US must rethink its cost-free return to Iran nuclear deal
The attack last week targeting Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, for which Tehran blamed Israel, raises concerns about attempts to derail the course of the Vienna negotiations on the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.
The first round of these negotiations was held on April 6 and was indirectly attended by the US. These diplomatic efforts aim to facilitate the two parties returning to their obligations under the nuclear deal. The “joint commission” established two expert-level groups, one to work on the sanctions that the US is willing to lift and the other to work on the terms of the nuclear deal that Iran must recommit to. Afterward, the parties that attended the Vienna negotiations reported on the outcomes and agreed to hold a second meeting.
The outcomes of the first meeting revealed that the negotiations were limited to discussing Washington’s and Tehran’s return to the nuclear deal. The dispute amid the first meeting was mainly related to Iran’s demands to lift the sanctions first, while the US aimed for a “step-by-step” plan to revive the nuclear deal.
The Vienna negotiations have not involved regional actors. Additionally, Iran’s missile program and regional behavior were not included in the discussions. This appears to be a clear retreat by President Joe Biden from the promises he made during his election campaign and during the first weeks of his administration, while also being a clear indication of his willingness to offer more concessions to Iran.
Perhaps the Biden administration’s position toward Iran is driven by its desire to reverse all of Donald Trump’s policies and by a firm belief that sanctions have not been effective in modifying Tehran’s behavior. Furthermore, as the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal led to Iran stepping up its nuclear program, violating its commitments under the agreement, the Biden administration likely wants to reach an understanding before the Iranian presidential election in June to avoid engaging with Iran’s hard-liners, in case they win the vote. A hard-liner winning the presidency would reduce the prospects for diplomacy.
For Biden, reviving the nuclear deal is central to his policy in the region, as it will allow Iran’s nuclear program to be controlled, thus reducing polarization. In addition, restricting Iran within the framework of the nuclear deal would allow the White House to redirect its resources toward confronting the threat posed by China.
According to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, reviving the Iran nuclear deal is a major priority for the Biden administration. However, there are no guarantees that a return to the deal in this hasty and cost-free way will help in fulfilling its ambitions. In fact, Washington has not managed to renegotiate the issues that were not included in the 2015 agreement. Besides, in early 2016, Barack Obama admitted that Iran had undermined the “spirit” of the nuclear deal. Therefore, what new results can the negotiations bring to ensure that Iran will change its behavior and respect the spirit of the deal?
Based on the above, it was only natural for the regional powers to oppose Washington’s cost-free approach at the Vienna negotiations. Indeed, the revival of the nuclear deal does not even guarantee control over Iran’s nuclear program in the future. This is supported by the fact that Iran has acquired technical nuclear knowledge that lowers its breakout time. Also, under the terms of the deal, Iran can resume some of its worrisome nuclear activities in 2025 and can play for time until then. Therefore, if Washington fails to amend the deal due to Iran’s intransigence and Tehran uses its nuclear program as a pressure card, Iran will eventually become a nuclear power, tilting the balance of power in its favor and inevitably pushing the region toward a nuclear arms race.
Since the signing of the nuclear deal, the region has not seen a day of calm, as Iran has used the benefits of the agreement to push forward its regional project. This has resulted in many countries’ governance systems collapsing, civil wars, and terrorist attacks against oil facilities and energy supplies, as well as threats to maritime navigation in strategic shipping lanes. It is likely that history will repeat itself, especially if Iran’s sources of revenue increase once the US sanctions are lifted and its assets held abroad are unfrozen. These revenues will consolidate the power of Iran’s supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), encouraging the latter to continue on its current path. The IRGC has always worked to develop Iran’s ballistic missile program and provide support to militias. In addition, it has conducted many combat operations beyond Iran’s borders and has opposed the US presence in the region in order to strengthen its regional hegemony.
This cost-free return to the nuclear deal may result in Washington losing its regional allies, as they are likely to oppose the Biden administration’s policies toward Tehran. In the aftermath of the revival of the nuclear deal, Iran’s strong eastward orientation, specifically toward Russia and China, is likely to surprise Washington. As a matter of fact, the 2015 nuclear deal presented Beijing with an opportunity to gain the lion’s share of the significant economic contracts and this scenario is likely to repeat itself.
This analysis is justified by the fact that Iran views the US as an ideological threat, impeding the deepening of relations between the two countries. For Iran, deeper relations threaten the stability and survival of its political system and the cultural values that it reinforces. Iran’s close relations with China help the latter maximize its geopolitical presence in the region, and deeper relations between them makes sense as they both aim to counter US pressures and hegemony.
This may result in Washington losing its regional allies, as they are likely to oppose the Biden administration’s policies toward Tehran.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
After all, it can be said that Washington’s current rush toward reviving the nuclear deal and its intent to pursue a containment policy toward Iran while pressing regional powers to accept the status quo is an uncalculated risk. This is once again a dangerous and unwise scenario. It is not reflective of Biden’s promises about smart and comprehensive diplomacy. Instead, it reflects a lack of consideration of the changes that have taken place in the region in recent years, and is an unjustified neglect of the regional powers.
Therefore, the Biden administration must reconsider its current diplomatic approach toward Iran and understand that the Natanz attack reflects regional opposition to the nuclear deal and the current Vienna negotiations. This opposition will not stop until the Iran issue is comprehensively addressed. Within the US, the Republican Party and a significant number of Democrats oppose the current policy toward Iran. The Biden administration should not postpone the settlement of other thorny issues, given that the hard-liners in Iran are most likely to win the upcoming presidential election, regardless of whether the Vienna negotiations succeed in reviving the nuclear deal.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami