The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) accord signed on July 14, 2015, resolved a diplomatic standoff between Iran and the US, thus ruling out the chances of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons for at least a decade. Despite the IAEA certifying Iran’s compliance, the agreement was short-lived, as the US President, Donald J. Trump, withdrew from it on 8 May, 2018 and reimposed unilateral sanctions on Iran. He dubbed it the “worst deal ever,” claiming that the JCPOA offered little to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons nor did it address its ballistic missile programme or its regionally destabilizing activities. Iran reacted angrily to the US sanctions by beginning enrichment of Uranium beyond the agreed-upon level of 3.67 percent. Iran believes that Uranium enrichment would compel the US to negotiate and get it more concessions in the discussions on JCPOA. Hence it developed technology to enrich it beyond 60%. According to a New York Times report, Iran can currently manufacture enough fissile material for one bomb in a month, although making the warhead would still take time. This has caused grave concern for the US.
Following the change of administration in the United States on January 20, 2021, the new President, Joe Biden called for the resumption of discussions with Iran. Consequently, six rounds of talks were held in Vienna from May to July 2021 to revive JCPOA, provide sanctions relief to Iran and curtail its nuclear program. However, further talks were suspended as the Presidential elections in Iran were to be held in June 2021. With the new President in office in Iran, the talks were expected to resume soon, but the disagreements between Iran and the US have prevented its resumption so far..
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has endorsed the call for dialogue which augurs well for the agreement, but he also made it clear that Iran won’t be bullied. Former Iranian President Hasan Rouhani says that the Vienna discussions had resolved seventy percent of the disagreements. Further discussions are therefore essential. The U.S expects Iran to reiterate its commitment to NPT which it has signed and ratified.
The interests of both sides are better served if the differences are resolved on the negotiating table. Hence, the resumption of talks should be aimed at reviving the JCPOA instead of looking for other options. The US insists on including clauses that curtail Iran’s Ballistic Missile program and its regional activities in the JCPOA, Iran on the contrary, wants lifting of economic sanctions against it first, and that it should be allowed to carry out research in nuclear field, besides continuing with its robust missile programme which it considers essential for its security. It also wants that the regional security issues should be separated from the JCPOA, as a combined approach brings many obstacles to the deal.
The strong backing Iran receives from China and Russia would be a key factor to entirely isolating and pressing Iranian regime. Russia has strong interests in Iran, as Russian state’s nuclear company Rosatom operates in Iran. The company helped develop Iran’s first nuclear power unit at Bushehr, furthermore it aims to develop upto eight more nuclear power units in Iran. It also aims to arrange the training of Iranian specialists in relevant branches for the new plants. Hence, an economically strong Iran would strengthen the Russian nuclear market in the country. Furthermore, Russia is Iran’s key partner in Syria, where it backs the Assad regime against the rebels. Russia has therefore backed Iran while criticizing the US for abandoning, isolating, and sanctioning it.
China too, like Russia, has interest in the stability of Iran. Iran is an important energy source for China. China has backed Iran’s ballistic missile programme, as it is a major supplier of missile technology to Iran. China reportedly helped Iran in developing cruise missiles and shorter range Ballistic missile technology. In March 2021, according to some reports, China and Iran struck a 25-year partnership pact, to improve cooperation in multiple sectors including defense, economy, investment, and intelligence. Hence, the support from Russia and China contributes to keeping Iran’s economy afloat despite US sanctions.
Revival of JCPOA would give a boost to Iranian economy, and lifting of sanctions will help clear the way for it to trade with other states. It is, however, feared that an economically strong Iran may increase political and economic backing for Hezbollah and Hamas, which would be a huge source of concern for Israel and the US and would find its interests jeopardized in the region.
Israel, by sabotaging Iran’s nuclear sites, assassinating its nuclear scientists, and issuing threats of military operations, and support for its isolation and sanctions, has communicated that it will not accept a nuclear-armed Iran. In a meeting with President Biden, Israel’s incumbent Prime Minister Bennet highlighted measures that can prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, and praised Biden’s “other options,” while asking for a halt to nuclear talks and the enforcement of even more sanctions. The fact that Israel has a strong lobby in the United States and is a key ally of the United States in the Middle East is likely the most significant diplomatic impediment, to the JCPOA.
The talks to revive JCPOA are expected to restart by early November, with the E3 (Britain, France, Germany) and US pressing Iran to curtail its nuclear program, Iran is setting up new conditions for returning to talks. However, revival of the JCPOA would face problems given the present state of tensions between the USA, China, Russia and due to other factors stated above. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has said so in clear terms while visiting Germany that Iran’s nuclear advancements make resurrecting the pact unfeasible. Hence, the key hurdle here would be bridging the gap in the respective stands of the two sides. Both sides will have to step back from their stated positions if JCPOA is to be revived.
Zeeshan Naveed is an intern at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad. He is a student of Strategic Studies at National Defence University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org