In a recent room on the Clubhouse audio-chat app, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, expressed optimism about the U.S. and Iran returning to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He said to the audience, which hit Clubhouse’s peak of 8,000 listeners, that the “deadlock” over which side moves first on returning to its commitments under the nuclear deal has “broken.”
“When we enter the technical stage [of talks], this means the issue is being managed in such a way that the debate of ‘first you’ is bypassed,” Salehi proclaimed. He was referring to talks that started this week in Vienna over the JCPOA, which have brought U.S. and Iranian diplomats in close proximity for the first time during the Biden administration, though they are still not talking directly to one another.
However, Salehi’s hopeful tone on resolving the first mover dilemma on a JCPOA return was followed by contradicting messages from other Iranian officials. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, who is heading the Iranian delegation in Vienna, said pointedly just before the talks started: “We have no step-by-step suggestion to America and will not accept one either.”
At the start of the Vienna meeting, Araghchi also reiterated that the United States must “first” remove all sanctions before Iran returns to JCPOA compliance. Meanwhile, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price has reiterated that the United States “will not entertain unilateral gestures” to “induce Iran to a better place.” If Araghchi and Price’s comments reflect each side’s bottom line, the diplomatic process started in Vienna this week will be hard pressed to lead to a breakthrough.
Iranian rhetoric against a step-by-step return to the JCPOA and insistence that the United States make the first moves on the surface appears intransigent and a major impediment to diplomatic progress. However, it is rooted in fundamental distrust in U.S. intentions and a concern that the United States seeks to extract nuclear concessions from Iran in exchange for piecemeal sanctions relief rather than the removal of all sanctions that violate the JCPOA.
Comments from Iranian officials and analysts inside the country suggest that a creative return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA is possible but requires narrowing the trust gap and the United States clarifying its intent to fully return to the JCPOA.
Clarifying America’s Intentions is Key
U.S. Special Envoy to Iran Rob Malley’s recent comment to the PBS Newshour emphasizing that the United States will “remove those sanctions that are inconsistent with the deal” appears to have spurred diplomatic momentum. Ali Rabiee, the Rouhani administration’s spokesperson, said Malley’s stated position was “realistic and hope-inducing” and “can be the start of fixing the incorrect process that brought diplomacy to a deadlock.” He said Iran “welcomes” this U.S. policy, but is “waiting for the implementation of this constructive approach.”
Rabiee’s response highlights Iran’s principal worry on returning to its JCPOA commitments. While Iranian leaders, whether President Hassan Rouhani or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have consistently expressed a readiness to restore the deal, they are apprehensive about the United States, which formally remains outside of the deal, seeking to hack away at Iran’s nuclear leverage while not undoing the spider’s web of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Iran.
The key to the Vienna talks reaching success is for the United States to agree to a framework with Iran on how each side will return to JCPOA compliance. For the United States, this will mean lifting the array of sanctions imposed on Iran by the previous administration that were expressly aimed at preventing the agreement’s revival. The Trump White House not only reimposed nuclear sanctions on Iran, but slapped on new layers of redundant sanctions on Iran’s banking, oil, shipping, insurance, and other major economic sectors slated for relief under the terms of the JCPOA. If this “sanctions wall” is not lifted, Iran would not derive economic benefit from the deal and thus would be extremely unlikely to rejoin.
Iran wants assurance that the U.S. end-goal is the removal of all of Trump’s sanctions that violate the JCPOA. The governmental spokesperson, Rabiee, said in this regard after the Vienna talks began that a “roadmap” to full JCPOA compliance can be agreed to as part of a single, quick step that is implemented over the longer term.
Diakou Hosseini, a director at a Tehran think tank affiliated with Rouhani’s administration, elaborated in a tweet on how a “single step” to JCPOA compliance would work. He said it would involve a set of “reciprocal but related and continuous independent actions in a single stage that will take time but is short.” He then compared the “stage” of a JCPOA return to a theater stage, “which is composed of components and segments whose implementation is coordinated among actors,” but is done in a “single stage of performing a show.”
The somewhat ambiguous comments out of Iran on restoring the JCPOA in a single step boil down to a solidifying and new bottom-line: both sides coming to a detailed understanding on how each will return to full JCPOA compliance over a short stretch of time. Iran no longer wants to enter a vaguely-defined “step by step” process where it risks giving away its nuclear bargaining chips in exchange for limited U.S. sanctions relief, a process that could easily stall. This aversion stems from both the Biden administration’s initial rhetoric and steps and Iran’s experience with the JCPOA’s initial implementation in 2015-2016.
At the start of the Biden administration, Iranian leaders were actually open to a step-by-step JCPOA return, with Khamenei saying Iran would meet any U.S. “action” on returning to the deal” with “action,” and Rouhani saying Iran would meet a “partial return to compliance” with a “partial return to compliance.” However, this tune changed after Khamenei’s address marking the Iranian New Year in March, in which he emphasized that the United States must lift all sanctions before Iran returns to JCPOA compliance.
It later emerged that the United States was offering Iran proposals that were perceived as taking away its biggest nuclear bargaining chips, namely its enriching of uranium at the 20-percent level and with advanced centrifuges, in exchange for a few billion dollars of frozen Iranian assets being released from banks abroad for humanitarian relief. Iranian officials vociferously rejected the proposal. Khamenei emphasized in his New Year’s speech that the root issue was not who moves first on a JCPOA return, but Iran’s fundamental distrust in the United States meeting its JCPOA commitments.
From the Iranian perspective, Iran got burnt on the JCPOA from the get-go. After the deal was struck in July 2015, its implementation process saw Iran give away its nuclear leverage up front. During the fall of that year, Iran scaled back its nuclear program in line with the deal. After the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified this, the U.S. lifted the nuclear-related sanctions specified in the JCPOA in January 2016. But Iran ultimately never received the economic dividends it expected from the deal. Foreign firms stayed away for a variety of reasons, later including the U.S. election cycle that saw Donald Trump elected after sharply criticizing the agreement.
“We trusted the Americans during the time of Obama and did things in accordance with the JCPOA,” Khamenei declared in his New Year’s speech, “On paper they said they lifted sanctions, but they scared away investors [from Iran]. Their commitments have no value for us.”
Khamenei’s obduracy has been reinforced by the Biden administration’s stated aim to reach a “longer and stronger” JCPOA, which also addresses Iran’s missile program and regional influence. Biden’s refusal so far to ease any economic pressure on Iran, even on humanitarian grounds to help Iran with the COVID-19 pandemic, has further heightened Khamenei’s suspicion that the United States seeks to keep some of Trump’s sanctions to use as “leverage” for a broader deal with Iran.
However, Iran also has a significant incentive to restore the JCPOA now under Biden. Whereas in 2015 Iran could only count on a year of full compliance by the Obama administration, rejoining the agreement at the beginning of a Biden administration would ensure a longer time horizon of full implementation than Iran has experienced to date. Relief under the deal could also be built on if a successor Iranian administration is intent on pursuing a “more for more” nuclear agreement or regional negotiations as the Biden administration is hoping. Failure to seize the window now might cause Iran to miss out on a clear opportunity to restore an agreement that has significant upside for an economy that supports 83 million people.
Sealing the Deal with Iran
The talks that began in Vienna between global powers and Iran have the potential to lead to a breakthrough on restoring the JCPOA. The rhetoric emanating from Iran reflects a willingness to move fast on returning to compliance with the deal, provided the United States makes clear its intention of lifting sanctions that violate the accord. It will require strong political will and bold action from President Biden to undo those Trump sanctions that were expressly designed to sabotage a U.S. return to the agreement.
In his Clubhouse talk, Iran’s nuclear chief Salehi suggested that an improved U.S.-Iran relationship is possible after a JCPOA return. He called for the “wall of distrust” between the United States and Iran to be broken down and said Iran is not opposed to having “economic relations” with the United States, something the primary U.S. embargo on Iran has blocked for decades. A JCPOA return holds the possibility of reimagining the U.S.-Iran relationship, which has been mired by decades of hostility and threats. While there is a long way to go before a lasting peace between the two countries is securely established, there are now signs of hope.