Resurrecting the Reneged Deal

Standing tall as a key negotiator, the U.S. has parlayed most of the initial dialogues into historical successes. Whether it comes to sowing seeds of diplomacy with the European Union (EU) or leading efforts to strengthen frayed relations in the Middle East, there are only a few instances where the world power has fallen short in its agenda. What’s congruent in these failures, however, is the lack of flair, overconfidence, and rescinding of the promises made. These pitfalls have costed the U.S. more than the dividends gained. Whether it’s the untimely invasion of Afghanistan, interference in Iraq and Syria, or the economic revolt against the People’s Republic of China, the U.S. failed to capitalize on the gains once envisioned. The otherwise pristine record of the United States’ diplomatic successes, however, is tainted by the infamous rift with the Islamic Republic of Iran: once a valuable ally and now a staunch enemy. A passage of the resolution was missed a few years ago and now it’s more than essential to restore the sour relations. The time, however, stands short.

The Nuclear Deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was a landmark accord signed in July 2015 between Iran and core regional and global powers including the United States. The democrat regime, then led by President Barak Obama, forged the deal along with other countries making up the lobby known as P5+1: five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (Russia, France, UK, China, and the U.S.) and Germany. The deal negotiated a bargain of up to $100 billion in revenue through relaxation in sanctions imposed over Iran. In exchange, Iran committed to forgo its Nuclear Program to the point that if it were to direct efforts to generate nuclear weaponry, it would take at least a year to complete. This would allow the P5+1 ample time to respond. The restriction program under the JCPOA agreement mandated Iran to restrict its Uranium and Plutonium enrichment to a maximum limit of 3.67% whilst simultaneously dismantling its nuclear centrifuges. Moreover, the agreement urged Iran to allow the United Nations’ watchdog, known as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), unfettered access to its nuclear facilities; both declared and undeclared. This clause was intended to ensure that Iran was complying with the limits and restrictions dictated by the JCPOA agreement. With the representatives of the P5+1 making up the review teams of the IAEA inspections, the review allowed the parties to monitor and inspect Iran’s nuclear potential and safeguard against any violation.

The intention underlying the agreement was more urgent than many originally fathomed. What was initially perceived as collusion against Iran was a plan to reform the relations before it was too late. With Iran’s nuclear activity ramping up since 2003, it was only a matter of months before Iran achieved nuclear ammunition, had it intended to build one. Any effort or even a rumour of nuclear activation within Iran could reignite the havoc the world witnessed in the civil wars of Iraq and Syria. A nuclear expedition by Iran could birth a whole new spiral of crises laced with regional disparity. Starting with Israel, the Zionist state would have left very little discretion in its efforts to thump down the nuclear threat. Similar to how Israel has launched drone attacks over the years against the alleged nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria, it would have most probably opted to decimate the facilities had Iran so much as insinuated inching towards nuclear nukes. Unlike Iraq and Syria, however, Iran would have retaliated with a far destructive power-play of tensile resistance. The possibility of the escalation alone could have tumulted the region to the brink of disaster.

Moreover, the proxy factions, arguably financed by the state of Iran, could have developed into a far graver threat had Iran ventured through to develop nuclear weaponry. Whether it comes to Hezbollah in Lebanon or Irani rebels in Syria, even an inkling of nuclear capability could have plunged the region into another bout of chaotic warfare, deadlier than the aftermath of the Arab spring. Lastly, with Iran sauntering towards nuclear arms, its regional rival i.e., the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, insinuated multiple times of developing nuclear weapons as a safeguard against the Iranian offensive. All in all, letting Iran sail through towards nuclear weaponry could have paved a gully towards catastrophe in the Middle East, potentially morphing the world into warfare similar to the World Wars.  These sinister possibilities made the agreement ever more urgent and significant.

Under the reformist vision of the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, Iran agreed to the deal after years of defiance and outright refusal of a dialogue. Not only Iran limited its Uranium enrichment to the set standards but it also took remedial steps in its nuclear facilities in Arak, Fordow, and Natanz to comply with the set agreement. The nuclear limits were claimed to be used for medical and industrial use whilst controlling the centrifuges from accumulating refined levels of Uranium and Plutonium. It is notable to observe that Iran never officially claimed to be pursuing a nuclear weapon in the first place. The eerie capabilities of refinement, however, implied a heavier truth than the words gave away.

Moreover, Iran reluctantly allowed the IAEA teams to inspect its nuclear facilities and publish quarterly review reports. The unhindered access to the United Nations Security Council was frowned upon in the echelons of Iranian politics, particularly by the right-wing factions of the Iranian parliament. However, President Hassan Rouhani played a crucial role in persuading the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to decree the clauses of the deal for the sake of the welfare of the citizens of Iran living a destitute lifestyle due to the exacerbated sanctions imposed on Iran. The deal reaped sanctions relief for Iran both from the United States and the European Union. While many of the sanctions imposed by the U.S. remained in effect, primarily targeting Iran’s Ballistic Missile program and its alleged involvement in terror financing activities in the region, economic relief flowed through when the U.S. and EU unfroze the $100 billion worth of Iranian assets whilst simultaneously lifting trade embargoes off the oil and weaponry trade. The economic relief allowed a breathing room to Iran and a mark of prosperity to the reformist factions within Iran.

The diplomatic strike of president Rouhani, however, was short-lived as President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Nuclear Deal in 2018, leaving the remaining parties of the P5+1 in utter dismay and disappointment. Coupled with the exit from the JCPOA, the U.S. slammed excessive sanctions on Iran as an offensive to bring down the already dismal economy and rattle the state to the point of submission. The vision, however, backfired. Iran retaliated by boasting its nuclear enrichment from the agreed 3.67% to a whopping 20%. With 90% refinement necessary for a nuclear weapon, Iran hinted to attempt its development by building new centrifuges in the Fordow and Arak facilities. While the EU trend to bypass the U.S. banking system to facilitate Iranian transactions to keep the agreement afloat, the system failed to offer coverage to any ambit besides food and medicine: areas already exempted from the U.S. sanctions.

The situation deteriorated further when the U.S. attacks killed one of the most revered figures of the Iranian Military, Qassim Soleimani, in an airstrike in Iraq. Coupled with expanding sanctions imposed on countries trading with Iran including blacklisting Chinese oil companies dealing with Iran, the Iranian oil exports were brought back to zilch. Iran, in response, rebuked the EU for bowing down to the U.S. unilateralism. Iran played the last straw by impeding the IAEA inspections whilst continuing the refinement of Uranium in its facilities. This brought the world back to the fears that originally framed the need for the JCPOA agreement.

While President Biden was part of the Obama administration, which originally forged the JCPOA in 2016, the time and temperament have significantly shifted. President Biden repeatedly emphasized the importance of returning to the deal if Iran pulled back from the retaliations and violations from the agreement. The Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, clearly stated that “The ball is in their [Iran] court” i.e., if Iran returns to the standards set by the JCPOA, the U.S. would agree to join the deal again. Iran, however, has made it clear that it would only comply once the U.S. lifts the unfair sanctions imposed by the former president. President Rouhani stated: “America was first in breaking with the agreement and it should be the first to return to it”. With the dilemma looming the Nuclear Deal, the time is short. As the clock ticks, president Rouhani is inching towards his departure. Not long before President Rouhani leaves office in June 2021. President Hassan Rouhani would want to forge the deal before his exit since his political acumen was tainted when the U.S. pulled out of the deal and proved the far-right factions right, who even accused Rouhani of betrayal. Thus, the window of dialogue could purge president Rouhani from the failure attributed to his name.

On the other hand, the hard-liners in Iran are expected to ascend to the office in September. Unlike President Rouhani, however, the deal would be intercepted by the right-wing factions in power given their distaste for the U.S. especially after the violations and murders committed by the United States. President Biden could have a hard time negotiating a lucrative deal with the hard-liners as so implied by Mohammad Javed Zarif, Iranian Foreign Minister: “A lot of things can happen between now and September. So, it is advisable for the United States to move fast”. President Biden, however, faces excessive pressure from the echelons of the Republican Party to negotiate a broader agreement providing coverage over Iran’s ballistic missile program and terror financing along with the initial nuclear deal. However, with time running short, President Biden has to reach an agreement in the house fairly quickly and assume the role of a facilitator to reap the trust of Iran to return to the deal. Either a disagreement in the house or failure to bargain a deal by June 2021, the U.S. could potentially run into an impasse and might lose the opportunity to strike a deal indefinitely.

Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
The author is a political and economic analyst. He focuses on geopolitical policymaking and international affairs. Syed has written extensively on fintech economy, foreign policy, and economic decision making of the Indo-Pacific and Asian region.