It took seven years from the summer’s day in 2008 when a top U.S. diplomat first sat down together with his Iranian counterpart until the 2 sides sealed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that aimed to stay Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
No one expects it to require as long to determine whether or not they can resuscitate the pact abandoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump, but U.S. and European officials say the journey is going to be lengthy and arduous, if, indeed, they even begin the trek.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration said on Thursday that it had been able to send to its special envoy, Rob Malley, to satisfy Iranian officials and seek a path back to the deal, agreed by Tehran and 6 major powers and named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
While Tehran sent mixed signals initially, secretary of state Mohammad Javad Zarif took a tough line on Sunday, saying: “The U.S. won’t be ready to rejoin the nuclear pact before it lifts sanctions.”
The crux of the deal was that Iran would limit its uranium enrichment program to form it harder to amass the fissile material for a weapon of mass destruction – an ambition it’s long denied – reciprocally for relief from the U.S. and other economic sanctions.
In theory, it shouldn’t be hard to decide on the way to revive an agreement whose terms are detailed in 110 pages of text and annexes.
In reality, it’ll be a challenge for 2 reasons: the many sanctions that Trump imposed on Iran after walking faraway from the deal in May 2018 and therefore the steps Iran took, after waiting quite a year, to violate the pact in retaliation.
While each side has thus far focused publicly on the question of who moves first to revive the deal – each insists that the opposite must do so – a U.S. official told Reuters the “sequencing” might be finessed.
“The issue of who goes first … I don’t think it’s the one that’s getting to be the foremost difficult,” he said.
“It’s defining how all sides view compliance,” the official added, citing instead which U.S. sanctions could be lifted and “the question of … the steps that Iran has taken, are all of them reversible?”
The JCPOA, hammered out by Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and therefore us, required us to get rid of only “nuclear-related” sanctions on Iran.
After abrogating the agreement, Trump imposed many new sanctions on other grounds, including Iran’s alleged support for terrorism.
Experts say Biden would find it politically fraught, and perhaps impossible, to satisfy Tehran’s demands that these be lifted given the likely criticism from Republicans, and maybe a number of his fellow Democrats.
“This is a problem that’s very politically sensitive within the U.S. because a variety of those … was very intentionally done under terrorism authorities,” said Henry Rome of Eurasia Group.
“The two negotiating teams will get to undergo quite an extensive process of deciding what stays and what goes.”
Another challenge is Iran’s support for regional proxies, including those suspected of attacks on U.S. forces. within the deadliest such incident for nearly a year, a rocket attack on U.S.-led forces in northern Iraq on Monday killed a civilian contractor and injured a U.S. soldier, making it harder for Washington to seem to supply concessions to Iran.
A further complication is an American desire to free U.S. citizens detained in Iran, a problem on which Washington has begun talks with Iranian officials, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Sunday.
And while a number of the steps Tehran has taken to violate the JCPOA could also be reversible — like its enriching uranium above 3.67% and boosting its stock of low enriched uranium — others might not. These include expertise gleaned from research and development on advanced centrifuges that might help Iran enrich uranium to the 90% weapons-grade level should it seek to.
“How does one reverse the knowledge that they need to be gained?” asked Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution think factory.
The authorities in Tehran also face a fragile choice on the way to answer any overture from the Biden administration as Iran prepares for a presidential election in June when the turnout is probably going to be seen as a referendum on the clerical establishment amid growing discontent at over economic hardship.
Iran’s fragile economy, weakened by U.S. sanctions and therefore the coronavirus pandemic, has left the ruling elite with few options aside from barter, but the choice ultimately lies with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
It remains unclear, however, whether the 2 sides can even return to the negotiating table.
Iran has threatened to reduce its compliance with the deal further starting on Tuesday, notably by halting some snap inspections by the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog.
Experts said that might not necessarily doom the probabilities for negotiations, but it adds to the challenges.
“Despite everything, we remain during a precarious situation, which can become all the more so within the coming days,” said a French diplomatic source. “It’s important to revive diplomacy quickly.”