President Biden holds the upper hand in negotiations but still needs to get to the negotiating table
Speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 10th, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that it is up to Iran to make the first move when it comes to nuclear deal talks. In his testimony, he made it clear that the Biden administration would offer no sanction relief until Iran restores full compliance or enters a “negotiated path toward full compliance.” The problem is, Iran has signaled a similar hardline stance: no sanction relief, no negotiations.
“The answer is that the one who has left the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] has to come back first,” said Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s nuclear chief, to PBS on March 9th. Mr. Blinken acknowledged the challenges of re-entering the deal the U.S. pulled out of three years ago, saying that it will not be as simple as “flipping a switch.”
This impasse will certainly be difficult to overcome. With both countries remaining unyielding - and seeking significantly different outcomes of hypothetical negotiations - there is plenty of reason to doubt that a new deal will be reached anytime soon. But, the Biden administration has reasons for optimism. The Iranian economy is hurting and some say the balance of power has shifted towards the U.S. By leveraging the impact of the sanctions, and the interests of allies in the region, Mr. Biden should be able to renegotiate a nuclear deal that fulfills a key campaign promise and accomplishes goals beyond the scope of the original agreement.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
The Iran nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was agreed to in 2015 and went into effect in January 2016. Signatories included the five UN Security Council Powers (the U.S., the U.K., France, China, and Russia) plus Germany and the European Union as a whole. The objective of the JCPOA is to scale back the Iranian nuclear program and make it difficult for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon. In exchange for nuclear restrictions, the U.S., the U.N., and the E.U. agreed to sanctions relief. If there is any suspicion that Iran was not fully complying with the restrictions, the sanctions would “snap back” into effect.
In 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the deal on the premise that it did not do enough to restrict Iran’s missile program and regional influence. Much of Former President Trump’s rhetoric surrounding the decision was that it was a “horrible one-sided deal” and fundamentally flawed. Calling it the “worst deal ever,” Trump reinstated harsh sanctions. In response, Iran gradually began resuming nuclear activities, including enriching enough uranium for two bombs and researching more advanced centrifuges. However, Iran has mostly complied with International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.
Mr. Biden, on the other hand, campaigned on the promises to undo much of the Trump administration’s nuclear policies. A key plank in his platform was to “Renew our Commitment to Arms Control for a New Era.” His campaign claimed that Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA caused Iran to become “more provocative than ever” and pushed the region to the “brink of another disastrous war.” Mr. Biden made it clear from the campaign trail that he would seek to not only re-enter the deal but to strengthen and extend it.
The Biden Administration
Since Mr. Biden took office on January 20th, very little progress has been made on this prominent campaign promise. Of course, the administration has largely been focused on vaccine rollouts and getting the American Rescue plan through Congress. Still, a window of opportunity is quickly closing as Iran is set to elect a new president on June 18th. Analysts have forecasted that a hardline, conservative president will likely replace the current pragmatist President Rouhani, further diminishing the chances that anything beyond the original JCPOA will be reached.
On March 10th, the State Department stated that the U.S. will not rush or slow negotiations based on Iran’s election. The timeline will be determined in a way that is “consistent with defending U.S. national security interests,” according to Robert Malley, the State Department’s envoy to Iran. Secretary Blinken echoed this sentiment before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, saying the “ball is in their court” to revive diplomacy.
In February, the State Department indicated it would accept an invitation from the European Union to take part in a formal meeting with Iran. Iran rejected this invitation and dismissed the possibility of any direct talks with the U.S. until all sanctions have been lifted. This is where the deadlock currently stands, with Mr. Blinken remaining staunch that no sanctions will be lifted until Iran begins working towards full compliance.
Struggling Iranian Economy
The same sanctions that are preventing any progress on negotiations are also the reason the U.S. maintains the upper hand. The Iranian GDP shrank by more than 5% in both 2018 and 2019 and faced an even greater decline in 2020. The sanctions imposed by Mr. Trump crippled the oil industry, sparking inflation and protests. Though these protests were quickly quelled by the state, reports have indicated the Iranian government finds itself in a state of “unprecedented precariousness.” Further, many are anticipating a transition in Supreme Leader, after the 30-year reign of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Oil revenues will be crucial for continuity, and this requires cooperation with the U.S.
Above all else, Iran seeks sanction relief and their stance has been consistent: removing sanctions will result in a return to full compliance.
Key regional allies backing the U.S. also strengthen the nation’s position. Specifically, Israel is positioned to have a significant impact on any negotiations. Prime Minister Netanyahu is expected to continue to take a hardline stance and will not accept a simple return to the original JCPOA. Iran’s other Arab rivals are invested in returns to diplomacy. They also stand to gain from Mr. Biden’s additional goals of curbing Iran’s missile program and regional activity. States like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are vulnerable to escalation. Although they have little bargaining power to offer, their joint-lobbying in Washington could help shape the outcome.
Reasons for Optimism
By leveraging desperately needed economic relief and pressure from regional allies, the Biden administration can be successful in renegotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. The first step — actually opening a dialogue — will be the most difficult, as each side’s posturing could continue for the foreseeable future. However, the U.S. is in the premium position in this standoff, and Mr. Biden holds the trump card of economic relief. Returning to the original JCPOA, while not substantially enough, is the best place to start. Then, more issues, such as the ballistic missile program, can be further negotiated along a simple premise: more concessions, more economic relief.
With the balance of power on his side, Mr. Biden just needs to get to the negotiating table. Iran’s pledged return to compliance will serve as a good starting point. “The best way to achieve getting some stability in the region,” Mr. Biden said, is to start “with the nuclear program.”
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