GP Insights # 472, 21 February 2021
On 18 February, the United States offered to restart talks with Iran on the JCPOA. The Secretary of State Anthony Blinken held talks with the officials of the European countries that are party to the agreement and stated that the US would return to it formally if Iran treads the path of compliance. The US State Department signalled that Washington was ready to hold “informal talks” with Iran, on the invitation of one of the European countries.
On 19 February, in response, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson tweeted that the country stood firm and would agree to compliance only when the US lifts the sanctions imposed on it by the Trump administration.
What is the background?
First, the new US administration, and a nuanced approach by Biden towards Iran vis-à-vis Trump’s hammer strategy. Joe Biden’s campaign highlighted the need to reverse Trump’s policy on Iran concerning JCPOA. Offering direct talks with Iran is the first step that the Biden administration has taken, towards restoring the JCPOA. However, Biden has also cautioned about restarting the dialogue unless Iran returns to compliance. This is in stark contrast with the previous US administration, which withdrew from the deal in 2018, as part of the maximum pressure policy. Trump imposed a slew of sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy and has taken several steps to curtail its regional influence.
Second, Iran’s hardline position and the willingness to address the concerns if the sanctions are removed. Since the US withdrew from the nuclear deal, Iran has gradually scaled down its commitments to the deal. In December 2020, the Iranian Parliament approved for increasing the uranium enrichment levels to 20 per cent, in a clear breach of the deal. The move came after the assassination of the country’s top nuclear scientist Dr Mohsen Fakrizadeh, allegedly by Israel. The moderate cabinet headed by Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani is bound to implement the legislation passed by the hardliner Parliament. The Iranian Parliament Speaker announced in January that Iran has produced 37.5 pounds of 20 per cent enriched uranium at the Fordow nuclear facility. On 8 February, the IAEA reported 3.6 grams of uranium metal at Iran’s Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant. On 16 February, Iran informed the IAEA that it “will stop implementing voluntary transparency measures under the JCPOA as of 23 February, including the Additional Protocol.” The Additional Protocol enables the IAEA to conduct inspections of undeclared sites on short notice. The Supreme Leader, in a televised address to the nation, said that the country would not comply with the deal unless the US lifts the sanctions that are crippling the economy.
Third, Europe’s concerns regarding instability. The E3 (UK, Germany and France) fear the outcomes of a more hardline stance by Iran, particularly the regional instability. The joint statement that followed the virtual meet of the E3 and the US officials urged “Iran to consider the consequences of such (enrichment) grave action, particularly at this time of renewed diplomatic opportunity.”
What does it mean?
First, an emerging space for diplomacy with Iran. There have been indications of talks and negotiations from the US, E3 and Iran. Both Iran and the US, despite stringent stances, have expressed their willingness to restart talks that are mediated by one of the European countries. The US's formal call for talks will induce a new lease of life to the nuclear deal and the larger question of US-Iran relations.
Second, Biden’s policy choices. While there is a significantly large section demanding a more nuanced approach, there are stronger voices within the US that do not want to soften its stance on Iran. He risks being tagged as a pro-Iran president and angering the US’s strong allies in the region- Israel and the Arab countries.
Iran, therefore, is a difficult nut to crack for Joe Biden.