Washington, DC – Tehran says it is seeking sanction relief; Washington says containing the Iranian nuclear programme is a national security priority.
And so, both countries maintained that they have an interest in reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. But six rounds of talks in Vienna earlier this year have failed to produce a path to restore the multilateral agreement.
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The election of conservative President Ebrahim Raisi in Iran has further complicated the situation. Negotiations have been on ice since June with the Iranian government in transition. Last week, the Iranian parliament approved Raisi’s cabinet, but the parties are yet to set solid plans for resuming the negotiations.
With hardliners consolidating power in Iran and US President Joe Biden tackling multiple crises at home, analysts have said reviving the nuclear pact will be difficult.
Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American journalist and analyst, said she is pessimistic about the prospects of reinstating the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
A Raisi government run by ideologues and more interested in relations with China and Russia will not be rushing to negotiate with the US, she said.
“I’m prepared for the possibility that the return would not happen,” Mortazavi told Al Jazeera.
“And this is not only on the Iranian side, but it’s also the Biden administration. Joe Biden himself – even though he did promise a return to the JCPOA – it doesn’t seem like he’s willing to spend the political capital that is required for this return.”
Iran says all sanctions must go
As a candidate, Biden pledged to restore the deal that saw Iran curb its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions against its economy.
The administration says it seeks to make the deal “longer and stronger” and use it as a platform to address broader issues with Tehran, including Iran’s ballistic missiles and regional activities.
On Thursday, Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said Iran agrees “in principle” to resuming the Vienna talks.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry said Amirabdollahian told his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, that negotiations must “result in removing all sanctions on the country and fulfilling the rights of the Iranian people”.
Amirabdollahian also made it clear that Tehran is more interested in ties in its immediate neighbourhood rather than repairing relations with the West.
“Amirabdollahian blamed regional crises on interventions by foreign powers, saying the current Iranian administration will prioritise good relations with neighbours,” the Iranian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
But can regional ties, including with China and the Arab World, make sanctions relief a less pressing matter for Iran?
“The consolidation of power across Iranian system by the conservatives and the hardliners means that you have a significant body of opinion who believes in the notion of a resistance economy,” said Naysan Rafati, senior analyst on Iran at the Crisis Group.
Rafati explained that proponents of this idea argue that by relying on its domestic capabilities and regional trade, including exports of oil and gas, where sanctions allow, Iran can create “an economy that may not be able to thrive but can survive”.
World Bank data shows that Iran’s GDP is bouncing back into the positive – despite sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic – after a major dip in 2018 and 2019.
Rafati said the GDP rebound “hides a multitude of fault lines” in the Iranian economy, including high unemployment rates and rampant inflation, which have spurred up protests during the past year.
“But there are individuals in the ascendancy within the Iranian system of government who genuinely believe that sanctions relief is overrated, and that Iran has – in their view – taken the sanctions hit on the chin and survived and can continue to do so,” Rafati told Al Jazeera.
The US has been piling sanctions on Iran since former President Donald Trump nixed the JCPOA in 2018.
In turn, Iran has been escalating its nuclear programme, taking uranium enrichment to 60 percent from the 3.67-percent limit set by the agreement. Tehran has also restricted access to UN nuclear watchdog (IAEA) inspectors to its nuclear facilities.
The Biden administration has been pushing a “mutual compliance” framework to revive the agreement – the US removes sanctions; Iran rolls back its nuclear advances. However, the reality is far from being that straightforward.
Returning to adherence to the deal is a multilayered process fraught with complexities and areas of potential disagreements.
The Biden administration has said it would remove sanctions that are “inconsistent” with the JCPOA, which grants relief for nuclear-related restrictions. That would not include “terrorism” and human rights sanctions.
Since 2015, Trump imposed more than 1,000 sanctions on Iran, and Biden added a few of his own.
The Biden administration has expressed willingness to remove some sanctions not officially labelled as nuclear. But Iran said it wants all sanctions revoked.
And so, the two countries have to agree on the scope of sanction relief. Even then, sanctions cannot be undone with the stroke of a pen. Removing them can be a lengthy process that involves several government agencies.
For Iran, returning to compliance does not only mean dropping the nuclear enrichment levels but also getting rid of the existing stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and advanced centrifuges and reinstating the stringent international inspection regime with the IAEA.
Moreover, the nuclear know-how gained during the escalation of Iran’s programme may not be reversible.
At the talks in Vienna, the parties established working groups to address these issues. In April, then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatic moderate, said the negotiations had advanced about 70 percent in resolving disagreements.
But the conservative side of the Iranian leadership, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has recently expressed dissatisfaction with the way the talks proceeded.
In a series of tweets late in August, Khamenei said the Raisi administration should forge friendly relations with other nations independently of the nuclear talks.
“Diplomacy should not be impacted by the nuclear issue. In the nuclear issue, the US acted extremely shamelessly.” he wrote. “They withdrew from the #JCPOA but talked as if Iran had withdrawn from it. They ridiculed the negotiations. The Europeans acted like the US, too.”
Diplomatic dynamism should be intensified & economic aspects of diplomacy fortified in the new Administration. Foreign trade with neighboring countries & other nations should also be bolstered. Except for a couple of countries, friendly ties are possible with most countries.
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) August 28, 2021
Biden, too, is touting “other options” to confront Iran and its nuclear programme if JCPOA talks fail.
Sina Toossi, a senior research analyst at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), warned that tensions between Tehran and Washington could intensify if the nuclear issue is not resolved.
“If this new team from Iran is going to be demanding greater concessions and Biden is unwilling to give them, then we’re going to enter this mutual escalation phase again,” Toossi told Al Jazeera.
He said Iran could further increase uranium enrichment, and the US – this time with EU backing – would bolster international sanctions.
Such an escalatory cycle can bring the sides to the brink of war if they do not agree on “realistic bottom-line interests”, Toossi added.
“We have to decipher what those bottom-line interests are for each side,” he said. “And what exactly is the Biden administration willing to give, what exactly is Iran looking to get; where are they willing to meet on common grounds? It is unclear where that is.”
For her part, Mortazavi faulted both sides for failing to find a solution, saying that the Biden administration continued to drive Trump’s “moving train” of maximum pressure since it took office in January.
“And on the Iranian side, the change in the administration has moved Iran in a political direction even farther from where they could meet halfway,” Mortazavi said.