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Iran and the US both need a nuclear deal, but it must be win–win

Posted By on February 1, 2022 @ 14:30

Iran and the US need to strike an agreement to reinstate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, for their own and international interests. Without a deal, greater Middle East instability is inevitable and both sides, and the region, will be losers. If the will is there, a carefully shaped win–win deal is within reach.

Iran’s ruling regime needs a deal to protect itself from potential threats, both internal and external. The US, particularly President Joe Biden, needs a deal for domestic political and international reasons. That deal must prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, and sufficiently ‘stabilise’ the Middle East so that Washington can focus on higher priorities, namely, China and Russia.

After months of tedious drawn-out negotiations in Vienna, developments during the past week suggest that both sides now want to close a deal as soon as practicable. The evidence for this is recent reporting [1] that Iran is now willing to enter into direct negotiations with the US, and the departure [2] last week of the deputy special envoy for Iran, Richard Nephew, an Iran hawk, from the US negotiating team.

There are two imperatives for Iran to reach an early deal. The first is the threat from growing public restlessness due to Iran’s economic disarray, and the related debilitating effects of Covid-19. The second is the outcome from potential military action by the US and/or Israel if they conclude that Iran does intend to develop a nuclear weapon. Either, or both, could trigger reactions that would seriously challenge Iran’s leadership, and the broader regime itself.

The primary and punitive secondary effects of US sanctions imposed after President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA in 2018 have had a devastating effect on Iran’s economy [3] and its people. There has been a significant drop in productivity; foreign trade and investment remain severely limited; Iran’s international financial assets, estimated [4] at some US$115 billion, are mostly frozen; inflation is rampant, averaging [5] more than 40% in 2021; and unemployment in about a third of Iran’s provinces has reached double digits. While there’s been limited recovery in some areas, the future remains grim.

The pandemic has contributed significantly to this disarray. Iran’s Covid outbreak was the harshest in the Middle East, compounded in part by mismanagement, difficulties buying related medicines and medical equipment despite their exemption from sanctions, and in early 2020, the Trump administration’s blockage [6] of a US$5 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund sought by Tehran to meet Covid-related medical needs.

Given Iran’s economic outlook, President Ibrahim Raisi has chosen a ‘resistance economy’ pathway pending economic recovery. According to several sources, the majority of Iran’s population are willing to tolerate this, at least in the short term, in the absence of an acceptable JCPOA-related solution. However, there’s increasing widespread concern that Raisi’s hardline conservative government could put ideology ahead of pragmatism in seeking solutions.

Raisi’s challenge is that, under Biden, an acceptable pragmatic solution is increasingly seen as within reach, and widespread popular dissention could erupt if it’s not pursued. Raisi would want to avoid that.

On proliferation, I don’t believe the Raisi government, or that of his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, is, or was, committed to developing a nuclear weapon. Iran’s uranium enrichment program has been primarily about leveraging the US to rejoin the agreement. However, there should be no doubt among Iran’s leaders that if the US and Israel conclude that Iran’s intent is to acquire such a weapon, or the capability to make one, they will take whatever pre-emptive action is necessary, especially military action, to prevent it.

There are two primary red lines Iran must not cross if it’s to forestall that conclusion. The first is enrichment of uranium to 90%, or weapons grade. The break-out time from the current 60% level would be weeks only. The second is the development and testing of the compression assembly necessary to cause a nuclear explosion, and a missile or other tailored delivery system. Such development and testing would take at least a year. There’s no known evidence that the Iranians have commenced such development; it would almost certainly be detected if they did.

There are multiple scenarios about what military action might be taken if the red lines were crossed. I will posit one: joint targeting by the US and Israel that includes not only Iran’s nuclear facilities but other military assets and infrastructure, especially missile sites, to mitigate Iran’s ability to mount effective retaliatory action against the US, Israel or Gulf country supporters. Targets would be within Iran itself, as well as ‘second-front’ supporters and other pro-Iranian militia in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. I would expect targeting to include key members of Iran’s leadership. Leadership change would be inevitable, and probably broader regime change.

The turmoil within Iran, and regionally and globally, would be enormous, and potentially long-lasting. No one wants that: all would be losers. For Raisi, there can be no miscalculation of intent. The red lines are simply no-go; his priority must be an early, acceptable deal. Both sides also know that it must be win–win.

So, what is acceptable? Iran has put forward five basic conditions for US agreement: no additional non-nuclear-related conditions such as on missiles and ‘malign’ activities; the lifting of all JCPOA-related sanctions, including those badged under other pretexts; a commitment that those sanctions will not be reimposed under any pretext; an interim process to verify the lifting of all sanctions, including especially in the transport, technology, finance and energy industries; and a commitment that the US and other signatories will not unilaterally withdraw from the agreement in future.

At a minimum, Biden must ensure that Tehran again reaffirms its JCPOA commitment [7] ‘that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons’, and that that commitment can be fully verified by JCPOA and International Atomic Energy Agency compliance arrangements.

All indicators are that the US agrees with Iran’s first demand, that there be no new conditions. However, it’s most unlikely that the US and other signatories would agree to deny unilateral withdrawal in future. It is not an existing JCPOA condition, and the JCPOA is not a binding treaty. Also, Biden can’t commit future US governments, particularly the Republicans. Similarly, Biden can’t commit a future US government not to reimpose previously lifted sanctions, even if Iran fully complies with its obligations. What Biden can do is give his personal commitment to abide by the letter and spirit of the agreement, providing Raisi does the same. There’s no reason why Raisi should not make that commitment, as did Rouhani.

The most likely areas of serious contention are determining which sanctions imposed by Trump are JCPOA-related and agreeing on an interim verification process. There will be hard negotiating on both, and no doubt some serious sticking points. But a breakthrough is possible if the will is there. Ultimately, whatever formula is adopted will have to be underwritten by trust, despite the very heavy trust deficit on both sides.

The best Biden can offer is another three years—the remainder of his first, and possibly only, term. But a deal even on those terms would be better than none, would be credible as win–win, and should therefore be acceptable to both sides.

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URLs in this post:

[1] reporting: https://apnews.com/article/europe-middle-east-iran-united-states-austria-bead5810109775878ef50b749758f55d

[2] departure: https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/591157-senior-us-envoy-for-iran-leaves-role-negotiating-nuclear-talks-with

[3] devastating effect on Iran’s economy: https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/911661640286887490/pdf/Iran-Economic-Monitor-Adapting-to-the-New-Normal-A-Protracted-Pandemic-and-Ongoing-Sanctions.pdf

[4] estimated: https://www.bourseandbazaar.com/articles/2021/4/13/whats-the-deal-with-irans-foreign-exchange-reserves

[5] averaging: https://www.iranintl.com/en/202201229870

[6] blockage: https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-to-block-irans-request-to-imf-for-5-billion-loan-to-fight-coronavirus-11586301732

[7] reaffirms its JCPOA commitment: https://2009-2017.state.gov/documents/organization/245317.pdf

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