July Could Be the Last Month to Save the Iran Nuclear Deal
Domestic politics in Tehran and Washington are gradually closing the door.
Then-candidate Biden was relatively clear on the Iran nuclear deal. If Iran restored its compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, the U.S. would do so as well as a starting point for further negotiations. After a slow start, the U.S. engaged in multilateral negotiations aimed at reviving the accord under President Biden’s direction earlier this year. Yet, nearly half a year into Biden’s presidency, the deal is not secured and the administration may be beginning to doubt whether Iran intends to restore its compliance with the accord.
It was always apparent that the window for negotiations would not stay open forever. Iran’s presidential elections, which were held on June 18, always carried the prospect that a hardliner—either opposed to negotiations or loathe to tether his administration to an agreement that had undermined that of his predecessor—would chart a new course. Indeed, Ebrahim Raisi waltzed to a first-round victory over a field that had been cleared for him by Iran’s Guardian Council. While he has underscored that the JCPOA was an agreement supported by the Supreme Leader, and would not oppose a return to the deal, it is far from clear whether he will take office in August with a mandate to do the hard work of returning to the agreement. The incumbent lame duck, Hassan Rouhani, has repeatedly said the lifting of sanctions is at hand but has frequently hinted that domestic opponents are slowing the path to finalizing an agreement.
The unclear picture extends to America’s domestic politics as well. Biden has sent his diplomats to Vienna with a flexible mandate and sidestepped complaints from Congress on his strategy. Biden is his own President, however, and is clearly focused on a robust domestic agenda while downplaying foreign policy issues that aren’t of significant interest to average Americans. With the second major piece of Biden’s domestic agenda in the infrastructure bill likely to play out in September, the longer the nuclear talks drag on, the less likely Biden is to want a major political fight over a foreign policy issue that will anger some elements of his party right when unity is most necessary.
As important as it is for Iran to arrive at the seventh round of talks with a mandate to get the deal across the finish line and show flexibility on other key issues like detained dual nationals, the U.S. needs to keep in mind that from Iran’s perspective, it may not be entirely clear whether Biden is serious about a return to the agreement. Consider simply the repeated acts of sabotage against Iranian nuclear facilities and assassinations targeting key Iranians, and it is a wonder that the JCPOA is still alive—if on life support.
Almost precisely a year ago, Iran’s advanced centrifuge facility was destroyed by a bomb, mere months after the brazen and boisterous U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. On the eve of the Biden administration, the grandfather of Iran’s nuclear program Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was gunned down in another assassination, which a U.S. official described as an Israeli operation. In April, just as nuclear talks were picking up steam, an explosion and blackout attributed to Israel knocked out many of Iran’s centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment site. And just last week, Iran claimed to have intercepted a drone near an alleged centrifuge production facility, purportedly intent on more sabotage.
Biden may think that Iran should recognize that this long string of incidents is not his fault, and may have even told Israel—quietly—to knock it off. But attribution is not so cut and dry, particularly given the long intertwined history of American and Israeli sabotage of Iranian facilities and the decades of historical distrust between the U.S. and Iran. Iran always feared that conceding to Trump’s maximum pressure would be worse than the sanctions themselves, as it would signal weakness and invite efforts aimed at toppling the regime. Similarly, Iran may now fear that conceding in the face of continued sabotage will only invite a continuation of the shadow war that has already reached the most seemingly secure facilities and officials in the Islamic Republic.
Add to that backdrop Iran’s own complicated domestic politics, the reality that some Trump-era sanctions will remain in place, and that Iran will have little concrete guarantee that the U.S. could exit the JCPOA in the future, and it is little wonder that Iran is drawing a hard line in the negotiations.
While this all adds up to a weakening of odds that the JCPOA can be salvaged, an agreement can still come together quickly. The consequences of failure look grim for both the U.S. and Iran. U.S. hawks have already started to call on Biden to prepare for war if talks fail, which is pressure that will only continue to grow if there is no viable diplomatic offramp available.
By contrast, rolling back enrichment that has reached 60 percent and ensuring the halt of research on new centrifuge technology will ensure immediate nonproliferation benefits and reduce the risk of war over Iran’s nuclear program. For Iran, if it overplays its hand, it risks missing the window when Biden is willing to fight to get back into the JCPOA. That could mean minimal relief—or no relief—from sanctions amid a pandemic, ensuring a rocky start for Raisi’s administration and that Iranians continue to seethe at their declining circumstances. The JCPOA has not diminished in importance for either party. But due to politics, the window for return could soon close if the parties don’t seize the moment.