Why does the United States still resist making a comeback to JCPOA?


Authors: Anar Imanzade and Yunis Sharifli

Many considered that the United States under President Biden will rejoin JCPOA signed in 2015(Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). The first signs of delay were interpreted as the abundance of domestic issues with which the Biden Administration should have handled. Later on, there were contradictory statements from both sides (Iranian and American) about who should make the first step toward reconciliation. Obviously, now the process is at a stalemate and there is no way back.

At this point, it might be argued that the Biden Administration will not go back to JCPOA in the form it was signed in 2015 by the Obama Administration. Why?

Firstly, top US officials, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan are anticipating first steps from the Iranian side. Antony Blinken has said to the Senate that he seeks a “stronger and longer” deal with Iran. Secondly, despite the appointment of one of the architects of JCPOA, Robert Malley, as a special envoy to Iran, his Deputy has become Richard Nephew. Some researchers specialized in Iran regarded this appointment as “concerning” for the deal. Apparently, the new US administration is pursuing a more balanced policy toward Iran.

Thus, what are the reasons behind Washington’s stance? Well, there are numerous.

1.Allies are not the same as in 2015. JCPOA is not a bilateral deal between Iran and the US, it also incorporates E3 (the United Kingdom, France and Germany), Russia and China. Thus, the positions of the rest of the countries are also an important factor in defining the future of the agreement. Although China and Russia still pursue the same policies by supporting the deal, France and Germany do not seem so enthusiastic as they were in 2015. For instance, Javad Zarif’s request for mediation from Europe still remains unanswered. Additionally, French President Emmanuel Macron had stated that allies such as Saudi Arabia must also be a participant in the negotiations, Iran, surely, is absolutely against this initiative. To conclude, all this indicates that Europe, woken up by the Trump administration, commences acting independently and makes separate alliances.

2.There is a disagreement within the US. The Biden Administration took the office after the riot happened on January, 6th when Donald Trump’s supporters attempted to take control over the Capitol. Polarization in the United States has seen new highs, so Joe Biden, who campaigned as a “unifying President” should now ensure that there is a solid basis for cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. It is not a secret that the Iran deal has been one of the most “dividing” issues not only between the two political parties but also within them. For example, Democrat progressives are more inclined toward an immediate comeback to JCPOA, however, hawks from both parties do not agree. Thus, in order to maintain balance and not to lose political capital in the House and the Senate, the Biden Administration is choosing a restrained approach instead of a full return to JCPOA.

3.The balance of power in the Middle East is changing. One of the most vivid developments that occurred under President Trump was the signing of Abraham Accords normalizing Israeli-UAE and Israeli-Bahranian relations. Generally, there is a tendency amongst Arab countries to ease tensions with Israel and start looking forward to establishing diplomatic relations with it. Israel and Arab countries consider Iran a threat to their security. Accordingly, the United States must take the interests of these countries into consideration as an unconditional return to JCPOA would be dissatisfactory for US allies in the Middle East.

4.There is pressure on the Iranian government from within. During the Trump era, Iranians have lost confidence and become angry with the US. Worsening economic conditions and the killing of Sepahi-Quds Major General Qassem Suleimani have strengthened the positions of hardliners in Iran who were positioning themselves as against the deal in general. Ultimately, getting engaged in any negotiations with the United States has become more complicated for reformists. Popular support for hardliners also increased as in the 2020 parliamentary elections reformists lost 101 seats while hardliners won 138 new seats. So the probability of any concessions from the Iranian side waned and constantly does so which makes Washington think twice before making any concessions as the perspectives do not seem promising.

It must be noted that Iran’s hardliners’  self-confidence and tough positions derive from Iran’s alliances with China and Russia. Despite this alliance is not able to fully replace possible economic benefits from the West, it still helps Iran counterbalance the West and the United State in particular.

All of these facts with their interpretations raise questions: what will happen if JCPOA is abandoned? The consequences are hard to predict, however, we may assume.

If the US resists going back to the negotiation table first, the reformist government of Hassan Rouhani in Iran won’t be able to do literally anything. The reason is clear: hardliners with Ayatollah Khamenei will oppose making any concessions without lifting sanctions. Otherwise, it might be considered a national humiliation for Iran. Eventually, reformists will lose the upcoming presidential elections in June and hardliners will gain the presidency. Then, the United States and Iran’s hardliners will negotiate a deal with more restrictions and complexities.

Anar Imanzade
Anar Imanzade
BA - Baku State University, Political Science MA - Boğaziçi University, International Relations