The Rome MED This Week newsletter provides experts’ analyses and informed comments on the most significant issues and trends in the MENA region. Today, we turn the spotlight on the future of the JCPOA, after the Biden administration confirmed its availability to restart nuclear talks with Iran and the IAEA reached a compromise with Tehran to extend limited monitoring activities for up to three months.
A new window for diplomacy seems to be opening between the United States and Iran. Washington has announced its availability to join a meeting of the P5+1, when and if the EU decides to convene one. The decision represents a clear departure from the previous U.S. administration’s confrontational approach towards Tehran and marks the first tangible step taken by President Joe Biden to deliver on his promise to rejoin the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), after Donald Trump withdrew in 2018. To mitigate tensions with Tehran and remove obstacles to multilateral diplomacy, US authorities are also easing the travel restrictions enforced by the Trump administration upon Iranian diplomats at the United Nations. Parallel talks over American prisoners in Iran have also commenced with Swiss mediation, suggesting a broader diplomatic engagement. However, while opening to possible negotiations with Washington, the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has stressed that Iran is willing to reverse its breaches of the deal and review its nuclear program only when U.S. sanctions will be lifted. Tehran is also trying to pressure the U.S. by restricting the access to IAEA inspectors, although the Agency and the Iranian authorities have recently agreed to uphold the necessary monitoring activities for the next three months. Against this backdrop, the Biden administration is facing internal criticism and opposition, including from members of its own party fearing that such diplomatic openingsmight further strengthen Tehran’s role in the region.
Experts from the ISPI MED network react to the new challenges emerging in the US-Iran relationship.
The US: Symbolic steps for a return to diplomacy
“The Biden administration has been clear from the start that its goal is to de-escalate the nuclear crisis by first returning to the JCPOA and then, if possible, building on it. Thursday’s steps, while largely symbolic, begin the process of ending “maximum pressure” and returning to diplomacy with Iran – with the European Union as the initial convener. I hope Iran agrees to meet and that it will refrain from further steps outside the terms of the agreement. Regional issues should also be addressed but not in the P5+1 format. The first step is getting the nuclear deal back.”
Barbara Slavin, Director, Future of Iran Initiative, and Senior Research Fellow, Atlantic Council
Iran’s position: reciprocal, not forthcoming
“Iran made the disastrous experience to see its full compliance to the JCPOA being responded with the US “maximum pressure” campaign that remains fully in place in the second month of Joe Biden’s presidency. Understandably, this has killed any appetite in Tehran to be forthcoming in the quest to revitalize the nuclear agreement – at best, Iran will be ready for reciprocal action the moment president Biden effectively generates immediate economic relief by lifting nuclear-related sanctions and by unfreezing Iran’s foreign assets. Only if a return to the JCPOA is championed and a smooth implementation witnessed for at least a year or two, we can expect Tehran to be open for talks on broader issues.”
Adnan Tabatabai, CEO, Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO)
A JCPOA revival will reinvigorate Iranian moderates
“The JCPOA is a symbol of Iranian reformists’ foreign policy achievements. Its collapse is not only a non-proliferation failure but underscores the bankruptcy of a reconciliation narrative with the international system within Iran. The Biden administration’s clean return to the accords reinvigorates moderates in Tehran, whose chances for success in June presidential election is otherwise compromised, if sanctions persist. The JCPOA revival will prevent a radicalized foreign and security policy destined to emerge under a future conservative government while guaranteeing a continuity of Iran and the West’s engagement.”
Abdolrasool Divsallar, Regional Security Initiative Co-Lead, Middle East Directions, European University Institute (EUI)
The EU should pressure to separate nuclear talks and regional security negotiations
“It is good to see the transatlantic relationship mending. Still, the EU should rediscover its agency, in order to honor its newfound geopolitical dimension. This means making clear with the US that maintaining sanctions (“maximum pressure”) on Iran and tying nuclear talks to broader regional security negotiations risks of spoiling both processes. Instead, it should offer its mediation for an immediate, simultaneous, return to the JCPOA. Once the nuclear issue is addressed, it can and definitely should offer a platform for confidence-building measures that ultimately can facilitate future talks on regional security.”
Annalisa Perteghella, Research Fellow, Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)
E3/EU should maintain a united front
“The E3/EU can incentivise talks between Iran and the US and coordinate the process bringing the two parties back to compliance. They will have a crucial role to play in hosting and choreographing an informal meeting between the current members of the Iran deal and the US which could lead to an initial agreement. What is important is for them to maintain a united front – something that has been missing, at least publicly, in the past few months–, take the initiative in areas where they can contribute – process and mediation, but also economic incentives – and take a step by step approach, focusing first on reinstating the nuclear deal and then on broader talks, with the inclusion of additional issues and actors.”
Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, Senior Research Fellow, International Security Studies Department, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)
France’s offer to mediate is difficult to achieve
“Tehran knows that without a comprehensive settlement of the conflict with the United States, European companies are unlikely to return quickly to invest in Iran. President Macron’s objective to become a mediator is difficult to achieve because of the lack of economic sovereignty of the French state. Indeed, the main asset of Paris in dealing with Tehran is the economic incentive represented by the potential investment of French companies in Iran. But French economic actors have followed US unilateral economic guidelines on Iran – not French ones. It remains to be seen if the French private sector will be ready to follow a possible new US impulse to deliver economic incentives to the Islamic Republic in order to curb its nuclear ambitions.”
Clément Therme, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Nuclear Knowledges Program, Sciences Po (CERI); and Research Associate, School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS)
For Beijing, a return to the JCPOA is still the best option
“China sees the Biden administration’s decision to participate in a meeting between Iran and the P5+1 as a positive first step towards a revival of the Iran Deal. In fact, since the US withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018, Beijing has repeatedly called for Washington and Tehran to return to full compliance – a position that has been confirmed by last week’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson remarks. In the first weeks of 2021, China has increased its diplomatic activities to capitalise on the window of opportunity offered by the Biden election: for Beijing, the JCPOA still represents a success of multilateral non-proliferation and still the best option to regulate Iranian nuclear issue.”
Jacopo Scita, H.H. Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah Doctoral Fellow, School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University
Russia wants to preserve the JCPOA as it is
“For Russia, the JCPOA issue is three-fold. First, it’s a venue for Moscow to showcase its responsible attitude vis-a-vis the issue of nuclear non-proliferation. Second, it’s one of a few remaining issues on which Russia and leading Western states can engage in a constructive manner. Third, it’s an area where Russia can showcase its support for what it sees Iranian attempts at standing up for its sovereignty in the face of American pressure.
Keeping the original JCPOA therefore seems the most adequate way to align the three considerations. Iran’s departure from the deal would undermine the first component of the Russian policy. Expanding the deal onto other areas (missile defense, regional influence) would be a challenge to the third. Alienating Moscow on either of the tracks would upset the second.”
Maxim A. Suchkov, Director, Center for American Studies, MGIMO University
More you should know
- 34: the months passed since the United States unilaterally ceased implementing the JCPOA
- 90%: the purity level required for weapons-grade material
- 4: the plants currently hosting R&D and/or enriching activities in Iran
- 1: active nuclear reactor in Iran (“Bushehr 1”)