Re-negotiating JCPOA: An Enduring Challenge for the Biden Administration
By Surya Nallapati
Iran’s aspiration of becoming a nuclear state is now closer to reality. Undoubtedly, former US President Donald Trump’s irrational decision to unilaterally withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is key. Beginning in May 2019, Iran, in retaliation against the US move, started incrementally violating the terms of the agreement, which has left the other signatories scrambling to find ways to keep Iran in compliance and preserve the deal. The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran and the repercussions that would bring concerns many. Joseph Biden’s victory in the 2020 US presidential election has renewed the hopes of many people throughout the world that the US will re-join the JCPOA.
The JCPOA was the outcome of twelve grueling years of diplomatic efforts by the P5+1 (US, UK, Russia, France, and China, plus Germany), Iranian officials, and UN and IAEA nuclear experts. The purpose of the agreement is to bring an end to Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program and forestall an arms race and encourage peace in the Middle East region. JCPOA took effect in January 2016. However, in May 2018, President Donald Trump abandoned JCPOA, thus, thwarting his predecessor's efforts and reimposing stringent sanctions on Iran. Since that time, the deal has been in peril. The remaining P4+1 have tried to shield Iran from US economic and trade sanctions by pursuing an alternative payment system for transactions involving Iran, but these efforts have been unsuccessful. Seeing no benefit in staying compliant with the JCPOA, Iran has taken to breaching one condition of the agreement after another, increasingly, since May 2019.
The international nuclear community viewed Biden’s electoral victory as a positive sign for future arms control efforts and are anxiously waiting for him to re-join the deal. However, unlike earlier JCPOA negotiations, the US is no longer in a commanding position to set conditions for negotiations with Iran, especially if the Biden administration presses to re-negotiate the existing agreement. This is not something that the Iranian side is interesting in doing.
Challenges to Re-negotiating JCPOA
Since the US withdrawal from JCPOA in 2018, there have been a number of important developments concerning Iran’s domestic situation and its nuclear agenda. The reimposition of sanctions has crippled the country’s economy, spiked inflation levels, and depreciated the value of the rial, Iran’s national currency, to its lowest value ever against the US dollar. On top of that, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has pushed Iran’s economy into a deep recession. However, despite such challenges, Iran has flaunted its defiance to by publicly violating JCPOA provisions. Iranian leaders have deliberately allowed IAEA inspectors to confirm these violations. In a way, Iran seeks to justify its actions to the global community by holding the US accountable for the ongoing escalatory situation. That said, Iran is not likely to give any ground on the following at the negotiating table:
The US economic and trade sanctions were illegally imposed on Iran and should be revoked immediately without any conditions; this is a precondition for new talks;
Inclusion of Iran’s ballistic missile program and restrictions on its relations with proxies in the region are strictly off-limits in the JCPOA negotiations;
Iran should receive immediate compensation for losses it has incurred due to the reimposition of US sanctions;
Iran will not accept meddling in its internal affairs;
When the US re-joins the JCPOA, the parties will be obliged to adhere to all provisions of the agreement;
Iran demands accountability for US involvement in the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, in December 2020.
The Biden administration is expected to push for the following in re-negotiation talks with Iran:
Iran should return to strict compliance of the JCPOA as a precondition for new talks;
The issue of Iran’s ballistic missile program, as well as its support for proxies in the region, should be included on the agenda for new talks;
Phase-wise withdrawal of sanctions, including unfreezing of Iran’s assets;
Extension of sunset clauses of the JCPOA.
There are several factors at play, at the domestic, regional, and international levels, that, undoubtedly, will complicate efforts to reach a new agreement.
Since the US withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 and the subsequent worsening of Iran’s economic situation, President Hassan Rouhani’s approval ratings have plummeted. On June 18, 2021, he will face re-election and is expected to have a tough challenge from hardliner candidates as he tries to retain the presidency. Also, US withdrawal from the agreement has compelled Iran to forge closer ties with JCPOA-partners Russia and China. It should be noted that hardliners in Iran were strongly opposed to the JCPOA and are inclined to pursue closer ties with major non-Western players like China and Russia. If a hardliner candidate wins in the upcoming presidential election, the prospects of reaching a new agreement will reduce drastically. For the above reasons, it will be a major challenge for the Biden administration to bring Iran to the negotiating table, unless Iran crumbles to domestic economic pressures or is tempted with an irresistible economic package from P5 states. A nightmare scenario is also possible: Iran, regardless of the economic pressures, decides to pursue its nuclear weapon aspirations, just as North Korea did. How would the US and other powers react? The ramifications for the security of the Middle East region would be great.
The Biden administration faces its own pressures when it comes to the JCPOA. US allies in the Middle East, notably, Israel, and Arab allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE, had condemned the agreement from the outset (even labelling it a historic mistake) and supported President Trump’s withdrawal from the deal. The key concern for Israel and other regional opponents of the agreement is that it does not include Iran’s ballistic missile program; nor does it address the issue of Iran’s relations with its proxies throughout the region. Israel and others urge the Biden administration not to return to the JCPOA, while European allies, and China and Russia want the US to re-join and save the deal. Domestically, the Biden administration maintains bipartisan support to negotiate a new deal, with the inclusion of Iran’s ballistic missile program and its activities throughout the Middle East region. However, there is less support for re-joining the existing deal.
At this time, JCPOA negotiations have hit a roadblock with each side wanting the other to make the first move. Meanwhile, Iran suspended its Additional Protocol implementation on February 21, 2021, a move in response to the US’s inaction on lifting sanctions levied against Iran’s oil and banking sectors. Fortunately, the UN’s nuclear watchdog IAEA was able to strike a crucial deal to allow monitoring of the country’s nuclear activities for three months. This move has brought precious time for the US and other signatories to find ways to initiate negotiations with Iran. Through this temporary deal with the IAEA, Iran has signaled its willingness to enter new negotiations so long as its pre-negotiation demands are met by the US. In parallel, On February 25, the US launched an air strike against Iran’s proxies based in Syria in response to a rocket attack against US coalition forces based in Iraq. Experts view the limited nature of the US retaliation possibly as a good start, a sign that the US does not want to escalate tensions with Iran and its proxies unnecessarily. At the same time, US leaders have hinted that they will not allow Iran’s regional activities to pressure the US to return to the negotiating table.
Assessing the current situation, it is a tall order for the US to re-negotiate the deal; it would appear that the most prudent move would be to re-join the existing agreement and bring Iran back into compliance. Then, the parties could address in future negotiations other concerns regarding Iran. The parties to the JCPOA should leverage the brief window of time that has been provided by the temporary agreement brokered by the IAEA to reinstitute talks. They must act now to avoid the escalation of tensions, and even a nuclear arms race in the highly volatile Middle East region. The clock is ticking.