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The debates in Iran on the 2015 nuclear agreement suggest that the Islamic Republic continues to prefer a return to the nuclear agreement over the possibility of it falling apart. Unsurprisingly, however, Tehran insists that the US has to take the first step, lift all nuclear-related sanctions and roll back additional sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump. Once the US is back in compliance, Tehran would follow suit – this has been the consistent message across the institutional landscape in Iran.
Tough positions in Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) continue to be prominently advocated, of course. These should not be seen as contradictory, but rather complementary, to the official line. Similarly, legislation with tight deadlines approved by Iran’s parliament in December 2020 certainly makes life difficult for the country’s government to champion a return to the JCPOA. However, such internal pressures raise the stakes on all sides and generate a sense of urgency for constructive solutions.
What Iran Needs from the US
It goes without saying that the deeply engrained mistrust towards the US was only exacerbated during the presidency of Donald Trump. This makes it increasingly difficult for the government of Hassan Rouhani to justify and sell at home a smooth return to the nuclear agreement.
Therefore, statements of intent by the Joe Biden administration to return to JCPOA compliance will not suffice to convince Iran to take reciprocal steps, let alone initiate them. Mindful that rolling back the sanctions regime reimposed by Trump – a key demand of Tehran – would take weeks and months to be verifiably processed, Washington will have to underline its new commitment to the JCPOA through measures that have immediate effect and generate instant benefits. These could include the unfreezing of some Iranian foreign assets, reinstating wavers for oil sales and/or reviving the multibillion-dollar Boeing deal. Undoubtedly, such flagship moves would come with political cost for the Biden administration domestically and among Middle East allies. And yet, the readiness to invest such political capital is exactly what Tehran needs to see as proof that team Biden is genuine about its pledge to revive the nuclear accord.
On political messaging, Iran insists that any remarks made in Washington on the nuclear agreement must avoid adding regional affairs or Iran’s missile programme into the mix. This is significant to counter the argument that the nuclear dossier is just an entry point to exert pressure on other issues.
Unfavourable reactions in Tehran can also be avoided by making clear that the quest to revive the nuclear agreement is not an attempt to impact the outcome of Iran’s presidential election, set to be held on 18 June 2021. State Department Spokesman Ned Price has already made clear the US is not ‘looking at it in those terms’ – a line that should be consistently pursued both in the US and in Europe.
What Iran Needs from Europe
Conversations with policy stakeholders in Iran indicate that the view on Europe has reached a historic low. In the eyes of Tehran, Europe was too reluctant to expand trade relations when the deal was signed, then bowed down to Trump’s maximum pressure when the US left the deal (bringing trade down to a minimum), and is now playing tough now that the US return is on the horizon. In particular, statements coming from Paris – be it on the need for Iran to move first or that Israel and Saudi Arabia should be part of the talks – are viewed in very negative light, amplifying voices that argue the US and Europe are playing a good-cop/bad-cop game with Iran.
Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has pointed out that the EU can coordinate the steps to full JCPOA compliance by all sides. In fact, this has been the mandate of the EU ever since the nuclear talks started. So, while it is upon Tehran and Washington to take the necessary steps, the EU can lay out the roadmap for them. This could help Tehran and Washington to set aside the face-saving routine by following a path outlined by the mandated arbiter of this process. Bringing in tools such as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges or the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Agreement can help to speed up some of the steps the US is required to undertake vis-à-vis Iran while sanctions are still in effect.
On the economic front, European governments would be well-advised to start engaging the US Department of the Treasury in order to issue clear guidelines for trade interactions with Iran. One reason for European reluctance after the finalisation of the JCPOA had been the vague and ambiguous regulations of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) that made European business shy away from dealing with Iran. Only with effective support of OFAC can the originally desired normalisation of Iranian–European trade materialise.
Given that Iran’s economy is already undertaking a major shift towards the East, a swift opening and re-engagement of European businesses in light of a possible restoration of the JCPOA can ensure that this shift towards the East stays gradual and leaves enough space for European companies.
Roadmap Needed as Time is Running Out
On the basis of a parliamentary bill, Iran is now going to further scale down its commitments to the JCPOA after 23 February. It will temporarily suspend the implementation of the Additional Protocol (AP) of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which means that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will not be given access to AP-related video monitoring for at least three months. While Tehran made good on the promise to suspend AP implementation, the arrangement found by the IAEA and the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran has prevented a crisis and leaves time for further diplomacy.
A ‘softer’ deadline can arguably be set one month from now. After a week of national holiday following the new Iranian year, expect the pre-election run-up and campaigns to start from early April. This period will make it increasingly difficult for Tehran to take courageous foreign policy action and show flexibility, as every single step by the incumbent government, and mainly Foreign Minister Zarif, will be seen and framed as electoral campaigning. Therefore, a clear roadmap with a concrete sequencing of steps towards compliance-for-compliance needs to be established by mid-March, at the latest.
So, unless clear and explicit signals are sent towards Tehran and some initial steps with immediate effect are undertaken by the Biden administration, expect further complications on Iran’s nuclear dossier.
Adnan Tabatabai is co-founder and CEO of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) in Bonn, Germany.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Cuba, November 2020. Courtesy of EFE News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo