Cipher Brief Expert John E. McLaughlin is the Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He served as Acting Director of Central Intelligence from July to September 2004 and as Deputy Director of Central Intelligence from October 2000 to July 2004.
EXPERT TAKE – Getting Iran back into compliance with the 2015 agreement constraining its nuclear work will rank highly on President-elect Biden’s list of urgent foreign policy challenges. This will require untangling a web of interlocking problems left by the Trump administration.
When Biden left office as vice president in early 2017, Iran had for a year, been complying with the deal signed with the United States, France, Germany, the UK, Russia, China and the European Union. The deal (starting in January 2016) obliged Iran — in return for the lifting of western economic sanctions — to reduce its nuclear stockpile by 98 percent (until 2031), shut down advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges (for five years), repurpose its heavy water reactor capable of producing plutonium, conduct only limited nuclear research and only at one facility (Natanz) until 2024, observe a UN arms embargo (until 2022), and a ban on import of missile technology (until 2025).
The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) repeatedly documented Iran’s compliance with the deal, but Trump withdrew the U.S. from it in May 2018, calling it a “horrible one-sided deal” that didn’t do enough to restrain Iran. He reimposed sanctions under a policy he called “maximum pressure.” The other countries stayed in the deal and Iran remained in compliance until July 2019, when it began exceeding allowable limits on enrichment. Later, after the U.S. killed Revolutionary Guards General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, Iran announced it would start breaching other limits.
Aware of Biden’s desire to revive the agreement in some form, Iran has been careful not to take irreversible steps. But it toughened its bargaining position this month by reopening the banned facility at Fordow, where it will resume production of 20 percent enriched uranium, the threshold from which weapons-grade bomb material is easily produced. According to the IAEA, Iran now has 12 times the amount of enriched uranium permitted under the deal.
To get Iran back into compliance and off the nuclear track, Biden has to navigate a more complex landscape than Obama did in 2015. Back then, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, pragmatic by Iranian standards, had been in office for two years and was able to hold the country’s hardliners in check. Rouhani’s popularity soared after the nuclear agreement, but his standing has gone steadily downward, despite being reelected in 2017, and Iran’s most extreme anti-American figures have been gaining more influence. Iran’s parliament last month, approved a bill to stop inspections by the UN agency, and Supreme leader Khameini demanded a lifting of sanctions as the cost of resuming the agreement.
This stiffening posture reflects genuine anger and distrust of the U.S., but it is also a bargaining tactic for escaping sanctions. The resumed and increased sanctions Trump slapped on Iran have combined with a severe COVID surge to deliver 30 percent inflation, a record slump in oil exports, and — because of new banking sanctions — a near cutoff from the world financial network. Iran is desperate for sanctions relief.
It isn’t just Iran that has changed since 2015. Other countries in the region opposed to Iran have now drawn closer together via the Abraham accords, in which the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, both worried about Iran, opened formal relations with Iran’s major regional enemy, Israel. This, combined with anti-Iranian pronouncements by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) last month, make clear that some combination of the members will push for a seat at any new bargaining table with Tehran — something Washington was able to avoid in 2015. This will pressure Washington not to make concessions with Iran without tougher terms in a new or revised deal, to include constraints on Iran’s missile program and its political and military meddling in the region.
The clock is also moving fast because Iran’s next presidential election is in June. And political maneuvering will further complicate any negotiations with the U.S., with candidates vying to show they can be tough on Washington. Iran’s conservative Guardians Council determines who gets to run, and although they will sometimes permit a relatively moderate candidate to compete, a hardliner, perhaps a former defense or Republican Guard official, appears poised to capture the office. No campaigner will want to appear soft on the U.S.
Biden must also bring on board the coalition of allies and adversaries who joined Washington in the original deal. This should be the easiest box to check, as none of them exited the pact with Trump. The Europeans last month, called for Washington to just rejoin without new preconditions. They, along with the Chinese and Russians, favor early sanctions relief — a stance that may bump up against hesitation in the U.S. Congress. For his part, Khameini has long signaled an intention to “look East” — to work more closely with the Chinese and Russians.
In the U.S., mitigating against a simple resumption of the agreement is the fact that some of the provisions on research and on weapons and missile import bans begin expiring soon — between 2022 and 2025. So, U.S. officials and many Europeans will want to extend these, and some in all capitals share the desire of Iran’s regional opponents to add limits on Tehran’s regional troublemaking and missile proliferation. Taking on many additional measures, however, would prolong negotiations and further strengthen hardliners in the Iranian presidential race.
All of these complexities may lead the Biden team to a familiar crossroads in modern geopolitics: a need to choose the least bad option. They could aim initially for something less than a total package. This could take the form of an interim agreement that involves resumption of the original pact with no changes; lifting of some sanctions on humanitarian-related goods; and an agreed schedule for follow on talks at a later date. The idea would be to postpone until later talks bargaining on lengthening the agreement’s timelines, rescinding of more sanctions and possible extension of the deal beyond the nuclear issues.
Without such an interim compromise, comprehensive negotiations may not be possible until after Iran’s presidential contest in June — a delay that would, however, risk a further hardening of Tehran’s bargaining position.
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