“Iran kept the nuclear deal alive, but the deal died and its stench offends people,” hardline Iranian parliamentarian Javad Karimi Ghodousi declared in January. “It was the revolutionary parliament with its revolutionary law that buried the deal.” Ghodousi was addressing Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in parliament and grilling him over his support of negotiations with the United States. Zarif left parliament that day with two “yellow cards,” a reprimand from the majority conservative body that weakened his political standing.
Ghodousi was referencing a bill passed by the Iranian parliament in December after the assassination—allegedly by Israel—of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. The bill mandated dramatic expansions in Iran’s nuclear program that further reduce its compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The bill has proven to be an impediment to a swift return to the JCPOA by the Biden administration. At the Munich Security Conference last week, President Joe Biden declared his intention to “re-engage” Iran and other global powers on the nuclear deal, and his senior officials have said the administration wants to talk to Iran about returning to the deal. However, Biden has yet to meaningfully ease the “maximum pressure” sanctions imposed by the previous administration in violation of the deal and is reportedly concerned about being seen as giving into Iranian pressure.
The Biden administration needs a keen understanding of Iran’s current internal dynamics to avoid playing into the hands of Iranian hardliners, who wish to scuttle the JCPOA and prevent its resuscitation in the last few months of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s term in office. Biden’s team should not view the parliamentary bill as an Iranian pressure tactic per se, but as the outcrop of divisive politics in Iran that it can swing to its advantage.
As Biden engages Iran in talks on returning to the nuclear deal, any goodwill gestures he makes at this stage will put Iranian hardliners on the defensive, make a JCPOA return more likely, and create international support for the U.S. position on Iran for the first time in years—boosting U.S. leverage in the process.
The Aim of Iranian Anti-JCPOA Hardliners
After Zarif’s testimony in parliament, over 200 former reformist Iranian officials, dissident political activists, and former political prisoners wrote a letter blasting anti-JCPOA hardliners within the country. They condemned these forces for “explicitly” expressing their “displeasure over the price of the dollar decreasing” amid forecasts of decreasing U.S.-Iran tensions and opined: “Some political forces within the country that are angry about the transfer of power in America and the potential for the revival of the JCPOA have grown more active to sabotage the process of sanctions lifting and reviving the JCPOA.”
The worries of the signatories played out with the parliamentary bill, which passed in the wake of Biden’s election just as a straightforward “compliance-for-compliance” JCPOA return became imaginable. The bill has already seen Iran increase uranium enrichment to 20 percent and test more advanced centrifuges. Another provocative provision of the bill was due to go into effect on Feb. 23, requiring Iran to cease compliance with the Additional Protocol, a key verification mechanism used by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which the JCPOA requires Iran to apply in order to bring increased transparency to the Iranian nuclear program.
However, Iran and the IAEA reached a last-minute agreement over the Additional Protocol issue that will maintain “necessary” verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program. This in turn has unleashed a fury in the Iranian parliament, which quickly passed a majority vote castigating the Rouhani administration for not implementing the parliament’s nuclear expansion law. Parliament has now sent the matter to the judiciary and hopes to cancel the agreement with the IAEA.
MPs have also said they will stop reviewing Rouhani’s budget bill, creating a showdown between these two branches of the Iranian government. This will occur as other nuclear expansions required by the bill loom in March, when it requires Iran to operationalize 1,000 advanced “IR-2M” centrifuges, and in May, when it requires the completion of a metallic uranium factory.
The parliamentary bill became law over the strong objections of Rouhani and his allies, who publicly argued it would be harmful to its stated goal of lifting U.S. sanctions on Iran. Rouhani’s ministers even tried to slow roll its implementation through cleverly written bylaws, an effort that was eventually quashed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who threw his support behind the legislation.
Rouhani fought tooth and nail to keep the deal alive during the Trump era over constant calls by domestic hardliners to retaliate more forcefully against the United States. While he did support gradually reducing compliance with the JCPOA’s nuclear limitations in response to the U.S. actions, which Iran began to do in 2019, he regularly emphasized Iran would return to full compliance with the deal if the United States met its sanctions relief commitments under the JCPOA.
However, the parliamentary bill requires far more rapid nuclear advances on a shorter timeline than what Iran was previously doing. Its provisions have spurred concern and push back not just from the United States, but also the European Union (EU), Russia, and China, who all supported Iran on the nuclear file during the Trump presidency.
Diakou Hosseini, a director at a Tehran think tank affiliated with the Rouhani government, presciently warned in December about the impact the bill could have on Biden’s thinking: “Biden may reach the conclusion that Iran views him as a weak president and seeks to pressure him. So, he might from the beginning find it better to take a strong position and show that he is not a weak president who makes decisions in the face of Iranian pressure.”
Indeed, the Biden administration now reportedly does not want to be viewed as “capitulating to Iranian pressure” in the form of the bill’s required nuclear expansions. The administration has publicly taken the untenable position that Iran must first return to compliance with the JCPOA before the United States does, even thought it was the United States that originally reneged on the deal. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also admonished Iran for seeking to reduce the access of IAEA inspectors and joined the foreign ministers of the UK, France, and Germany in urging Iran “to consider the consequences of such grave action, particularly at this time of renewed diplomatic opportunity.”
However, it would be a mistake for the Biden administration to react to the bill’s nuclear provocations by upping the ante against Iran. During his presidential campaign, Biden described Trump’s Iran policy as a “dangerous failure.” Blinken has since said “maximum pressure” has “not produced results” with Iran and the “problem has gotten worse.” Yet, President Biden still has not made a demonstration of good faith by tangibly diverting from Trump’s approach. By not doing so, he is falling into the trap set by Iranian hardliners.
Publicly, Iranian hardliners deride the idea of new negotiations with the United States. One of the “yellow cards” Zarif received in parliament was because he did not “rule out” negotiations with the United States after the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. However, Zarif himself has contended that Iran’s conservatives are not intrinsically opposed to negotiations with the United States, but merely do not want Rouhani’s government to reap the rewards of reviving the JCPOA and bringing Iran’s economy out from under debilitating sanctions.
In an interview last November, Zarif claimed Iranian hardliners are actively communicating to the United States to wait until after the Iranian presidential election before pursuing serious diplomacy with Iran. Zarif said: “Some of our [domestic] friends communicate to America that it can work better with us,” that the “Rouhani administration will not remain in power” and that “this administration shouldn’t be negotiated with.” The aforementioned letter from the Iranian activists made a similar claim, saying “the forces that support authoritarianism in Iran” believe “they themselves can lift the sanctions and revive the JCPOA” after “taking total control of the government” later this year.
Whatever their intentions, Iranian hardliners clearly have a vested political interest in preventing a JCPOA revival under a Rouhani administration. They should be expected to play more of a spoiler role as the Iranian presidential election in June gets closer.
However, Biden can thwart their efforts by easing some U.S. pressure imposed by the Trump administration to jumpstart talks on a JCPOA return.
Biden Can Put the Ball in Iran’s Court
President Biden should not aim to impact Iranian domestic politics. But he should realize that the challenge of a JCPOA reentry will become considerably more difficult with the deal’s original Iranian architects out of power.
Tangible overtures from Biden, such as approving Iran’s request for an $5 billion International Monetary Fund loan to help address the coronavirus pandemic, or allowing Iran to use its frozen assets abroad for medical purchases, will put the ball in Iran’s court and gain international support for the United States.
Biden is well positioned to create a multilateral front on the Iran nuclear issue. Trump’s Iran policy was not “America first” but America alone, with the United States becoming unprecedentedly isolated at the UN and other international bodies on Iran. If Biden heads into talks with Iran on a JCPOA return having proven American goodwill, he will put Iranian hardliners on the back foot. If Iran then continues the parliamentary bill’s expansions, it will be Iran, and not the United States, that will be viewed as the intransigent party internationally, even by close Iranian partners Russia and China.