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Ivan Timofeev

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club

Joseph Biden’s victory in the US election raised hopes for a revision of the American approach to the Iranian nuclear deal. Washington unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, renewing massive economic sanctions against Iran. The subsequent extraterritorial application of US sanctions forced a significant number of foreign companies to leave Iran.

The renewal of US sanctions appears to have caused significant economic damage to Iran. However, Washington has also largely found itself in diplomatic isolation.

The diplomatic marathon to reset the JCPOA started immediately after the new president of the United States took office. The first stumbling block was expectedly the sequence of actions. Tehran declares its readiness to return to the implementation of the JCPOA only after the lifting of US sanctions. Washington takes the opposite position—first, compliance with the terms of the deal by Iran, and only later—the resolution of the issue of sanctions. Simultaneously, both parties launched a series of consultations with other parties. China has declared the advisability of multilateral negotiations. This proposal was supported by Russia as well. The European Union volunteered to be a mediator in the negotiations, but at the end of February Iran refused an informal meeting with the US, mediated by the head of EU diplomacy, Josep Borrell.

The Russian position on the JCPOA suggests the following. First, Moscow welcomes the very fact of a return to negotiations. Second, Russia insists on the need to separate nuclear issues from other topics. Otherwise, the possibility of reaching any compromises becomes extremely doubtful. Third, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs offers a “synchronised approach”. That is, Washington and Tehran must synchronise their concessions: the former unfreezes Iranian assets and lifts sanctions, the latter is gradually returning to the terms of the deal. But will the United States and Iran agree to that?

Domestic political factors must also be taken into account. The upcoming elections in Iran may affect its diplomacy, which could become less amenable to compromise. In the United States, the political cycle has just begun. But the specificity of institutions remains an important factor. Even if Joe Biden with his orders cancels Donald Trump’s decisions and returns the US to the status quo, he will not be able to change a number of US laws on Iranian issues. The President will still have to regularly report to Congress and “certify” the implementation of the JCPOA. It is possible that the next president will abandon the “certification”, as Trump did in 2018.

Joseph Biden’s victory in the US election raised hopes for a revision of the American approach to the Iranian nuclear deal. Washington unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, renewing massive economic sanctions against Iran. The subsequent extraterritorial application of US sanctions forced a significant number of foreign companies to leave Iran.

Companies from the EU have suffered the most. Moreover, during the presidency of Donald Trump, the volume of restrictive measures against Iran was increased by Presidential Executive Orders No. 13846, 13871, 13876, 13902 and 13949. In turn, Tehran began to gradually withdraw from its obligations under the JCPOA, taking into account the renewal and amplification of the American sanctions. A feature of the US approach during the Trump era was the mixing of nuclear issues with other issues and linking of sanctions relief with them. Such issues include the proliferation of ballistic missiles, the release of US citizens and citizens of US allies, the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria, the end of support for the Houthis in Yemen as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan, etc. Washington was criticised by all permanent members of the UN Security Council (the JCPOA received international legitimation, including within the framework of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2231). The European Union also criticised the United States, but could not influence its American ally. The United States even maintained a strict sanctions regime during the COVID-19 pandemic. No serious humanitarian exemptions have been made for Iran.

The renewal of US sanctions appears to have caused significant economic damage to Iran. However, Washington has also largely found itself in diplomatic isolation. While the United States could simply ignore the views of its allies and partners in the “nuclear deal,” the JCPOA remained important for two reasons. The first is Iran’s activity to resume its nuclear program. Unilateral US sanctions are damaging Iran’s economy, but they are unlikely to force Tehran to abandon nuclear development. The United States runs the risk of another round in the development of the Iranian nuclear program. Unlike the 2000s, it will be much more difficult for Washington to assemble an international coalition to thwart such a program, especially considering that the Americans withdrew from the JCPOA themselves. The second reason is the prospect of large-scale supplies of conventional weapons to Iran, which until recently was prohibited by UN Security Council Resolution 2231. Although Trump’s executive order No. 13949 threatens with sanctions to suppliers of conventional weapons to Iran, such supplies may well become a reality, especially from Russia and China.

In other words, the return of the United States to the JCPOA discussion is determined not only by the new president’s commitment to multilateral diplomacy, but also by quite pragmatic reasons. However, this does not mean that the United States will agree to return to the status quo. The Americans will conduct tough negotiations, trying to squeeze the maximum concessions from Iran. The “lowest denominator” set by Trump is more likely to play into the hands of the new administration. Even in the event of certain relaxation, the new realities are unlikely to be similar to the period that preceded the US withdrawal from the JCPOA.

The diplomatic marathon to reset the JCPOA started immediately after the new president of the United States took office. The first stumbling block was expectedly the sequence of actions. Tehran declares its readiness to return to the implementation of the JCPOA only after the lifting of US sanctions. Washington takes the opposite position—first, compliance with the terms of the deal by Iran, and only later—the resolution of the issue of sanctions. Simultaneously, both parties launched a series of consultations with other parties. China has declared the advisability of multilateral negotiations. This proposal was supported by Russia as well. The European Union volunteered to be a mediator in the negotiations, but at the end of February Iran refused an informal meeting with the US, mediated by the head of EU diplomacy, Josep Borrell.

The Russian position on the JCPOA suggests the following. First, Moscow welcomes the very fact of a return to negotiations. Second, Russia insists on the need to separate nuclear issues from other topics. Otherwise, the possibility of reaching any compromises becomes extremely doubtful. Third, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs offers a “synchronised approach”. That is, Washington and Tehran must synchronise their concessions: the former unfreezes Iranian assets and lifts sanctions, the latter is gradually returning to the terms of the deal.

At the same time, much will depend on what exactly the “synchronised approach” will consist of. For example, the United States could reverse Trump’s 2019 and 2020 executive orders, but keep in effect all sanctions renewed in 2018. Under these conditions, Iran is also unlikely to return to full compliance with its obligations. Timing is also important. The process of returning to the JCPOA could be almost endless. External factors must also be taken into account. Even if it is possible to separate the JCPOA from other issues, they will still have a background influence on the negotiations. The situation in Syria, Yemen and other points of contention that underscore the US-Iranian conflict remain unstable.

Domestic political factors must also be taken into account. The upcoming elections in Iran may affect its diplomacy, which could become less amenable to compromise. In the United States, the political cycle has just begun. But the specificity of institutions remains an important factor. Even if Joe Biden with his orders cancels Donald Trump’s decisions and returns the US to the status quo, he will not be able to change a number of US laws on Iranian issues. The President will still have to regularly report to Congress and “certify” the implementation of the JCPOA. It is possible that the next president will abandon the “certification”, as Trump did in 2018.

First published in the Valdai Discussion Club.

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