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Nuclear Sticking Points

Dec 20, 2021
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

The seventh round of negotiations related to the Iran nuclear agreement was held in Vienna, Austria, late last month after being suspended in light of Iranian elections. Negotiations had barely begun, however, when the U.S. and Iran locked horns. So what are the main sticking points?

Earlier this year, U.S. President Joe Biden announced his intent to return to the Iranian nuclear deal. Between April and June, under President Hassan Rouhani’s government, six rounds of talks were held in Vienna but no solution was reached.

After President Ebrahim Raisi’s inauguration, the new Iranian government has hardened its nuclear stance, demanding that the U.S. must first lift its sanctions. The negotiations, unlike those in the past, didn’t yield results. Future negotiations should begin with clear outcomes in mind.

On the face of it, the U.S. return to the Iran nuclear deal appears to be straightforward. The idea is to lift sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, with Iran reversing its previous nuclear activities and returning to the original terms of the deal. In this way, things are supposed to fall into place. However, this is not the case.

Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal on grounds that restrictions on Iran’s nuclear development were weak, yet ended up exempting Iran from sanctions. The agreement does not restrict Iran’s ballistic missile program, nor limit its “concerning activities” in the Middle East. The sunset clause that allows Iran to resume uranium enrichment on the expiration date, was also unacceptable to Trump.

In the United States, it’s not only Republicans and right-wing hawks who have a negative view of the Iran nuclear deal. There are also a significant number of Democrats with qualms, including heavyweights like Senator Chuck Schumer and Chris Coons.

To make up for the shortcomings of the deal, Biden campaigned on a promise that he would build on the 2015 agreement with a new deal “to tighten and extend the terms of Iran’s nuclear restrictions.” At the same time, he promised to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and the “disruptive activities that threaten our allies and partners in the region.” Biden stressed that only after Iran returned to the old framework would a new one be negotiated. In other words, Biden wants to negotiate an upgrade to the Iran nuclear deal — to version 2.0, so to speak.

Biden has too much at stake in U.S. domestic politics to fail on this matter. The administration’s approval rating is declining, and if he cannot come up with a concrete outcome soon in the Iran nuclear negotiations, the issue could undermine the Democratic Party’s midterm election performance next year or even jeopardize the prospects for a Democrat-controlled White House and Congress in 2024.

In an interview in November, U.S. Special Envoy to Iran Robert Malley asked in a slightly threatening tone whether the Iran nuclear deal could be restored and then have the two sides move forward from there. If Iran chooses not to return, then obviously the U.S. will have to use other means to address the country’s nuclear ambitions, Malley suggested.

It seems that the Biden administration is eager and rushed, but the Raisi administration appears to be poised. At the beginning of the seventh round of negotiations, Iran provided the participants with two texts that showed Iran’s bottom lines. The thrust was that the commitment of the other parties involved in the negotiations should be no less than the level reached in the 2015 nuclear deal, and that Iran would not commit to more than the level already enshrined therein.

Iran’s intensified nuclear activities are a response to the U.S. and other parties’ non-compliance with the original deal, so Iran will not make a decision on its nuclear activities until other parties have made their positions clear on lifting sanctions. The Iranian nuclear negotiations will not bring an interim agreement or a step-by-step approach in returning to the original.

These statements by the Raisi government amount to a rejection of the progress made in the first six rounds of the more recent negotiations. According to Western media, those resolved 70 to 80 percent of the pending issues, with the Rouhani government making significant concessions and agreeing to hold “limited” negotiations to lift sanctions. Apparently, the Raisi government has upped the ante, hoping to lift the sanctions on Iran all at once. At the same time, the Iranian government explicitly rejected the U.S. proposal for a nuclear deal 2.0.  

In a sign of its discontent with Iran’s position, the U.S. announced sanctions against 12 Iranian individuals and entities. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki made another harsh statement, claiming that if Iran does not limit its nuclear programs, the U.S. will impose a new round of sanctions.

In fact, the Biden administration is using a clear-cut negotiating tactic, which is to use the removal of sanctions as bait to secure an incremental approach to the removal of sanctions — partially and gradually — in exchange for Iranian compromise on its nuclear activities, ballistic missile programs and regional policy.

Iran’s strategy is also clear. Because it was the U.S. that withdrew illegally from the Iran nuclear deal in the first place, it is therefore up to the U.S. to take the first step toward breaking the deadlock through the lifting of sanctions — a demand that Iran will not renounce. Nor will it address issues unrelated to the Iran nuclear deal in the negotiations.

The U.S. and Iran are once again locked in an intense standoff. What cards does the U.S. side have up its sleeve when it says it will resort to means other than diplomacy to resolve the issue? Disrupting Iran’s nuclear activities will only give it a pretext to expand its nuclear program. It is hardly convincing that a war against Iran could defeat Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard when war has failed to rein in the Taliban in Afghanistan. This is a fool's errand. Therefore, it seems the U.S. has no other alternative, in its view, than continuing the pressure tactics and tightening Iran’s financial noose.

The exchange of barbs did not derail continued negotiations. Both the U.S. and Iran are trying to nudge negotiations their way. The U.S. urgently needs the Iran nuclear deal to consolidate the Democratic Party’s credentials and stabilize the Middle East to serve its own strategic needs of great power competition. Iran, on the other hand, is focused on lifting U.S. sanctions, which is crucial to its economic development. These considerations are driving the U.S. and Iran to the negotiating table and are keeping the negotiations afloat, as well keeping alive the possibility of future concessions from both sides.

The Iran nuclear negotiations over the past two years were fraught with ups and downs. If anything, the Biden administration underestimated both their complexity and Iran’s resilience, It also overestimated the power of the U.S. sanctions, under the misplaced belief that Iran, suffering economic hardship, would cave to harsh words.

Moreover, the U.S. government seems to have lost its credibility. According to Iranian media reports, Iran has asked for “guarantees from the United States that no new sanctions will be imposed” or that previously lifted sanctions will not be reimposed. To the outside observer, this seems to be a leap of faith. Even if the Biden administration were to lift sanctions on Iran tomorrow, would international investors return immediately to the Iranian market? The answer is a resounding no. They fear that a Republican administration in the U.S. — which may be on the way — will pull out of any Iran nuclear deal yet again.

Nor will the U.S. government make any guarantees. Therefore, the ongoing nuclear negotiations are bound to be convoluted. We should not expect a breakthrough soon, and the possibility that the negotiations may fall apart cannot be ruled out.

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