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Reviving the Nuclear Talks

Nov 12, 2021
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Khani, announced on Nov. 4 that Iran would enter negotiations to revive the JCPOA later in the month. This should be good news for reducing tensions over the Iran nuclear issue. But for smooth negotiations that get results, both the United States and Iran should take appropriate approaches. The U.S. side in particular should show its goodwill through actions.

It had been about five months since negotiations to revive the JCPOA were suspended (June 2021), shortly before Iran’s presidential election. The reason for the suspension, as is well-known, involved the presidential power transition on the Iranian side. Iranians argue that they need some time to consider and prepare. That may be true, but it could also be interpreted as an effort by Iran to test U.S. patience, since five months is really not necessary.

While negotiations may be renewed soon, the gap between the positions of Iran and the U.S. remains large. Two issues are particularly important for Iran. First should be that it will only negotiate on resuming the JCPOA but not on any other issues, including its missile program or regional policies. Second, it needs assurance that the U.S. will not produce another president who, like Donald Trump, would withdraw from any new nuclear deal struck by another administration. Beyond these, Iran might also hope that the U.S. side would remove at least some of the sanctions currently imposed.

Biden’s team, while claiming to be different from the Trump administration, has in fact followed the same path. On one hand, Biden has retained the sanctions Trump laid on Iran; on the other, Biden’s team wants to reach a JCPOA-plus agreement — not only on the nuclear issue but also on Iran’s missile program and regional posture.

While each side blames the other for not being reasonable, a middle position would argue that the U.S. should shoulder most of the responsibility. After all, it was the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 that triggered Iran’s counter-reactions. I addition, the JCPOA is about Iran’s nuclear program, and negotiations beyond the nuclear issue will certainly make Iran uncomfortable.

There are plenty of difficulties that hinder bringing the two sides closer to agreement. But the current and urgent problem is that the Iranian side has minimal trust — if it has any at all — in the U.S. Therefore, the work of moving toward results should start with creating a basic level of trust, even if that’s minimal. For this purpose, it seems the U.S. could consider the following:

First, it might at least remove some of the sanctions, even if such a move would only be symbolic. It is not realistic to expect the US to remove all the nuclear issue-related sanctions, as Biden does face domestic pressure, but the U.S. can at least remove some of the sanctions as a kind of goodwill gesture. It can open payment channels for some of Iran’s trade, for instance, for humanitarian commodities, or it can set quotas for some countries to import oil from Iran.

Second, the U.S. needs to focus on the JCPOA issue while not complicating matters with other issues. As mentioned above, concentrating the JCPOA will make Iran feel that the U.S. is serious about negotiation, whereas bringing in other issues will only make Iran suspicious. Iran has reason to think that nothing it can do will satisfy its opponent at the negotiation table. Concentrating on the JCPOA will serve to protect the minimal trust necessary.

Focusing on the JCPOA does not mean the U.S. can never address other issues. It could propose to negotiate with Iran on other issues after the resumption of JCPOA, for example. It could also create other mechanisms or frameworks, together with other regional and extra-regional actors, to deal with issues such as Iran’s missile program and its regional posture. At any rate, the whole dish cannot be eaten in just one bite.

Third, the U.S. could also take measures to restrict Israel from sabotaging the negotiations. In the last decade, Israel has done various things to spoil the detente between the U.S. and Iran, as it regards the nuclear deal as a “historic mistake.” For that purpose, Israel launched cyberattacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities, engaged in sabotage and assassinated Iranian nuclear experts. These actions angered Iran and gave it reason to believe that the U.S. and Israel are playing a game of good cop/bad cop.

Put another way, Israel’s potential sabotage will not only undermine the atmosphere of negotiations but also destroy any effort to create minimal trust. Therefore, for the sake of smooth negotiations, the U.S. will have to restrict Israel from acting improperly.

The Iranians should also be aware that it’s not realistic to expect the U.S. to remove all sanctions or to admit mistakes and faults. The U.S., after all, is a hegemonic power that claims to be a global leader. But the Iranian side could also take some steps to show its readiness to revive the JCPOA — suspending some of its nuclear-related activities, for instance — to demonstrate its sincerity.

China has always tried to play a constructive role in bridging differences. Unfortunately, because of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and Biden’s unreasonable requirements for restarting negotiations, China’s ability to help persuade Iran is modest. While China would always be willing to help, only the U.S. can solve the problem by taking a reasonable position. As a Chinese saying goes, only those who tie the knot can untie it. 

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