early 2017, when Barack Obama left office. It is obvious that the U.S. should be held responsible for disrupting the deal, and it is likely to look for more concessions on the Iran side — for instance, negotiating over Iran’s missile program, while maintaining some sanctions.
Such “asks” might not be reasonable, but the U.S. remains the single hegemonic power, and would have others bow before its pressure rather than make any concessions of its own. Iran has accumulated 10 times more low-level enriched uranium than it had in 2017, twice the amount needed for making a nuclear bomb. It will predictably hold this as a bargaining chip as it seeks compensation for the costs of American sanctions.
All in all, as in the previous negotiations, the coming negotiation for U.S. re-entrance into the JCPOA could be as difficult, if not more, than they were before. Both the U.S. and Iran, the two critical parties, will have to face difficulties in any effort to backtrack to 2017. Both will face strong domestic opposition. The U.S. will have to face the pressure from Congress while Iran will have to answer tough questions raised by the Majlis.
Complexity also comes with Iran’s presidential election in June 2021, and a conservative candidate may win as a result of the failed Iran-U.S. engagement in the aftermath of JCPOA. That will add new uncertainties to the process. To put it another way, the period between Jan. 20 and June 2021 will be best window of opportunity for the U.S. to rejoin the pact. After that, negotiation will be more difficult.
It seems the U.S. always intended to include Iran’s missile program and regional policy in the negotiations. In 2015, the American team pushed these topics forward but was resolutely rejected rebuffed by Iran. The Trump administration also sought a broad new deal that included the two topics. But Iran regards the missile program as unrelated to the nuclear issue and sees it as an essential part of its national defense strategy, which is non-negotiable. If the missile issue comes into play, the difficulties will be even greater.
The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior Iranian expert specialized in nuclear technology, which was announced on Nov. 27, suggests that some intervening issue could add to the complexity of the prospects of a nuclear deal. Though no accurate information is available about who carried out the assassination, it’s highly likely it was a party that does not want to see a re-engagement by the U.S. and Iran. It seems that someone would like to push U.S.-Iran relations into the point of no return during the U.S. power transition period before Biden takes office on Jan. 20. This party may worry that Biden will reverse Trump’s policy.
China has long argued for a political solution to the Iran nuclear issue and has played a constructive role. For instance, it was China that proposed the solution involving the Arak reactor in 2015. The U.S. insisted on dismantling the reactor, while Iran held the position that no existing facilities should be dismantled. China’s representative proposed that the reactor could be revised so as to produce less plutonium, which met the objectives of both U.S. and Iran. In addition, during the implementation, China has served as one of the three parties that helped modify the reactor.
When Trump withdrew from the deal, it was China, together with Russia and the EU, that has stayed in the deal, and it has participated in regular meetings of the joint committee of the JCPOA on implementation. This has served to maintain Iran’s confidence in staying in the deal rather than withdrawing to mirror the U.S.
The Iran nuclear fundamentally arises from four decades of tensions between the U.S. and Iran and their mutual suspicions. China’s role might be limited, but in some breakout moments it could be crucial. It could work to reduce the tensions and bridge differences between the two, for example. China has learned how to talk with the U.S. in a pragmatic way in other fields, and it knows how to communicate with Iranians. It understands Iran’s position much better, as the two share a similar history of humiliation and have similar aspirations for national rejuvenation in modern times.