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Iran’s nuclear program: New contexts and possible scenarios

Despite the succession of different US administrations and European governments, Iran’s nuclear file remains a top priority for decision-makers and strategic planning circles. And while the pendulum of the US-Iran relations kept swinging between escalation and rapprochement, it didn’t move out of the gray area where all scenarios were played out.

The situation is unlikely to change during the upcoming period with renewed talks about a change in the US foreign policy of President Joe Biden towards Iran and opening the door to new approaches that weren’t available during the negotiations that gave birth to the Joint Action Plan of 2015. Moreover, internally, Iran is busy trying to put its house in order, preparing for new negotiations with new faces on the table and is proactively taking steps to be ahead of the US and Europe by promoting approaches and notions that help ease the international pressure it is likely to face during the upcoming period, ensuring achieving positive results without suffering a strategic loss.

As such, the upcoming months will see intense diplomatic activity from parties concerned with the Iranian file, at both the formal and informal levels, which requires keeping an eye on the situation to closely observe any developments and be aware of all dimensions, a lesson which the region, particularly Gulf countries, have probably learned from the nuclear agreement of 2015 and the earlier public and secret negotiations that preceded it, all were thrown into disarray when they found themselves confronted by an agreement executed without signature, that established the framework of regional arms control including all fundamental and technical details.

With a new American administration in office, negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program are about to go back to square one. The answer to the question on how things are expected to move forward and in what format is yet unknown, particularly if we take into consideration there have been strategic political changes in the Gulf area, most notable and relevant of which was normalizing relations with Israel and Israel becoming a key player in the region which would possibly allow for new approaches to exist in so far as the regional position of negotiations with Iran.

Biden and US pproaches

A fundamental questionis: Are there any chances of the US introducing new approaches towards Iran or will the already existing approaches, that have been tried during Trump’s administration be developed? Will we be seeing a strategic shift in the US position toward Iran or will it be all about switching tactics? To answer these questions, we will need to carefully examine the entire US approaches put forward by administration of former president, Trump.

Observers of Iran-US negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program must remember that all what have been written or published by US decision making circles and think tanks after 2016 was along the lines of approaches being introduced by the US today that allow it to address flaws of the Joint Plan of 2015 and build a joint position with regional allies including Israel and some Gulf countries. These approaches aimed primarily at pushing Iran to accept re-negotiation on its nuclear Program. Failing to do so, came the decision of former US President, Donald Trump, in May 2018, to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a decision that was followed by a successive set of sanctions that severely hit sensitive sectors of the Iranian economy and impacted prominent Iranian officials, including Javad Zarif, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, in what was known as the “maximum pressure” campaign.

Overall, Trump’s policy toward Iran’s nuclear program during his administration period that ended on 20 January didn’t manage to get Iran to the negotiation table. Sanctions are no longer a nightmare to Iran, as it knows its way to not only opposing them but taking advantage of them as well to escape its internal problems at times. Moreover, international partners (Russia and China) and regional partners (Turkey) serve as back channels that help the Iran ease the negative impacts of sanctions, let alone Russia’s – and maybe China sometimes – protective umbrella (right to veto) that stand in the way of imposing any sanctions on Iran by international organizations particularly, the Security Council, which renders “maximum pressure” campaign void of any force or effect. Russia’s position isn’t out of the blue, indeed. However, the European position was a real source of concern and worry for the US. The European Union didn’t only reject the US unilateral withdrawal from the agreement without coordination with allies but saved no effort, since 2018 and before the new US administration come to office, to help Iran circumvent sanctions or at least mitigate its humanitarian impacts. This has been evidenced by the designing of a mechanism called “INSTEX” to facilitate trade and financial transactions between Europe and Iran. This, in turn, weakened the US political and strategic position and widened the rift between the US and Europe, a gap which Iran cunningly made use of to deepen the rift between the US and Europe, while not missing the chance to exploit the American position to gradually escape some of its obligations under the 2015 Action Plan without being subjected to international sanctions or pressures from other super powers.

Given that, the Biden administration finds itself facing a real challenge regarding offering new approaches with the same goal (i.e. pushing Iran to re-negotiate on its nuclear program). Below is a brief of the entire approaches currently on the table of the US as well as the success potential of each: 

  • Bringing new faces to the negotiation table: The negotiation table of the Comprehensive Joint Action Plan of 2015, brought together the so-called 5+1 countries, namely the UN Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany plus Iran. In its new approach, the US seeks getting new regional partners who share concern about Iran’s nuclear Program into the table, nominating Saudi Arabia, Emirates, and Israel to join (5+1+3), a thing which Iran strongly rejects so far, according to statements by Iranian officials. 
  • Negotiation cap: The Comprehensive Joint Action Plan of 2015 involved many negotiation rounds that subsequently gave rise to secret negotiations (under mediation efforts by Oman) between the US and Iran which were then joined by European countries, and Russia and China at a later stage to avoid blocking of decisions in international forums. Hence, came the Security Council’s resolution No. 2231 in 2015. These marathon negotiations lasted for 12 years. This negotiation path is unlikely to be iterative today as we already have an agreement in place with the US as the only withdrawing party. Given this, it is expected that negotiations will be sponsored by the United Nations by establishing a joint international mechanism to watch negotiations in cooperation with the Security Council and concerned international institutions including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) among others. Robert Malley, the new US envoy to Iran, will be having a key role in facilitating these negotiations. Unlike the pre-2015 period, the time has become a pressing requirement. Since 2018, Iran seized upon the US withdrawal from the agreement and increased uranium enrichment levels to up to 20 percent compared to 3.76 percent, doubled quantities of enriched uranium, uses highly advanced centrifuges, and builds new nuclear facilities.
  • Debated issues: The 2015 Action Plan, negotiations were limited to the issue of Iran’s nuclear Program, and did not touch upon any other issues. New approaches, however, offer bringing new negotiation topics to the table including Iran’s ballistic missiles and its regional role, an approach which Iranian circles strongly oppose particularly when it comes to ballistic armament which Iran considers a national security concern given the long arms embargo imposed on it and the neighboring countries’ arms race. Iran, however, could agree to abdicate its role in less strategic areas (e.g. Yemen and maybe Syria) but will definitely thwart any attempts aimed at restricting its influence in Iraq, which it sees provides Tehran with strategic depth.  
  • Negotiation mechanisms: Negotiation mechanisms put forward are still unclear. Yet, a deep analysis of the situation would reveal that secret negotiations will have the upper say over other negotiation paths. The US needs to reassure its regional allies so as to avoid any secret talks and revelations as has been the case in 2014-2015, a period during which the regional powers weren’t able to see what the US was doing and there has been uncertainty on an issue too sensitive to Gulf’s security. In parallel, the US will seek uniting its front with the European partners who have been lately aware (following Iran’s announcement of raising uranium enrichment to 20%) of Iran’s maneuver to attain nuclear weapons and came to realize that there is no way of making any concessions before Iran reverses all of its breaches moving back toward the 2015 Agreement. 

Iran’s approach

Iran is closely monitoring the American, European, and Israeli approaches put forward with regard to the Iranian files particularly the nuclear program. A close look at the Iranian approaches, we find out they highlight the following:

  • Firming up to the 2015 Action Plan: Iran insists that renegotiation is unacceptable as long as the 2015 Agreement exists. Iran realizes that it may not be able to reach another agreement with more benefits and strategic advantages and less concessions.
  • Refusing to introduce new negotiation topics: Iran is closely monitoring the US and European calls for expanding negotiation scope to include other contentious issues, chief among them is ballistic missile program and Iran’s regional influence. Iran has made it clear that negotiating on these matters or including them in the existing agreement isn’t possible. Rather, it suggests talking over these topics independently with Gulf countries through a different path i.e. the initiative it introduced for regional security, known as Hormuz Peace Initiative.
  • Rejection of bringing new countries to the negotiation table: Iran rejects bringing new countries to the negotiation table including Gulf countries, Israel, or otherwise.
  • Lifting sanctions and compensating for damages first: Iran sticks to its position of rejecting negotiations until the US sanctions imposed on Iran following 2018 are lifted and Iran is compensated for the inflicted economic and financial damage as a result of these sanctions.
  • One for one or all for all: Iran says it will roll back all the steps taken after 2018 relating to increasing uranium enrichment levels, revoke its position of the additional protocol, and revive the joint Action plan of 2015 nuclear agreement only if the US backtracks on its position of the nuclear agreement, lifts all sanctions imposed on Iran, and compensates Iran for all the damage incurred.
  • Iran putting house in order: Iran is making some internal changes in preparation for negotiations with the Biden administration and, relative to similar indicators existing during Obama’s administration period, these changes seem to stake out more stringent positions. These indictors include, for example, sending of the Iranian nuclear file to the Supreme National Security Council, after President Hassan Rouhani entrusted it in 2013 to Minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif. The National Security Council is primarily dominated by the conservatives and the Revolutionary Guard, the latter is engaged in a fierce battle to safeguard its position particularly it had lost presidency of the Islamic Consultative Assembly and the Supreme Judicial Council to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Further, in December 2020, the Parliament approved Iran’s strategic action plan to Counter Sanction, under which Iran started increasing uranium enrichment levels by up to 20 percent.

Possible scenarios for future negotiations with Iran

Possible scenarios for future negotiations with Iran can be summarized as follows:

Short term – Maintaining the status quo. It seems like negotiations will remain trapped. The new US administration is busy putting its house in order and hasn’t had a clear concept of how negotiations are going to proceed with Iran. The US is just starting to put out some feelers and still needs more time to hold consultations with European and regional allies and partners. Moreover, the US administration favors waiting results of Iran’s presidential elections to be held mid-June. 

Medium term – Entering into an interim political agreement: We expect the US will seek gradual reduction of tensions with Iran, a step aimed at restoring the lost trust between the two countries, thus creating a favorable atmosphere for negotiations that would help reach an interim agreement (reciprocal steps by the US and Iran) pursuant to which the US will ease some sanctions originally imposed on Iran counterbalanced by Iran’s moving back to the 2015 agreement and reversing breaches, in tandem with diplomatic efforts that open the door for talks that go beyond the 2015 deal and its articles. For that purpose, Biden’s administration might extend an early humanitarian gesture to Tehran by opening channels for Tehran to access humanitarian commodities including medications, medical equipment, and food as well as looking at ways to ease Iran’s financial troubles without lifting economic sanctions imposed by former President Trump. This could include, for example, supporting Iran to receive a loan from the International Monetary Fund to ease COVID-19 impacts and easing sanctions that stood in the way of international humanitarian aid for COVID-19. Joe Biden could also reverse the decision of the US withdrawal from the Joint Action Plan of 2015.

Long term – Independent paths: This scenario is expected to start end of this year or during the first quarter of 2022. Depending on steps taken by each party to rebuild trust, the US could follow two negotiation paths with Iran, one on its nuclear Program and the other on ballistic missiles and Iran’s intervention in the Middle East, to avoid Iran’s refusal of including these issues in its nuclear negotiations, while not at the same displeasing the US regional partners, particularly Israel.

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