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Don’t write off the Iran nuclear deal just yet

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi still wants and needs the JCPOA more than Biden.

EU Foreign Policy Chief:  JCPOA talks to resume ‘in coming days’

In the movie Godfather II, mafia boss Michael Corleone says that his rival Hyman Roth "has been dying of the same heart attack for twenty years."

After swearing never to do a Godfather reference in a column, this one came to mind, following the many epitaphs of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal.

The JCPOA, signed in 2015, puts constraints on Iran’s nuclear programs in return for sanctions relief on Iran.  It was first killed, or seemingly so, back in May 2018, when then-US President Donald Trump withdrew from the pact. While the other signatories — the EU, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran — stayed in the deal, the JCPOA ceased to function. US secondary sanctions made trade and business with Iran an ‘us or them’ proposition. Not surprisingly, countries and companies chose the US over Iran, to avoid US penalties from sanctions, which Washington piled on after the US withdrawal from the agreement.

US President Joe Biden made a resumption of the Iran nuclear deal a priority, and a deal seemed close in February, but talks stalled and since March have been on "life support," says Dan Shapiro, former US Ambassador to Israel, in Al-Monitor’s On the Middle East podcast.

But EU Iran coordinator Enrique Mora almost singlehandedly kept it alive, barely, with his shuttle diplomacy. Ali Hashem wrote that during Mora’s visit to Tehran in May, Iran presented ‘more than suggestions’ to break the impasse. “The Iranian side handed Mora a proposal with revisited ideas,” an official source in Tehran told Hashem.

Now EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell is off to Iran on June 24 to meet with Iran Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, after huddling the night before in Brussels over dinner with Mora and US Iran Envoy Rob Malley.  

Borrell even tweeted that Malley "reiterated firm US commitment to come back to the deal."

Ahead of Borrell’s visit, Amir-Abdollahian said on June 23 that Iran hopes "we can reach the final point of the agreement in the near future with realism from the American side," adding that "the nuclear negotiations train has reached difficult stops as they near the end."

After meeting with Amir- Abdollahian on June 25, Borrell tweeted that ‘we agreed on resumption of negotiations between Iran and US in the coming days, facilitated by my team, to solve the last outstanding issues.’

This column has all along contended that Raisi has wanted to close the Iran nuclear deal, but on his terms, while having to anticipate a Plan B if talks failed — not unlike Washington. 

Oil prices over $100 per barrel should be too much to resist. 

And Borrell’s "surprise visit" to Iran is perhaps no surprise, given that Iran knows it will be high on Biden’s agenda during his visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia, July 13-16.  A top priority of the trip will be to further integrate Israel and the Gulf into a coalition aimed at deterring Iran’s regional and nuclear ambitions.

Recovering from a near fatal blow

The Borrell mission, if successful, would signal a return from a near-death experience for the JCPOA.

In April, after the Vienna talks broke down, Iran announced it was enriching uranium to 60% purity, bringing it closer to the 90% needed for a weapon, and in violation of JCPOA constraints.

In late May, Malley told Congress that a return to the JCPOA was "tenuous at best." In early June, the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which oversees Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA,  passed a resolution rebuking Iran for failing to cooperate with an agency investigation into questions about undeclared nuclear material and past nuclear research.   

In response, Iran disconnected 27 IAEA  surveillance cameras at its nuclear facilities, which Rafael Grossi, the IAEA director general, described as a  possible "fatal blow" to the JCPOA, it they were not restored within a month. 

Meanwhile US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the   breakout time for Iran to be a nuclear weapons threshold state could drop to “a matter of weeks” if Iran continues to violate the terms of the JCPOA.

Iran claims it does not seek a nuclear weapon, and that all these steps are reversible.  But the US has gone ahead with contingency planning nonetheless for a Plan B if the talks fail or, as Shapiro points out, even if they succeed.

Iran gets US message on IRGC

Another sticking point in March was Iran’s demand that the US delist the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization as a condition for the deal. 

The Trump administration had put the IRGC on the terrorism list in 2019 for just this purpose — to thwart a possible return to the JCPOA by a subsequent president.

Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in April that he would not delist the IRGC.  Two weeks later, the Senate passed a non-binding, bipartisan resolution opposing the delisting of the IRGC by a vote of 62-33.

Iran seemed to get the message and had to pivot away from the IRGC as a condition, if it still wanted a deal.  An official source told Ali Hashem that during Mora’s visit in May that the IRGC issue "isn't centric in the new proposal. It's there, but there are other issues with more priority."

Since then, "Iran has downplayed the IRGC issue as an impediment to the deal," Elizabeth Hagedorn and Ali Hashem report. "Mohammad Marandi, an adviser to Iran’s nuclear-negotiating team, told Al-Monitor that delisting the paramilitary organization isn’t a condition for an agreement. Marandi said there are still gaps in the talks regarding assurances and sanctions but dismissed the US rhetoric that the window for diplomacy is closing. 'The Iranian side was never intimidated by US deadlines. They knew the US was bluffing,' he said."

The seeming shift in the Iranian demand on the IRGC comes as Hossein Taeb was replaced this week as head of the IRGC intelligence unit.

Speculation is that Taeb may be being held accountable for the recent killings of at least seven Iranians involved in the country’s nuclear and military programs, which Iranian officials have blamed on Israel, as we reported here.

The increased tensions have played out with threats to Israelis visiting Turkey, as Ben Caspit reports.

Taeb, one of the most powerful and feared figures in Iran, was also known as an opponent of the JCPOA and in charge of the file dealing with Americans and other dual nationals held in Iran.

Why Raisi still wants a nuclear deal

While chances may still be slim, the Biden Administration continues to make the case that the JCPOA is the best, or least bad, option to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, complemented by a Plan B focused on deterring Iranian actions against US interests and partners in the region.

For Biden and his European counterparts, the global energy crisis resulting from the Ukraine war is added incentive to get Iranian energy resources on the market as soon as possible.

Also motivating the Biden Administration is the release of the four Americans unjustly detained in Iran, as Elizabeth Hagedorn reports, which is linked to the JCPOA negotiations.

The incentives may be even stronger for Iran, even if the US cannot guarantee a deal beyond the Biden Administration, as Iran has asked.

Regularly characterized as hard line, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who took office in August 2021, never opposed the JCPOA, including during his presidential campaign. In his inaugural address he said, "Sanctions against Iran must be lifted, and we will support any diplomatic plan that achieves this goal."

We have argued in this column that the economic incentives, especially now with oil over $100 per barrel, are too much to pass up for Iran’s flagging economy, which has lived under sanctions for decades.

And there are political incentives too, despite a stacked principlist (or conservative) parliament. The JCPOA was initially wildly popular in Iran when it was agreed in 2015; and Raisi’s victory as president was marked by voter apathy and the lowest turnout ever for an Iranian presidential election.

A revived JCPOA is hardly a done deal.  But neither side is closing off negotiations either, and diplomacy got a bump this week with Borrell’s announcement.

Shapiro, who served as senior advisor to Malley until March, and is skeptical of the prospects for a deal, told Al-Monitor he would also not be shocked if talks pick up again this summer or fall.  And summer started on June 21.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include reporting on EU Foreign Policy Chief Borrell’s meetings in Tehran on June 25.

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