Middle East

Joe Biden and the Iran nuclear deal: back to the old or agree anew?

With Joe Biden on board, all parties to the nuclear deal want to bring it back to life. Iran wants to stick with the old agreement. The west may ask for more.

It won’t be easy to revive an agreement that took years to strike and was ruthlessly sabotaged shortly after, but President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to do it. Iran has welcomed his intent.

Earlier this week, President Hassan Rouhani said his country would return to compliance with the nuclear deal, known as the JPCOA, within an hour of the US doing so. But that might not be enough.

There is a chance that the United States and European powers ask for more. They might expect Iran to negotiate about its controversial missile program and its regional support for non-state actors – which the US and Europe see as destabilizing policies. Iranian officials have said they would only consider negotiating these concerns with their Gulf neighbors.

If this strife persists, attempts to resurrect the nuclear deal are bound to fail.

The non-nuclear spirit of the nuclear deal

“Iran is not living up to the spirit of the [nuclear] deal.” Trump made this remark almost every time he imposed a new sanction on Iran. His officials hammered home the narrative that the nuclear deal was a failure because it did not moderate Iran’s actions in other areas.

“Instead of killing the agreement, [Trump] could have built on it to address other concerns,” says Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.

He did not. To the public, Trump repeatedly said he wanted a new deal with Iran, one that would cover US allies’ concerns. But he did not have a viable strategy to replace the nuclear deal, Davenport notes.

Now, with Biden indicating the US would rejoin the agreement, calls for a new accord are growing.

One of those voices belongs to German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Maas said: “A return to the previous agreement will not suffice anyway. There will have to be a kind of ‘nuclear agreement plus.'”

In addition to Germany, France, and the UK, have signaled their support. In a statement released in early December the three European parties to the nuclear deal, known as the E3, welcomed “a diplomatic path to address wider concerns with Iran.” On Thursday, the head of UN atomic watchdog IAEA, Rafael Grossi, endorsed their approach by saying: “I cannot imagine that they are going simply to say, ‘We are back to square one’ because square one is no longer there.”

Pushing Iran for more is a tall order, according to Ellie Geranmayeh, an expert on the JPCOA at the European Council for Foreign Relations: “The only way to pivot towards further negotiations with Iran is to first set a precedent of implementing the nuclear agreement and building confidence within the Iranian political establishment that they can actually get deals with the west in sustainable and durable ways that benefit Iran too.”

“Skipping over the 2015 nuclear deal and proposing a wider set of terms and a bigger deal, which Iranians were never willing to accept, even under Trump, is not going to be feasible,” Geranmayeh says.

Even though the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign failed to bring results, some Trump officials suggest that Biden can take advantage of it. US special envoy for Iran Elliott Abrams is one of those currently in the White House who believe said that the pressure campaign has inflicted huge pain on Iran and that Biden should use it to get a greater bargain. “We have great leverage; let us use it,” he said in a webinar discussion put on by the United Against Nuclear Iran group this week.

On the contrary, Davenport sees the scenario facing Biden as being similar to pre-nuclear deal negotiations: “The United States must first neutralize the growing risk posed by Iran’s violations of the nuclear deal, restore confidence in US credibility by rejoining the accord, and then pursue talks to address these critical issues that fall outside the parameters of the [nuclear deal].”

Iran: follow-on negotiations only with neighbors

So far Iran has rejected adding any further issues to the agreement. “We will not renegotiate a deal which we [already] negotiated,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in November at a Rome policy conference.

Iran sees ballistic missile programs as its principal deterrence. Iranian officials often weigh the relatively large military expenditures of their neighbors against Iran’s sanctioned arms and aviation industry. Unless other states in the region agree to the same restraints, Tehran is unwilling to make concessions.

To end the deadlock, Tehran’s solution is a regional dialogue, but without world powers. Iran’s proposal, “Hormuz Peace Endeavor” or HOPE, invites its neighbors to discuss their regional security concerns, as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has written. In lieu of direct involvement of world powers, HOPE calls for a higher international body, such as the UN Security Council, to endorse the outcomes of the talks.

Iran’s HOPE might not be entirely realistic. Western powers are the main providers of military and defense support to the Gulf countries and cannot be excluded from the talks. Plus, in Davenport’s view, “Addressing Iran’s destabilizing regional activities requires talks with both countries in the Middle East and world powers.”

However, Iran’s proposal could be a starting point for a much-needed dialogue without which the nuclear deal will be ineffective. “To provide further assurance that Iran will not pursue nuclear weapons in the future, it is important to address the underlying root causes that might push Tehran to decide that the benefits of nuclear weapons outweigh the costs,” Davenport says.

The Middle East has changed a lot since the nuclear deal was signed. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, two of Iran’s Arab neighbors, have normalized relations with Israel, and Israel is perceived to have been behind several attacks on Iran. Relations are sour. Discussing security issues requires a high level of trust, probably much higher than what Iran, its regional rivals, and the west can muster.

Turning the clock back to 2015 is not possible. But if diplomacy fails again, arms proliferation and the collapse of Iran’s moribund economy might follow. This could lead to serious security concerns for the Middle East and the world, more serious than the current ones.

By Monir Ghaedi

FILE – In this Jan. 13, 2015, file photo released by the Iranian President’s Office, President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran. Iran announced Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, it had begun using advanced centrifuges in violation of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno, File)

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