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Iran unlikely to budge on nuclear deal anytime soon

Feb 02,2021 - Last updated at Feb 02,2021

It is a battle of wills between the new US administration and the Iranian regime over the latter’s commitment to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement and Washington’s reversal of the 2018 decision to withdraw from it. The deal was never accepted by Israel and a number of Gulf states had expressed reservations over the deal’s shortcomings, especially with regard to Iran’s missile programme and its regional agenda. Such reservations are now shared by France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The Trump administration had used its “maximum pressure” policy to force Tehran to renegotiate the agreement; a condition that Iran continues to reject.

Early comments by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken indicate that tough sanctions imposed by the former administration will not be lifted anytime soon and that Tehran will have take the first step by reversing all actions taken since 2018 on top of which its breach of limits on its uranium enrichment activities. In response, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have repeated earlier statements that it’s the US that should return to the deal immediately, lift its sanctions and that no new negotiations should take place. They also rejected a proposal to include other countries in fresh negotiations.

Time is of the essence since Iran has threatened to suspend its commitment by mid February to the so-called additional protocol, which provides tools for verification and increases the IAEA’s ability to verify the peaceful use of nuclear activities. That would spell the end of the agreement altogether.

The US position is backed by its European allies and there are areas of common understandings between Washington and Moscow over the need to salvage the deal. But the US will have to convince Israel that there are no options other than forcing Iran to recommit to the agreement. That will be a tough mission for newly appointed US envoy to Iran Robert Malley, whose appointment had stirred opposition from Republicans and Democrats alike in addition to Israel.

Malley is a veteran diplomat who had served under the Obama administration and was one of the architects of the nuclear agreement. Critics accuse him of backing an unconditional settlement of the nuclear issue with Iran.

Still there are no signs that the US will rejoin the deal before imposing new conditions on Tehran. Congress is putting pressure on the Biden administration not to lift sanctions and to stick to demands that a new deal covering Iran’s long-range missile programme and its regional agenda be included. Zarif informed his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov last week that Iran’s “flexibility” could end within a month if Washington does not take positive steps within the coming two weeks.

There is a case to be made for expanding the agreement. Iran’s development of its long-range missiles has already demonstrated its danger across the region. The UN has pointed the finger at Iran for the 2019 missile attack on Saudi oil facilities. The Houtis in Yemen have used Iranian missile technology to launch attacks against civilian targets in Saudi Arabia.

Israel’s biggest security threat comes from the stockpiling of Iranian made missiles in both Lebanon and Syria. It wants Washington to end Iranian presence in Syria and to contain Hizbollah in Lebanon.

As to Iran’s controversial regional agenda it goes without saying that Tehran continues to meddle in Iraqi affairs, supports Shiite militias and uses Iraq as a stage for its showdown with the US. Its military presence in Syria has further complicated efforts to reach a peaceful settlement to a decade-old civil war that has ruined the country. Its blatant support of the Houtis has impeded UN efforts to end the civil war and reunite the country under a civilian rule.

The stalemate over the nuclear deal may deepen as Iran prepares to hold elections in five months; one that analysts believe will deliver a more hawkish parliament and president. On the other hand, Biden’s foreign policy team will have to navigate through diplomatic hurdles both internally and abroad in a bid to reach a consensus on a valid strategy that paves the way to salvage the nuclear deal.

While Washington’s allies and other partners in the JCPOA had criticised Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal, his policy of putting maximum pressure on Iran in order to bring Iran to the table has obviously failed. In the process, the sanctions he imposed had wrecked Iran’s economy but did little to curtail the power of the religious clique or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In fact the sanctions had empowered the extremists.

As things stand today Biden’s mission to unravel the complex Iran nuclear challenge seems almost impossible. Israel and its lobby in Washington will make his mission even harder. Meanwhile, as Iran inches closer to abandoning the deal altogether the risks for the region emanating from such a move will be difficult to avoid.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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