President Biden’s trip to Israel earlier this month ended his administration’s de-prioritization of the Middle East. But to free up his administration to focus on other strategic priorities, Biden must slow down Iran’s nuclear program. We have three policy recommendations to advance talks on the Iran nuclear deal—despite three major impediments to progress in the negotiations.
First, the impediments:
Disagreeing with the agreement. After talks between the United States and Iran stalled again in June, negotiations to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) stagnated. Whether the two countries and other negotiating parties can agree on a deal soon will be pivotal for many reasons. At a minimum, failing to reach an agreement would diminish the capacity to verify Tehran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program. This lack of verification, in turn, jeopardizes the United States’ key objective of ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon.
Still, some pundits and policymakers in the United States either hesitate to accept or are expressly opposed to the idea of reviving the agreement. For instance, a majority of Republican and some Democratic senators prefer a tougher solution with Iran that goes beyond its nuclear program and forces the country to behave differently, such as in the area of terrorism. Another group consists of pundits who fear that the United States will be conceding too much—and has already—by negotiating with Iran after Tehran has advanced its nuclear program and contributed to delayed talks by putting forth more demands.
Tehran’s position. Iran’s behavior in the region thus far contradicts some of Washington’s strategic goals. But figuring out Tehran’s current negotiating position is crucial to understanding why none of a grand bargain or a more advantageous deal is a realistic goal for the United States today.
First, the United States is now less likely to receive the same level of international support, and Iran is in a stronger position than it was when negotiations on the JCPOA first started in 2013. As a result, Tehran’s starting point in the negotiations has shifted. Whereas the mere lifting of sanctions was key to motivating Iran’s nuclear restraint back in the 2010s, Tehran’s bargaining position today is different. Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, stated in June: “What is important for Iran is to fully receive the economic benefits of the 2015 accord.” The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, added that “Iran’s retaliatory actions in the nuclear sector are merely legal and rational responses to US unilateralism and European inaction.”
For Tehran, the baseline for moving forward with negotiations has two dimensions: the United States’ willingness to fulfill its commitments under the JCPOA, which were suspended when it unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in 2018, and the removal of sanctions raised subsequently. Such starting points make achieving a more profitable deal nearly impossible because they already exceed what critics of the deal are ready to accept.
Also, Tehran’s growing stockpile of uranium enriched to contain 60 percent of the fissile uranium 235 isotope is not weapons-grade, but it far exceeds the commercial grade of 2 to 3 percent enrichment and puts Iran closer to creating a store of weapons-usable uranium than it was in 2018. In re-entering negotiations with Iran, the United States would undeniably be bargaining over halting a different and more advanced nuclear program. This development itself greatly diminishes the likelihood of a grander deal that goes beyond Iran’s nuclear program to encompass other security concerns.
The United States’ ineffective “tough” policy. The Biden administration’s current policy toward Iran is to continue maintaining economic sanctions while keeping open a military option. US policymakers generally prefer the simultaneous use of carrots and sticks when dealing with adversaries. But the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign had very little if any effect on Iran’s behavior.
As Iran inches closer to crossing the nuclear threshold, some experts argue that the United States shall proceed with a “plan B”, which includes the military option. But that should not be an option given the major liabilities associated with military strikes and the political backlash in its aftermath. While coercion can complement diplomacy, the United States would be better off staying committed to the path of negotiations.
Three recommendations for a renewed Iran nuclear deal. As a starting point, the Biden administration needs to demonstrate a strong commitment to making negotiations with Iran work. The administration took a step in the right direction when it restored a sanction waiver over Tehran’s civilian nuclear activities earlier this year. However, the Biden administration has to go further by lifting the slew of new sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, post-2018.
This move would cost the United States a bargaining chip. But economic relief remains an imperative for the Iranian government in light of Iranian citizens’ disgruntlement over the mismanagement of the economy. Moreover, Iran reportedly dropped in late June its demand for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to be removed from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations—a core reason for the stalemate in negotiations. But on his trip to the Middle East in July, Biden said he would keep Iran’s IRGC on the US list “even if that killed off the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.” Rather than muscle flexing, the Biden administration’s immediate response to such an Iranian concession, if confirmed, should be the kind of serious sanctions relief that would fast-track negotiations.
The Biden administration must also refrain from threatening to re-impose economic sanctions that have already been lifted or raise, yet again, the possibility of military action every time negotiations stall. Such suggestions of reimposing punishment will at best hinder progress—if not reverse it—by making the current US administration appear to be as unreliable a negotiating partner as the preceding one.
Finally, the United States needs to limit negotiations to restricting Iran’s nuclear program—if its goal is to keep Tehran’s hands off nuclear weapons. Attempts to forge a grand deal that seeks to restrain Iran’s actions more broadly in the region are almost certainly a non-starter and could drive Tehran to rely on other partners, such as Russia, and render any subsequent sanctions regimes less effective, as is happening with North Korea.
As long as talks with Iran drag out and Tehran’s nuclear program progresses, time for any form of negotiation will run out—and so will the chances to get to a deal, any deal, with Iran.
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