A possible obstacle to the revival of the Iran nuclear accord
A little-recognized provision of the 2015 international agreement that put a brake on Iran’s nuclear program explains the jockeying of the United States and the Islamic Republic over the modalities of a US return to the agreement that President Donald J Trump has resigned from.
The magical date of the provision is 2023, when, if the Biden administration reverts to the deal, it would have to seek congressional approval to lift or amend any U.S. nuclear sanctions against Iran.
Both the government and Iran recognize that, given the suspicion, hostility, and distrust of the two parties towards the Islamic Republic, obtaining approval from Congress is likely to be challenging, if not impossible.
As a result, the United States and Iran have different goals in negotiating a US return to the deal.
Biden’s government is trying to develop a process that will allow it to bypass the 2023 hurdle and secure a negotiation that will update the six-year-old deal, curtail Iran’s controversial ballistic missile program, and Iranian support for recruits non-state actors in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
A lengthy negotiation would allow President Joe Biden to focus Congress on its domestic legislative agenda without Iran being a disruptive nuisance.
Biden “needs something to get past 2023. So he wants a process that requires a series of steps that … could take several years. During that time, the United States could relax some sanctions … those little things along the way One way could happen in a process, but the key will be to have a process that allows the Biden administration to work this out for some time, “said former State Department and National Security Council official Hillary Mann Leverett.
An expanded process would also make it easier for Biden to convince America’s skeptical partners in the Middle East – Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – that a return to the deal is the right thing to do.
Biden tried to reassure his partners that he would stand contrary to Trump’s commitment to the US’s defense with this week’s missile attack on an Iran-backed Shiite militia base in Syria. The strike was in response to alleged Iranian-backed militia strikes on US targets in Iraq, as well as projectiles being fired against Saudi Arabia that were reported to have originated in Iraqi territory.
The US attack also drew Iran’s attention to the fact that it was a new government, more committed to its international commitments and multilateralism, and to a revitalization of the nuclear deal, but not at any cost.
The government reiterated its message by asking other countries to support a formal criticism of Iran’s accelerated nuclear activities at next week’s IAEA Board of Governors in Vienna.
The United States wants the IAEA to bring Iran to justice to increase nuclear fuel production in violation of the nuclear deal and stop the agency’s investigations into the presence of uranium particles in undeclared locations.
While US measures risk a dangerous military confrontation with Iran, they are likely to increase domestic and economic pressures on Iran to achieve an immediate and unconditional US return to the deal and the lifting of sanctions, even in anticipation of the 2023 milestone.
Pressure on the Iranian government to achieve immediate tangible results is heightened by a public demanding economic and health relief and government mismanagement and corruption rather than harsh US sanctions for the country’s economic misery and inability to cope with the pandemic to bring under control, blames.
The sanctions were imposed after Trump stepped down from the nuclear deal in 2018.
The pressure is compounded by the fact that recent public opinion polls show that the public, like the government, has little confidence in the United States as it fulfills its obligations under a potentially revived nuclear deal.
The results suggest that neither the government nor the Iranian public would have confidence in a process that would only lead to a partial lifting of the sanctions. They also cited a decline in support for the deal from more than 75 percent in 2015 to around 50 percent today.
Two-thirds of respondents opposed any restrictions on negotiation of the Iranian ballistic missile program and its support for regional proxies, even if it resulted in the lifting of all sanctions.
Public opinion is making an Iranian deal to negotiate non-nuclear issues in the absence of a fuller effort to restructure the Middle East’s security architecture that would introduce arms controls for all, as well as some sort of non-aggression agreement and conflict management mechanism in the long run at best.
Among the opponents of the Middle East nuclear deal, Israel is the land that has swung.
The country’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, refused to return to the deal last month, signaling that Israel would keep its military options on the table. Kochavi said he had ordered his armed forces “to prepare a number of operational plans in addition to those already in place”.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Gilad Erdan, suggested a few weeks later that his country may not cooperate with the Biden government on Iran if it returns to the nuclear deal.
“We will not be able to be part of such a process when the new government returns to this deal,” Erdan said.
By taking the heat out of Israel’s stance, it is protecting the Gulf states, which have requested to be part of a negotiation, from further US criticism by expressly rejecting Biden’s policies.
To address the likely differences with Israel, the Biden administration reportedly agreed to bring together a US-Israeli strategic working group on Iran that was set up during Barack Obama’s presidency in 2009. Chaired by the two countries’ national security advisors, the secret group is expected to meet virtually in the next few days.
It was not immediately clear whether the Biden government was launching similar consultations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In a confusing twist, Israel has drawn attention to its own officially unrecognized nuclear weapons capacity by beginning major construction work on its Dimona reactor, captured from satellite photos taken by the Associated Press.
Some analysts suggested that Israel’s persistent opposition to the Biden government’s approach could serve to divert attention from upgrades and changes it may be making at the Dimona facility.
“If you are Israel and have a major construction project to do in Dimona that is going to get attention, this is probably the time you would shout the most about the Iranians,” said Jeffrey Lewis, expert on non-proliferation.
Dr. James M Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.