Analysis: The road to a renewed Iranian nuclear deal is likely to be long and bumpy
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Ministers and officials pose for a group picture inside the United Nations building in Vienna
By Arshad Mohammed and Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – It was seven years from the summer day of 2008, when a senior US diplomat first sat down with his Iranian counterpart, for both sides to seal the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal aimed at preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons .
Nobody expects it will take this long to see if they can revive the pact abandoned by former US President Donald Trump, but US and European officials say the journey will be tedious and arduous if they actually use it at all start the hike.
The administration of US President Joe Biden said Thursday it was ready to send to its Special Envoy Rob Malley to meet Iranian officials and seek a way back to the deal agreed by Tehran and six major powers, calling the joint comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA).
While Tehran initially sent mixed signals, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took a tough line on Sunday, saying: “The US will not be able to rejoin the nuclear pact until the sanctions are lifted.”
The gist of the deal was that Iran would curtail its uranium enrichment program to make it more difficult to amass the fissile material for a nuclear weapon – an ambition it has long denied – in support of U.S. and other economic sanctions.
In theory, it shouldn’t be difficult to decide how to revive an agreement the terms of which are set out on 110 pages of text and annexes.
In reality, it will be challenging for two reasons: the numerous sanctions Trump imposed on Iran after stepping back from the deal in May 2018 and the steps Iran took after waiting more than a year had to violate the pact in retaliation.
While both sides have so far publicly focused on who will revive the deal first – each insisting the other must do so – a US official told Reuters that “sequencing” could be refined.
“The question of who comes first … I don’t think it will be the hardest,” he said.
“It defines how each side sees compliance,” the official added, quoting instead what US sanctions could be lifted, and “the question of … the steps Iran has taken, are they all reversible?” “
POLITICS, PRISONS AND PROXY FORCES
The JCPOA, which was drafted by Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, called on the United States to lift only “nuclear related” sanctions against Iran.
After the deal was lifted, Trump imposed numerous new sanctions for other reasons, including Iran’s alleged support for terrorism.
Experts say Biden would find it politically difficult and perhaps impossible to meet Tehran’s demands to overturn them, given the likely criticism from Republicans and perhaps some of his fellow Democrats.
“This is an issue that is very politically sensitive in the US as some of these … were very deliberately carried out under the terrorism authorities,” said Henry Rome of the Eurasia Group.
“The two negotiation teams have to go through a fairly extensive process to decide what stays and what works.”
Another challenge is Iran’s support for regional proxies, including those suspected of attacking US forces. In the deadliest such incident in nearly a year, a rocket attack on US-led forces in northern Iraq on Monday killed a civilian contractor and injured a US soldier, making it difficult for Washington to make concessions to Iran.
Another complication is America’s desire to free US citizens detained in Iran, an issue on which Washington began talks with Iranian officials, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, on Sunday.
And while some of the steps Tehran has taken to violate the JCPOA may be reversible – such as: For example, enriching uranium above 3.67% and increasing its inventory of low-enriched uranium – others may not be reversible. This includes expertise from research and development on advanced centrifuges that would help Iran enrich uranium to 90% weapons if it strives to do so.
“How do you reverse the knowledge you have gained?” asked Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution think tank.
Tehran authorities also face a delicate decision on how to respond to an overture by the Biden government as Iran prepares for a June presidential election, when turnout is likely to end as a referendum on the clerical establishment amid growing dissatisfaction over the end economic difficulties are considered.
The fragile Iranian economy, weakened by US sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, has left the ruling elite with few options other than negotiation, but the decision ultimately rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
However, it remains unclear whether the two sides can even return to the negotiating table.
Iran has threatened to further reduce compliance with the deal from Tuesday, in particular by halting some rapid inspections by the United Nations nuclear watchdog.
Experts said this wouldn’t necessarily affect your chances of negotiation, but it does add to the challenges.
“In spite of everything, we remain in a precarious situation that will only worsen in the coming days,” said a French diplomatic source. “It is important to revive diplomacy quickly.”