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The first major crisis involving the Iran nuclear deal since Joe Biden’s election has been averted for now. And while there is a long way to go – with significant issues of dispute remaining between Washington and Tehran – the problems around the accord are not insurmountable.
Iran has agreed that it will not block the system of wide ranging checks on its nuclear sites by UN inspectors, restrictions which were due to start today, following talks with Rafael Gross, the head of (IAEA).
The inspectors will broadly continue to work as before, with some caveats, for the next three months, But the "temporary technical arrangement” may then be revoked by Iran if the US does not lift the sanctions imposed by Donald Trump.
It is highly unlikely that the Biden administration, despite stating that it wants to re-join the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which Trump left, will remove all the financial penalties put in place by the end of this period.
Biden has said that Iran must reverse a number of steps in breach of the agreement. This includes enriching uranium to 20 per cent, and the production of non-enriched uranium metal which has little civilian use, but can be used to build the core of a nuclear bomb. The new secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, has said that it would currently take Iran "a few months" to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, going on to warn that it "could get down to a matter of weeks", if Tehran continued to abandon restraints.
On Monday, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that Iran may raise enrichment to 60 per cent, declaring: “We are determined to gain nuclear capabilities proportionate to the country’s needs and for this reason, the limit for enrichment won’t be 20 percent.” However, he also wanted to stress that his country does not want the bomb, and Iranian officials say privately that there are no immediate plans to dramatically scale-up enrichment.
Biden’s actions also do not suggest that he has turned away JCPOA and from improving relations with Tehran. His Iran envoy, Robert Malley, had helped negotiate the nuclear deal.; his national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, had met with Tehran officials in the run up to the agreement being signed, and his nominee as CIA director, William Burns, is a veteran diplomat who has never been an Iran hawk.
One of the first acts of the new administration was to withdraw the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, and its strike group, from the Gulf in what was seen as a signal to Tehran of de-escalating tensions, it rescinded the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis, Iran’s allies in Yemen, as a terrorist group – and ended American support for the Saudi-led military campaign in the country.
The new administration also dropped the attempts by the Trump to restore all UN sanctions on Iran, and eased travel restrictions on Iranian officials attending the UN. It has announced that it is willing to hold talks with Iran hosted by the European Union with Britain, France and China – signatories to the JCPOA – attending and will take “some steps in advance” that Moscow (another signatory) and Beijing have asked for.
This, one would have thought, was what Iran wanted. It had proposed that the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who is also the head of the JCPOA Joint Commission, should choreograph both Iran and the US fulfilling their obligations. And Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, urged European states to take an initiative on the sanctions in a telephone call with Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, last week.
Iran’s response, however, has been to repeat the call for the US to lift all sanctions before any talks take place. Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said: “The U.S. will not be able to re-join the nuclear pact before it lifts sanctions ... Once everybody implements their side of obligations, there will be talks.”
In reality, the chances are that talks will take place before all sanctions are lifted, just as the restrictions on UN inspectors were suspended without the same demands on sanctions lifting being met.
Other developments could take place to build bridges, such as the US backing an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan Iran had asked for and the Trump administration had blocked. Countries holding frozen Iranian assets may start freeing them with Washington’s approval, as South Korea agreed to do with around $9.2bn (£6.5bn) this week.
The three months gained by the IAEA on the inspections may seem like kicking the can down the road. However, the time factor is important here. The Iranian presidential elections are taking place in June. Hardliners, who had opposed the JCPOA from the start, won a sweeping victory in the parliamentary (majlis) polls last year and are confident of victory again. Rouhani, who signed the deal, cannot stand again having served two terms, but his reformist successor, they say, will lose.
The reason for the triumph of the hardliners last year was not a huge surge in support. It was because disillusioned reformist voters stayed away. And one of the reasons for the disillusionment was that the promise of economic and social gains failed to materialise.
The main reason for that failure was Trump’s assault on the agreement. With his defeat and the prospect of the US once again coming on board, reformist voters may go back to the polls to back their candidate.
The nuclear deal, which had taken years to negotiate, and was almost dismantled after Trump's victory in 2016, may well be set on a path to be repaired and restored by the result of the election in Iran.