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Can the Iran nuclear deal be saved?

Talks are set to resume at the end of the month, but the challenges to reaching an agreement are still immense.

A boy carries an Iranian flag at a rally celebrating the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, in February 2020.
Vahid Salemi/AP
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

At the Group of 20 summit, the United States and its allies said they were “convinced that it is possible” to bring everyone back into compliance with the Iran nuclear deal.

It was the latest attempt from Western governments to salvage the agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). And now, at least, there’s a date to maybe start making that happen: November 29, when talks will resume in Vienna.

Signed in 2015 by Iran, the United States, and the rest of the P5+1 countries (China, Russia, United Kingdom, France, and Germany), the JCPOA set limits on Iran’s nuclear program such that the country wouldn’t be able to create a nuclear weapon for the duration of the deal. Tehran agreed to allow independent international inspectors to verify it was complying with the terms (like limits on uranium enrichment and centrifuges). In exchange, the other signatories relieved global economic sanctions put on Iran for its nuclear activities, which had pushed Iran’s economy to the brink.

The JCPOA appeared to be achieving its goal of curtailing Iran’s nuclear program. But former President Donald Trump, who called the deal a “disaster,” promised to leave, and followed through in 2018.

Trump paired his unilateral withdrawal with crushing sanctions, initiating a yearslong “maximum pressure” campaign. At first, Iran remained in the deal and followed its terms, with the US’s European allies trying to keep it together. But in 2019, Iran started breaching the agreement, and has since intensified its nuclear program, exceeding limits on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and other provisions. (Iran says it doesn’t want a nuclear weapon, but it’s getting closer to the possibility that it could make one.)

Biden has said since his campaign that he wanted to restore the deal, but efforts to do so have largely stalled. Early on in his administration, Biden nominees signaled the US wasn’t rushing to get anything done. Talks did begin in April among Tehran and other parties to the deal (the US participated indirectly), where at least some progress was made. But discussions were suspended in June soon after the election of Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s new and more hard-line president.

The negotiating will restart later this month. The goal of any talks is to get both sides to climb down — Iran to stop doing things like creating nuclear fuel in fast, next-generation centrifuges; the US to peel back sanctions, like those on Iran’s energy sector and anyone who trades with it — and reach what the diplomats and negotiators like to call “mutual compliance.”

And Tehran may want one more thing that might be extraordinarily difficult to deliver: a guarantee that it won’t all go away if another guy — or the same guy again — becomes US president.

Reviving the JCPOA is going to face tough odds. Iran has signaled it’s coming back to the table, so that’s something. The remarks at the G-20, on the part of the Europeans and the US, are also a nice show of unity. But those are tiny Band-Aids on the badly broken political trust between Washington and Tehran.

The Iran deal’s current state-of-play

The United States’ goal is to “quickly reach and implement an understanding on a mutual return to compliance” to the JCPOA, as State Department spokesperson Ned Price said this week. On Thursday, Price said that will put Iran’s nuclear program “back in the box that it was in for several years after the deal was implemented in 2016.”

Critics of the Iran nuclear deal often lambasted the agreement because it failed to address Iran’s other malign activities, like its ballistic missile program and its interference by and support for proxy forces in the region. When it comes to “lengthening and strengthening the deal,” the US has said it wants to get everyone back into that mutual compliance first — so the JCPOA will deal, as it did before, with just Iran’s nuclear activities. Some experts think a restoration of the JCPOA will be a starting point for more cooperation, or at the very least a victory for nonproliferation, while Iran’s regional adventures get dealt with in other forums. But the Biden administration is continuing to sanction Iran for things, including a recent batch related to its drone program, a sign the US is still keeping up the pressure.

For Iran, it may have dillydallied on coming back to negotiations to try to build its leverage by continuing to push its nuclear program along. The United States, meanwhile, has exhausted a lot of its leverage. It has throttled Iran with sanctions (though, again, it’s still adding to them), and despite Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying last weekend that “every option is on the table,” it seems unlikely the administration has an appetite for more military intervention in the region. And while the sanctions are crushing Iran, the country is withstanding the pressure to a degree.

President Joe Biden speaks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken during the G-20 leaders’ summit in Rome, on October 31.
Evan Vucci/AP

If leverage is the goal, then the big question ahead of any new talks is what, exactly, Iran might want. “There’s an assumption that this [Raisi] administration is going to take a maximalist approach to the negotiations,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

That “maximalist” approach is a bit of a nice way of saying Tehran could make a demand that is a nonstarter for the United States, something like pushing for more sanctions relief beyond that involving its nuclear program, or by calling for the US to offer economic support or a sanctions reprieve first.

Iran will likely argue that the United States is the one that blew the deal up, and Tehran stayed in compliance for a year, so it’s up to the US to prove they’re acting in good faith. But that line is a bit tired now that Iran has definitely breached the agreement, too. “Both sides are now very far away from compliance with the deal. So it does make sense for both sides to incrementally take steps to return to the deal,” said Samuel Hickey, a research analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons.

Even if Iran doesn’t go full maximalist, exactly what sanctions relief will look like, and how it will work, will be a big part of making these negotiations work. Alex Vatanka, director of the Middle East Institute’s Iran program, said that in 2015, the sanctions relief the JCPOA promised didn’t fully deliver for Iran. “What they discovered in reality was that the threat of American penalty still loomed large and was hanging over their heads. On paper, they could trade with the world,” he said. “In reality, companies and many countries still kept a distance from Iran.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said the same: Iran wants sanctions relief not only on paper, but “in practice.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi called for an end to US sanctions against Iran in a pre-recorded video at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, on September 21.
Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

That first demand may be further complicated by a second: some sort of guarantee that this deal can withstand US domestic political shifts. Opposition to the Iran deal persists, especially among Republicans; as Sen. Ted Cruz recently tweeted of the Iran deal: “it is a 100% certainty that any future Republican president will tear it up.” This issue of US credibility is a real challenge, as it’s not something the US can easily deliver on, even if the Biden administration would like to do so. So the threat of American penalties still looms.

This also works in Iran’s favor, as it can use it as a cudgel in any talks. As Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson replied to Cruz’s tweet: “Onus is on @POTUS to convince int’l community—incl all JCPOA participants—that his signature means something.”

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat and Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, said Iran could deliver by curtailing its nuclear program, but when it comes to assurances that the US won’t renege, “the US delegation cannot give any assurance.”

All of that is going to be difficult to overcome. Experts said the US and its European partners may have to offer speedy relief from sanctions, but also find a mechanism to reassure the rest of the world and financial institutions that it’s truly okay to do business with Iran. Vatanka said the “silver bullet” would be American buy-in, including by US businesses, which would be an important signal when it came to the “in practice” part.

Batmanghelidj, at ECFR, said Western governments got a “crash course” from the failures of JCPOA implementation and attempts to mitigate Trump’s unilateral sanctions. And that may, counterintuitively, help negotiations. (European countries tried to set up a workaround to Trump’s sanctions, but it didn’t really do much.) The US and other countries can be prepared for pitfalls they weren’t before, and potentially could come up with ways to try to make the sanctions relief more robust and more durable.

Still, there are no guarantees for what might happen in 2024. Some experts think it may still be in Iran’s interest to take even a temporary break from sanctions, and then use that time to prepare in case another Iran-deal skeptic ends up in the White House and sanctions are reimposed.

That may be in Iran’s interest, but Iran itself might not see it that way. “Iran is in the driver’s seat,’’ said Afshon Ostovar, an Iran expert at the Naval Postgraduate School. Iran doesn’t really seem all that interested in returning to the deal, or even in getting sanctions relief.

“They’ve found a way to skirt sanctions, at least to the extent that they can stay afloat and manage the crisis that sanctions imposed upon the country,” he said. Meanwhile, they haven’t had to sacrifice or compromise in any other way; strategically or militarily or in terms of foreign policy,” Ostovar said.

Iran has withstood the “maximum pressure” campaign, even if it has compounded the economic pain for Iran and its people. The country may try to see if it can stall a little bit longer, while continuing to advance its interests and regional ambitions, and the nuclear program that Europeans and the US still really want to scale back.

And if that’s the case, these November talks might not deliver that so-called “mutual compliance” with the JCPOA that the parties are saying they want.

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