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Whither US policy toward Iran?

The election of Iran's new president and the Taliban's stunning takeover in Afghanistan have somewhat shaken up the Iran nuclear deal talks, but the United States and Iran clearly know reinstating the deal is in both their favor.

With Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s nomination as foreign minister set to be approved by Iran’s parliament, stalled negotiations to restore the Iran nuclear deal may finally get back on track. While it is not yet clear whether the Foreign Ministry or the Supreme National Security Council will oversee the nuclear file, Iran’s team has now taken shape and is largely united. Balancing hopes for resumption, however, is concern that Iran’s new government may not be willing to make the compromises necessary to restore the largely defunct deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The most optimistic read at this stage is that Tehran is still reviewing its options.

On the positive side, shortly before taking office on Aug. 5, newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi pledged to “seek to lift the tyrannical sanctions imposed by America." Such a thing cannot happen without a negotiated agreement involving Washington. As a presidential candidate, Raisi expressed a commitment to the JCPOA, and a senior EU official reported on Aug. 7 that Iran wants to get back to the negotiating table “as soon as possible.” While Iran’s economy has been helped by gradually expanding oil exports, much of it clandestinely, the pressures from an alarming COVID-19 plight and drought-related protests incentivize coming to terms with the United States. Al-Monitor recently explored other reasons a deal still might happen.

How long will Raisi wait, however, and what posture will his team adopt? Predictions that Iran would be much more assertive were born out even before he took office. On July 13, the US Justice Department charged four Iranians with conspiring to kidnap New York City-based exiled Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad. On July 29, Iran allegedly attacked the Israel-connected merchant tanker Mercer Street with explosive UAVs, killing two crew members from the United Kingdom and Romania. On Aug. 2, while approaching the Strait of Hormuz, the MV Asphalt Princess oil tanker was temporarily seized by hijackers who reportedly ordered it to sail to Iran. The same day, at least four other ships off the coast of the United Arab Emirates lost control of their steering in what was also suspected to be hijacking attempts at the hands of the Iranian military or its proxy forces. While maintaining plausible deniability regarding these incidents, Iran sees value on pushing back against attacks on its economy and infrastructure.

With regard to the talks to restore the JCPOA, in a July 12 report to parliament, outgoing Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif outlined the deal that is there for the making, if Iran were to adjust its demands. Two weeks later, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei indicated he did not agree, insisting that Tehran will not accept what he called Washington's "stubborn" demands. His demand for guarantees that the United States would not again pull out of a restored deal fails to comprehend that President Joe Biden cannot commit his successor to such a promise. Iran’s related demand for eliminating the sanctions snapback mechanism would gut a key element of the 2015 agreement, obviating the agreed goal of restoring the JCPOA. Iran meanwhile shows no sign of compromising on the demands that prevented agreement during the six rounds of talks this spring: that the United States lift all 1,500-odd sanctions introduced by former President Donald Trump and that Iran will not commit to engage in follow-on talks on missiles and its support for regional militias.

There is scope for the Biden administration itself to compromise on some of these issues. It is already prepared to lift sanctions on more than 1,000 individuals and entities to facilitate a full implementation of the JCPOA. But there is room to add to this list, and to do so without abandoning the principle that unrelated sanctions — on human rights and other grounds — must remain in place. Biden’s team also can soften the linkage to follow-on talks on other matters, a demand that Iran has stoutly rejected. Interestingly, however, even former President Hassan Rouhani, in his last television interview while in office, said that if Iran wants to have all sanctions lifted, it needs to be willing to discuss all issues, including missiles and the region. Biden may also have to accept that there is no good way of counterbalancing the knowledge that Iran has gained by operating advanced centrifuges.

Even if Biden were inclined to be more flexible, however, the Taliban’s stunning march into Kabul limits his room to maneuver. Having been tagged with losing Afghanistan (notwithstanding the blame shared by three previous presidents), Biden cannot appear to be giving in to Iran’s hard-liners.

To compensate, the United States may be inclined to take the opposite tack and apply more pressure on Iran. The Wall Street Journal reported on July 19 that the administration was weighing sanctions targeting Chinese imports of Iranian crude oil. On Aug. 13, the US Treasury Department sanctioned members of an Iran-related oil-smuggling network operating from Oman. New sanctions will not bludgeon Iran into a compromise, as should be clear from the failure of the former administration’s "maximum pressure" campaign. On the other hand, stemming the growth in Iran’s oil sales could help Washington’s negotiating position by showing that it, too, can be assertive.

Iran may think it has the upper hand through its ability to further expand uranium enrichment and reduce cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. By increasing its low-enriched uranium stockpile, operating more efficient centrifuges and experimenting with enrichment to 63%, Iran may already have reduced the breakout period to three months or less. Iranian strategists seem to believe that shortening this period even further will make Biden impatient for a deal. Iran has to be careful, however, not to leave its adversaries with the conclusion that there is no way to restore an adequate breakout time and therefore no purpose in reviving the JCPOA.

Iran should also realize that it does not have escalation dominance. Israel has shown over and over that it can penetrate Iran’s nuclear secrets and sabotage its facilities. A mysterious power blackout at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant on April 11 took several thousand centrifuges out of commission. Assuming Israel was responsible, no doubt the attack could be repeated. If negotiations were to make progress, Biden surely would object to such means. If the stalemate continues, however, Israel could get a yellow or even a green light from the White House.

Iran’s adversaries also have diplomatic cards to play. So far, the IAEA and its Western members have soft-pedaled Iran’s restrictions on inspections. Iran’s refusal to allow normal inspector access to declared facilities and to account for the detection of manmade uranium particles at several undeclared sites is contrary to safeguards obligations. There are grounds for the IAEA board to find Iran in noncompliance, thereby restarting the process that in 2006 sparked UN Security Council sanctions. To give more time for diplomacy, the board will not draw such a conclusion at its next quarterly meeting on Sept. 13-17. After all, Biden himself took several weeks after his inauguration to get serious about JCPOA talks. If there is no progress toward restoring the JCPOA by the time of the November board meeting, however, the United States may well be inclined to push then for a noncompliance finding. This may be partly what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken means when he says that the stalemate cannot go on indefinitely.

As Washington grows frustrated with Iran, pessimism is also taking hold that the JCPOA will not be restored after all. Given that restoration is in both sides’ interests and that the contours of a deal are so clear, failure to reach it would be a tragedy. 

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