Hot take: Iran wants more than words from Biden to close nuclear deal
Latest: Iran wants iron-clad guarantees that the United States won’t again back out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, as negotiators in Vienna close in on a new pact, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Background: The Barack Obama administration agreed to the JCPOA, an international agreement, in 2015 with the UK, France, Germany, the EU, Russia, China and Iran. The Donald Trump administration withdrew from the pact in May 2018, reimposing previous sanctions on Iran and adding new ones, reversing the economic gains for Iran between 2016 and 2018 (see our report here). It’s not unprecedented for a new administration to abandon an international agreement made by its predecessor, but it is rare precisely because it undercuts the country’s credibility in international dealmaking.
Fallout: The JCPOA, which was initially a wildly popular diplomatic triumph for the government of previous Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, became a political liability, as principlists (as the Iranian conservatives are known) attacked Rouhani and his Foreign Minister, Mohamed Javad Zarif, for its failure. Ebrahim Raisi, who is aligned with the principlists, was elected in June and took office on August 3, 2021.
Treaty: The most "iron-clad" binding agreement the US could offer would be a treaty, which requires two-thirds of the Senate to approve a resolution of ratification. Treaties are less common since World War II, as most international agreements are approved via executive agreement, like the JCPOA. A Senate-ratified treaty would therefore be a non-starter for the Joe Biden administration; it wouldn’t have the votes in a Senate now evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and it’s not how these types of deals get done anymore. That will leave Iran with something short of certainty.
What next? – two expert takes:
“Iran may be feeling some regret that it didn’t insist on a treaty the first go-round on the JCPOA,” said King Mallory of the RAND Corporation, who has been involved in Track II discussions with Iran. "With the US having again refused that option, Raisi feels he needs more than Rouhani got, and that could involve a new UN Security Council resolution or some type of guarantee among the signatories."
”Iran felt burned after Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the Paris Treaty, and wants more than words to protect its economy," says Sanam Vakil of Chatham House. "If a treaty is out of the question, the burden rests on the remaining signatories of the deal to provide a creative package that is blessed by the Biden team as long as it is in office." Check out our podcast with Sanam here.
Our take: In lieu of guarantees:
Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act: INARA, signed into law by Obama in May 2015, mandates congressional review of the JCPOA or any Iran nuclear deal. On one hand, as Stephen Rademaker writes, the act could complicate a final deal, which would be opposed by all or most Republicans, and even some Democrats. On the other hand, the process for outright congressional disapproval in INARA is complex, and a "joint resolution of disapproval" is unlikely, at least as long as Democrats hold both houses of Congress. Adam Lucente has the story here.
UN Security Council Resolution. A new or updated UN Security Council resolution for a renewed deal, while not legally binding, could also mitigate some of Iran’s concerns, or at least provide Raisi some political cover. As we wrote here last week, UNSC Res 2231 (2015) is unclear at best on whether "snapback" UN sanctions would continue after the JCPOA’s "termination day" in October 2025. A new or updated resolution might be in order, for that reason, and to signal the renewed US and Security Council commitment to the nuclear deal.
Read for yourself:
From our regional correspondents:
1. Turkey keeps Syrian Kurds under fire in response to attack
The relative calm that prevailed across northern Syria in recent months has ended. In apparent retaliation for a mysterious explosion that killed three Turkish soldiers earlier this month, Ankara and its Syrian proxies struck several Kurdish positions near Kobani, Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain on Jan. 8.
Fehim Tastekin writes, “Turkey is keeping the region under fire in a bid to maintain the status quo in the Operation Peace Spring region and to crush the Kurdish-led self-rule in northern Syria.” The escalation strategy also appears linked to internal rivalries among the Turkish-backed armed opposition groups, whose salaries have dwindled amid Turkey’s deepening currency crisis.
2. Rebel rivalries heat up in northern Syria
Tensions are running high between Turkish-backed Syrian rebel factions and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the US-designated terrorist group that controls Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib. A source affiliated with the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army told Sultan al-Kanj that some rebel leaders fear HTS could penetrate their areas of control, especially in the towns of Afrin, Azaz and al-Bab.
Meanwhile, HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani’s attempt at a public makeover continues. Golani sported Western-style clothing, instead of his usual Islamic robes, while attending the Jan. 7 opening of a road linking the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Bab al-Hawa. As Mouneb Taim explains, Golani has sought to brand HTS as a moderate Syrian opposition group.
3. Egypt weighs mediator role in Sudan’s crisis
Egypt is calling on Sudan’s rival factions to take part in UN-sponsored talks, which the Egyptian Foreign Ministry described as necessary to prevent Sudan from descending into further chaos. Officially, Egypt denies taking sides in Sudan’s conflict. But the Sudanese opposition accuses its northern neighbor of giving Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan the greenlight to seize power and oust Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in October 2021.
Mohamed Saied examines Egypt's apparent preference for Sudan’s military, and whether Ethiopia’s building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a factor.
4. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox kids get vaccines after rabbis' push
The number of ultra-Orthodox Israeli children vaccinated against COVID-19 has surged in recent weeks thanks to prominent rabbis, some of whom received threats for encouraging their followers to get the shot.
“Our community was waiting to hear from our sages,” one ultra-Orthodox leader explained. Israel began offering COVID-19 vaccines to children between the ages of 5 and 12 in November. The prospect of further school shutdowns has since persuaded many parents to immunize their children, Israel Hershkovitz reports.
5. Inside the world’s largest Islamic cemetery
Check out this haunting piece on Wadi al-Salam (Valley of Peace), the world’s largest Islamic cemetery. Located in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, the graveyard houses the remains of 5 million people, including hundreds of Islamic religious figures. “The ‘city of the dead,’ with its massed tombs of plaster and brick, and its mausoleums with imposing domes, depicting family wealth and status, stands in ancient testimony to more than a million lives and deaths,” Nicole Di Ilio writes.
Multimedia this week: Middle East Christians, Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan
Listen: Andrew Parasiliti interviews award-winning journalist Janine di Giovanni about her book, "The Vanishing: Faith, Loss and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets.” Link here.
Watch: On the forthcoming episode of Reading the Middle East, Gilles Kepel speaks with former Saudi intelligence chief HRH Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud about his new book, The Afghanistan File, a firsthand account of the kingdom’s dealings with Afghanistan from 1979 to 2001. Look for the podcast here, coming soon!