The Biden administration says that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has not been on the table “for months,” but Iranian officials are saying that a nuclear deal is still possible.
Both could be true — with lots of caveats — and the sides could be moving deliberately or not toward what many are calling a "less for less" deal in the absence of the JCPOA.
In not-for-attribution conversations with Iranian and other officials, some ideas of what a post-JCPOA arrangement might look like are coming to light.
One ironclad life lesson is that you can’t go back. Iran couldn’t bring itself to say yes to the EU-brokered proposal for a return to the JCPOA last summer. And the moment passed. Even if Iran now said yes to the previous draft, Washington might say no. The narrative and priorities have changed for the Biden administration. Iran’s crackdown on protesters and support for Russia in its war on Ukraine have moved to the top of the US list. The Republican House of Representatives and a possible Republican president in 2024 with hard-line approaches to Iran make the American political climate less conducive than ever to a nuclear deal.
For the EU, the nuclear talks still have a faint pulse. Brussels has a two-track policy toward Iran: on the one hand, sanctions and pressure regarding the protests and Russia, and on the other, diplomacy on the JCPOA.
High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell wrote on Dec. 23 that there is no alternative to the JCPOA, adding, “Those who think otherwise simply fool themselves.”
Borrell and Iran Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian keep talking, most recently on Feb. 19.
The JCPOA, which imposes inspections and constraints on Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief and the release of frozen assets, was concluded between Iran and the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China in 2015. Former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal three years later.
Meanwhile this week, the UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is following up on reports that Iran is enriching uranium at 84%, just 6% below what’s needed for a weapon, which has stirred warnings in the West and Israel that Iran’s nuclear program is inching toward a bomb in the absence of JCPOA restrictions.
Biden administration Iran Envoy Robert Malley was in the Gulf last week with a US delegation for US-GCC talks, rallying Gulf partners for a more robust deterrent posture against Iran and reiterating US concerns about Iran’s human rights abuses, providing Russia armed drones for use against Ukraine and for its destabilizing policies in the Middle East.
Malley also made a side visit to Oman, a long-time facilitator of quiet US-Iran negotiations.
The United States, while dismissing the JCPOA for now, still talks of the need for diplomacy as the best approach. In addition to EU mediation, messages are regularly exchanged between Washington and Tehran via Qatari, Omani, Iraqi and UK officials.
Most of the diplomatic traffic appears to be about a possible exchange of US and Iranian prisoners. A swap for the Americans would likely lead to the return of Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz, who all have been unjustly imprisoned in Iran.
The package, if it happens, would also include a release of about $7 billion in frozen Iranian funds held in South Korean banks. Qatar is reportedly helping broker the financing mechanism for the package, which would require some choreography, given the sanctions on Iran’s financial and banking sector.
Iranian officials speaking not for attribution say that an agreement with the United States and the West on its nuclear program may still be a possibility, even if it falls short of the JCPOA.
“We’re still indirectly negotiating, and we’re ready for a swap,” said a senior Iranian official not for attribution to Al-Monitor.
That Iran has sent a flare by increasing enrichment to 84% may be its way of slashing its own "deterrent posture" to shake up the stalled talks. Or it could be a sign of Iran’s slow march toward weaponization. Or both.
“The JCPOA is at an impasse. From our perspective, it’s alive and we can revive it,” said another Iranian official speaking not for attribution. "The JCPOA should only be about sanctions relief and Iran’s nuclear program. Nothing else. We are uncomfortable with not having a JCPOA, but we can live with that. We would prefer a normal relationship with the West — with the JCPOA.”
If the JCPOA falls short, Iran — according to the official source — will stick by its commitment as a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, meaning that it would allow inspections under the safeguards agreement but not the enhanced inspections and surveillance known as the Additional Protocol, as part of the JCPOA.
Iran, which continues to deny that it is providing armed drones to Russia to use in the Ukraine conflict, would also consider separate negotiations on the role of Iran in the Ukraine conflict with Ukraine and the EU, but distinct from the nuclear talks, an Iranian official source told Al-Monitor, citing Iran’s respect for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.
On human rights, the government can’t be seen as giving in to Western pressure. But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s pardon of thousands of prisoners last month may have a foreign as well as domestic audience.
“Protests have died down, but we have no choice but to pursue reforms,” said the official. “This is a domestic, not foreign, imperative.”
“Normalization with regional states is our priority,” said the official, which, if sincere, would be another kind of guarantee of a shift in Tehran’s regional policies, as we wrote here.
The official added that the plan for now is to keep Iraq from becoming a battleground between the United States and Iran. “Iraq must have good relations with Iran, and we have no concerns about US-Iraq or Iraq-GCC ties," the official said. “We won’t bring our disputes to Iraq.”
This column wrote back in November that the US-brokered Israel-Lebanon maritime boundary agreement could also be read as a signal from Iran. That Iran signed off on a deal between Israel and Lebanon (and Hezbollah) can’t be dismissed as a one-off. It didn’t happen by accident or oversight. Like the JCPOA, those talks had been going on for years.
Iran is “fine with the [Israel-Lebanon] deal,” said the official. “It’s an economic, not a political, agreement.”
The signs are there, but they are not the only signs. Iran seems divided on foreign policy and consumed with the fallout from the protests, which have subsided following the government crackdown. Until now, we have yet to see the development of a pro-reform wing within the establishment. The security forces have stuck with the government. The long-term impact of the protests and what followed may be in the form of a long fuse.
Iran may also consider alignment with Russia and China, a better long-term bet than what the United States is willing to offer — especially with the prospect of a Republican president in two years more likely to take an even harder line on Iran.
For the Biden administration, preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon remains a top priority. The Biden administration hasn’t dropped the diplomatic charge, but “all options on the table” are part of the policy as well. The US and EU sanctions on Iran keep coming. The US and Israel have moved closer on Iran, as Washington-Jerusalem relations have otherwise been rattled by disagreements over the legislative initiatives of the right-wing Israel government and escalation on the Palestinian question.
That said, except for Israel, there is probably little appetite in Washington and elsewhere in the region for a military strike or for what might follow.
If a prisoner swap comes together, the financial mechanism for the deal could be a framework, or installment, on what might follow, if there is good will and things are quiet across accounts – nuclear, Russia, reform and regional. That’s a heavy lift, but we are talking about less for less, at least for now. It’s hard to imagine the sides don’t keep talking. And the stakes remain as high as ever.
As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday in Athens, "A lot depends on what Iran says and does and whether or not it engages."
Ali Hashem contributed to this report.