The Biden administration's special envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, is warning of an "escalating crisis" if talks in Vienna fail to salvage the 2015 international agreement curbing Iran's nuclear program, which the Trump administration unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of and tried to torpedo with crippling sanctions on Iran. Last week, the seventh round of nuclear talks between Iran and the remaining parties to the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, failed to make much progress, although talks may resume again before the end of the year. There is reportedly tentative agreement on a draft text based on where things stood in negotiations back in June, before Iran's presidential elections. The Biden administration's position, reiterated by Malley this week, is that it will reenter the deal "as it was negotiated in 2015 and 2016, neither more, nor less."
But Iranian negotiators have taken a harder line under new President Ebrahim Raisi, while expanding Iran's nuclear program and enrichment capacity, likely to build leverage in talks, as Tehran sees it. Iranian negotiators' main demand is the lifting of all sanctions, including the ones Trump imposed as part of his so-called "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran. "If the other party accepts Iran's logical views, the next round of talks can be the last round," Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, told reporters in Vienna before talks ended last week.
But time is running out. "If they continue at their current pace," Malley warned of Iran's nuclear program, "we have some weeks left but not much more than that, at which point, I think, the conclusion will be that there's no deal to be revived."
To make sense of where things stand in negotiations and what the nuclear deal's revival—or ultimate collapse—would mean for Iran and the wider Middle East, Democracy in Exile reached out to a diverse group of experts, analysts and other observers, including DAWN's own non-resident fellows. We asked whether they agreed with the current approach of all the parties in talks to salvage the deal, and what the single biggest impact in the region would be if the deal is restored.
No Better Option Than a Clean Return to the Deal
Unfortunately, 2021 is ending without agreement on how to revive the Iran nuclear deal. A new Iranian negotiating team has used up precious time in recent weeks, only to return to the agenda accepted by all parties when talks paused in June for Iranian presidential elections. However, there remains no better option for now than a clean return to the JCPOA, which would roll back Iran's aggressive nuclear advances in return for substantial relief of U.S. sanctions. No airstrikes or cyber worms can destroy Iranians' nuclear expertise, and threats by current and former Israeli—and some American—officials only decrease chances for a successful outcome. The Biden administration should also consider a New Year's gesture allowing foreign countries to unfreeze some portion of Iranian oil revenues, so Tehran can purchase vaccines and other vital medicines. As the first to violate the JCPOA, the U.S. should be proactive in bringing the landmark agreement back to health.
—Barbara Slavin is the director the Future of Iran Initiative and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Biden's Missed Opportunity
The Biden administration has not been serious in negotiating with Iran to restore the JCPOA. Biden had an opportunity to act decisively and simply declare that the U.S. was back in the agreement, in January 2021, and to unilaterally lift the financial and trade embargo place on Iran by the Trump administration from 2018 forward, on the condition that Iran came promptly back into compliance. Then-President Hassan Rouhani openly said that he would jump at such a deal. Instead, hard-line President Ibrahim Raisi came to power in Iran's June elections. When negotiations finally resumed, Biden still refused to lift the blockade. The national security elite in Washington had become attached to the unrealistic idea of using "maximum pressure" sanctions to push Iran out of Syria, Iraq and Yemen and to stop its ballistic missile program. The JCPOA was successful because the U.S. at that time gave up all goals, save extending Iran's nuclear weapons breakout window to at least a year, and did join a U.N. pledge to lift all sanctions. Biden can only succeed in the same way.
—Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, and a DAWN fellow.
Iran and the U.S. Both Need to Compromise
The current state of U.S.-Iran tensions reiterates what many of us had warned before: that Donald Trump's unilateral exit from the nuclear deal and his campaign of "maximum pressure" on Iran would be a total failure and achieve no policy goals. We are now seeing Iran reduce its compliance with the JCPOA and gradually expand its nuclear program; we are hearing increasing threats of military attacks by the United States and Israel against Iran; and we have witnessed immense economic pressure on the Iranian people as a result of continued U.S. sanctions, during a deadly pandemic.
Before winning the U.S. presidency, Joe Biden had warned Trump against exiting the JCPOA and criticized him for imposing crippling sanctions on Iran during a pandemic. President Biden has been in office for almost a year now, but "maximum pressure" still continues. The Iranian people need sanctions relief and economic prosperity. And the American people need diplomacy to maintain peace and avoid another costly war in the Middle East. Both Iran and the United States want diplomacy to work but expect the other to meet them where they stand. They both need to make more compromises to meet somewhere halfway for an agreement, because the failure of diplomacy will bring more escalation and a potential military conflict. The alternatives will be costly and disastrous for both Iranians and Americans, as well as others living across the Middle East.
—Negar Mortazavi is an Iranian-American journalist and political analyst based in Washington D.C. She is the host and editor of the Iran Podcast.
A greater issue that was not addressed by the JCPOA in 2015 and won't be addressed now is that the space for civil and political freedoms in Iran continues to shrink, and there is no negotiation between global powers on the horizon that can solve that.
- Gissou Nia
The Backlash in Iran If There's No Deal
When Iran and world powers reached an agreement in 2015 to curb Iran's nuclear capabilities in return for lifting economic sanctions, the Iranian negotiating team, led by then-Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, was in sync with the Iranian leadership, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council. Despite all the disagreements by hard-liners, Tehran was able to carry out tough and constructive negotiations.
After the election of Ebrahim Raisi as Iran's new president and the change in administrations in Tehran last summer, Raisi picked negotiators who are literally the ones who have criticized the 2015 deal for more than five years. They suggest that if they were to have made the deal, Iran would have a much better one. That's why when Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, started the seventh rounds of talks in November after a five-month delay, he came up with two proposals that ignored the achievements of the six rounds of discussions before him, and with a list of demands that even China and Russia found unrealistic and unacceptable.
Now, the Iranian negotiating team is between a rock and a hard place. If they go back to where the former team ended in June and backpedal from the first round of talks, they face a huge reputational and image cost, as they would not be seen as competent diplomats. They would also have to justify to Iranians the cost of arbitrarily maintaining excruciating sanctions for more than five months. If they were to have started from where the previous agreements had left off, Iranians would question why talks didn't start right away.
This misreading of international affairs is one of the major points of focus between many Iranians who experience the everyday effect of continued sanctions, where people get poorer and the country's economy suffers exponentially. The hard-line negotiators are looking to save face and avoid blunt embarrassment while reserving some space to go back to the original talks.
What might keep Iran on track to reach an agreement, despite its initial proposals that were rejected by the U.S. and other powers, is Iran's internal politics and realities: Iran's economy is sinking; people are losing hope that the Islamic Republic is capable of resolving major, outstanding issues; there are protests and strikes popping up around the country; water issues in Isfahan and Khuzestan province could potentially expand to other provinces; widespread economic corruption persists; and importantly, the migration of Iranian brainpower, doctors, engineers, tech experts and many others is on the rise.
These issues put tremendous pressure on Raisi's administration to make a big change in his first year in office. This is the only hope for any agreement to be signed. It is impossible to envision a scenario in which negotiators go back to Tehran without any deal, with Iran's nuclear dossier then going to the U.N. Security Council and crippling sanctions continuing. This would have the potential for major unrest and public protest. If a deal is not reached, Raisi could become Iran's first one-term president, given that he might not even survive the backlash in the next few months. Although a deal will not resolve all of Iran's economic problems, without it, the Islamic Republic will suffer greatly on many different fronts.
—Omid Memarian, a journalist and analyst and the recipient of Human Rights Watch's Human Rights Defender Award, is DAWN's communications director.
Losing Patience With Raisi's Negotiators
This stalemate began with the United States, under the leadership of Donald Trump, wrongly withdrawing in May 2018 from a multilateral nuclear accord with the most strenuous inspections regime in the world—despite Iran not violating the deal. Unable to obtain sanctions relief after the reimposition of U.S. sanctions and an oil embargo, Iran began to withdrawal from aspects of the JCPOA in May 2019 and ramped up its nuclear program after parliament passed a law in December 2020 in response to the assassination of its top nuclear scientist by Israel. While these actions were deemed problematic by the remaining signatories, there seemed to be a consensus that the Trump administration was wrong.
With Trump gone, President Joe Biden's administration has demonstrated goodwill—albeit belatedly—by indirectly returning to the nuclear talks and agreeing to a "compliance for compliance" agreement reportedly made right before the Iranian presidential election in June. Now, the patience of the remaining signatories is wearing thin as a new nuclear negotiating team under President Ebrahim Raisi, ironically in a Trump-like fashion, went back on the tentative agreement made by his predecessor's negotiating team and reportedly called for all sanctions to be removed.
Where things go from here is unclear. However, diplomacy is the only way forward, because the notion of a Plan B would lead to a disastrous outcome that would be detrimental to the region.
—Holly Dagres is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the editor of its IranSource blog.
Iran's Pro-Democracy Movement Needs a Deal
The biggest regional impact of a revived JCPOA will be felt within Iran, specifically among Iran's pro-democracy movement. This dimension has been largely unrecognized. The U.S. debate on Iran's nuclear program has been dominated by Euro-American security concerns related to Israel, nuclear proliferation, factors affecting pro-Western Arab allies, and Iran's destabilizing regional policies. Ignored almost entirely is how Iran's once-formidable reformist and pro-democracy movement could benefit from a resolution of the nuclear standoff.
When the JCPOA was announced in 2015, the totality of Iran's human rights and pro-democracy movement celebrated. The lifting of harsh sanctions and the removal of the threat of war held the promise of creating better internal social conditions for democratic struggle against a deeply repressive and increasingly despotic regime. In other words, the mass pauperization of society brought about by sanctions would not be conducive to democratization.
President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the JCPOA was a gift to Iranian hard-liners. Under Trump, the new Iran policy of "punishing sanctions" and hopes for regime change strengthened the hands of Khamenei loyalists, while simultaneously weakening the hands of Iranians reformists. Iranian conservatives easily played the nationalist card by invoking powerful themes of nationalist independence, self-determination and opposition to imperial bullying.
A revived JCPOA could change the political landscape in Iran in the direction of democracy. Such a change would not happen overnight, and there are no guarantees of victory. It is important to point out, however, that like other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic of Iran is living on borrowed time. It suffers from a deep and expanding crisis of legitimacy. Societal discontent is deep, corruption is vast and the desire for nonviolent political change is widespread. Massive street protests rocked the Islamic Republic in 2009, 2017 and 2019. More recently, in the summer and autumn of 2021, protests over water shortages have taken place in Khuzestan, while farmers have risen up in Isfahan.
A necessary precondition for the revival of a sustainable Iranian pro-democracy movement is a peaceful resolution of Iran's nuclear standoff with the West. Iranian civil society stands to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of this outcome. Iranian hard-liners and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would be weakened by this result. This is a core reason why these parties have been dragging their feet at the Vienna negotiations. A negotiated settlement with the United States undermines their ideological view, while a non-resolution and perpetuation of this conflict strengthens the authoritarian pillars of the Islamic Republic. For all of these reasons, we should hope that diplomacy prevails in Vienna.
—Nader Hashemi is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an associate professor of Middle East and Islamic politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is also a DAWN fellow.
Not on the Table: Freedoms in Iran
Since the seventh and latest round of talks in Vienna to revive the nuclear deal began and concluded, the following has happened in Iran: violent state repression of mass protests by farmers in Isfahan over water scarcity, resulting in blinded eyes and other injuries; the execution of Heidar Ghorbani, a Kurdish political prisoner, despite the protestations of U.N. experts; a physical assault by unidentified assailants on Gohar Eshghi, who was en route to the grave of her blogger son who died under custodial torture; the one-year anniversary of the execution of dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam, who was abducted and executed in contravention of Iran's international legal obligations; and the two-year anniversary of the "Aban" protests of November 2019, in which thousands of protesters were jailed and killed by Iran's state security forces and for which there has been no accountability. And this is not an exhaustive list of rights violations by the Iranian state in this short time period.
The weight of this list and what's missing reflect a greater issue that was not addressed by the JCPOA in 2015 and won't be addressed now, which is that the space for civil and political freedoms in Iran continues to shrink, and there is no negotiation between global powers on the horizon that can solve that.
However, the specter of military options should the negotiations fail only presents an even more chilling option. The patina of legality of proportionality and necessity that the laws of war provide will not prevent the inevitable death and suffering of civilians that any military strike on Iran would bring. The permissiveness of the international humanitarian law framework means that the right to life is, in many ways, suspended in conflict, a reality that appears to be glossed over by observers who sanitize war as a viable foreign policy "tool."
While a non-diplomatic solution is the worst option, the normalization that any deal will bring carries baggage of its own. As regional powers seek to warm their relations with Iran in a post-Trump reality, the autocrats in the neighborhood will be happy to throw human rights concerns aside. Notably, the United Arab Emirates shifted from a "yes" to "abstention" vote on a recent U.N. resolution on human rights in Iran—most likely as a result of a visit by the UAE's senior national security adviser to Tehran earlier this month. While observers point to the positives of regional powers reaching diplomatic solutions, the flip side of the coin is that increased closeness also brings increased sharing of authoritarian playbooks on how to better repress citizens.
The people of the region already know that they can't rely on their own governments to protect their rights, and that other governments won't "save" them unless the price is right. The nuclear negotiations present no variation on those expectations. Rather, they just enforce that only the Iranian people themselves, with the aid of global solidarity, will be their own champion.
—Gissou Nia is a human rights lawyer and heads the Strategic Litigation Program at the Atlantic Council. She serves as board chair of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
A revived JCPOA could change the political landscape in Iran in the direction of democracy. Such a change would not happen overnight, and there are no guarantees of victory. But like other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic of Iran is living on borrowed time.
- Nader Hashemi
A Clash of Cultures
The emerging analysis on the JCPOA talks is that the United States delayed serious engagement when the technocrat Hassan Rouhani was still president, knowing that a conservative would succeed him. Now we pay the predictable price. That the U.S. is loading the talks with peripheral issues of regional security—rarely if ever done in all the successful arms negotiations with the Soviet Union—is equally mistaken strategy.
This is partly a clash of political cultures, however, not just unforced errors. Americans, reared on the frontier myth of limitless expansion into the world's wildernesses, view Iranians as savages to be tamed. Iranians, for so many centuries dominated by outsiders, resist foreign bullies. It was Rouhani's singular achievement in 2015 to sell the JCPOA to hard-line Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The mistrust between the two countries, nourished by decades of acrimony, is rooted in this culture collision. It's unlikely to be resolved via nuclear talks, though Iran may overcome well-founded suspicions of U.S. regime-change fantasies to gain sanctions relief. That's the optimistic view. Otherwise, the clash of cultures will claim another victim.
—John Tirman is the executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies, the coauthor of Republics of Myth: National Narratives and the U.S.-Iran Conflict, due in April, and a DAWN fellow.
Biden's Risk-Averse Approach
The Biden administration's effort to salvage the JCPOA has been marred from the start by an unwillingness to take necessary political risks at home and a reluctance to make the minimal gestures of goodwill required to rebuild trust with the Iranian government. The U.S. effort to date has been too slow and inflexible, and it has offered Iran no incentives to resume its previous compliance with the nuclear deal. Now, the administration is floating the possibility of "other options" that it might pursue if diplomacy fails, but so far it has failed to give diplomacy a serious chance. The U.S. needs to offer some sanctions relief up front if it is going to have any success.
If the nuclear deal were revived, it would provide real reassurance that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful. That would also reduce regional tensions, make war with Iran less likely and demonstrate that the U.S. is able to correct its mistakes. This outcome could create conditions for improved relations between Iran and its regional rivals, and it could lead to a greater measure of stability in U.S.-Iranian relations.
—Daniel Larison is a contributing editor at Antiwar.com and former senior editor at The American Conservative magazine.
Predicting a Weak Agreement
Several major disagreements still remain between Iran and the signatories of the 2015 nuclear agreement, but both sides are under pressure to reach an agreement. The main parties in these negotiations, Iran and the United States, are negotiating indirectly. The unilateral U.S. sanctions that were initiated by President Donald Trump starting in 2017 have caused severe damage to Iran's economy and led to increased political protests against the government. On the other hand, in response to these sanctions, Iran has accelerated its uranium enrichment, which has raised alarm among the nuclear deal's signatories about Iran's intention to develop nuclear weapons. They are worried that Iran is prolonging the negotiations to buy time for enrichment. Lack of trust on both sides is a major issue.
I expect that eventually, perhaps after two more rounds of negotiations, a weak agreement will be reached that will lift some sanctions in exchange for a partial rollback of Iran's nuclear program. This prediction is subject to several risks, as Israel and Saudi Arabia are lobbying the Biden administration for a harder stand. There is also a risk that an Israeli strike on one of Iran's nuclear facilities might derail the negotiations, as Israel has repeatedly warned about the progress of Iran's nuclear program.
A nuclear agreement will have positive consequences for the Middle East, as it will reduce several geopolitical risks. First, by stopping Iran's nuclear enrichment program, it will reduce the anxieties of Saudi Arabia and Turkey about a nuclear Iran—a concern that will otherwise push both of these countries toward seeking nuclear weapons of their own. Second, an agreement will reduce the risk of a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities by Israel or the United States. Any major Israeli or U.S. military strike runs the risk of provoking a retaliation by Iran, which could escalate into a full-scale regional conflict with unpredictable consequences.
In my opinion, restoring the JCPOA is the best potential outcome of the current negotiations for everyone, especially the people of Iran, who are struggling with unprecedented high rates of poverty and inflation.
—Nader Habibi is the Henry J. Leir Professor of Practice in the Economics of the Middle East at Brandeis University's Crown Center for Middle East Studies.
Behind Tehran's Tough Postures
Iran appears to be upping the pressure on the JCPOA's other signatories, especially the United States. Its atomic agency is accelerating uranium enrichment. Official Iranian mouthpieces are talking tough about President Raisi being the "new sheriff in town," whose administration will "not accept new conditions" to the nuclear deal and demands that the U.S. must "guarantee" that it won't withdraw from the JCPOA ever again. The Raisi administration even proposed a national budget that ostensibly prepares for worsening sanctions.
All this is geopolitical and diplomatic bluff, however, aimed at resecuring a nuclear deal. Iran's leaders are signaling via renewed cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and through proposals at the talks in Vienna that agreement can be reached. Iranian news media emphasizes every day in Farsi to the domestic audience and in English to the global audience that "good negotiations can lead to a good deal." Iran's ally, Russia, has made it clear that the JCPOA's sunset provisions "theoretically can be extended but only upon consensus," while its other backer, China, demands that the U.S. "lift all related illegal sanctions against Iran and third parties."
Iran's government is aware of the negative impacts of sanctions on its stability, so, according to its chief nuclear negotiator, "the main focus and priority of the Vienna negotiations will be on the removal of sanctions." Even short-term and/or partial relaxing of sanctions will give Iran much-needed access to millions of dollars in currency currently frozen abroad, to international markets for oil, gas and electronics exports, and to licit importation of critical technologies.
The biggest impact of the restoration of the nuclear deal—in existing or amended form—will be the flow of goods and persons to and from Iran, across the Middle East and beyond. This, in turn, would boost Iran's domestic growth and regional influence, thereby further entrenching the hard-line regime. Hence, Tehran's tough postures yet constant insistence that the nuclear deal be reestablished.
—Jamsheed K. Choksy is Distinguished Professor of Central Eurasian and Iranian Studies in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University, and was a member of the United States National Council on the Humanities from 2008 to 2019.
—Carol E. B. Choksy is Senior Lecturer of Strategic Intelligence in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering at Indiana University.
Burying the Legacy of Colonial Arrogance
The current negotiating posture of both sides is the only one that combines a possible and universally welcomed return to the original JCPOA with heightened respect for rule-of-law-based serious diplomacy. Only the trigger-happy hawks in Israel and parts of Washington, amateurishly mimicked by some conservative Arab monarchies, continue to talk about more and greater sanctions, new limits on Iran's foreign policy actions, and military attacks if needed.
This isolation of the belligerent and increasingly ineffective American-Israeli thugs sends a strong signal that the single biggest impact of restoring the original nuclear deal would be heightened confidence by many in the region, and the world, in sensible diplomacy that respects the rule of law and the rights of all concerned. This would eventually allow the Middle East to define its own balance of power security arrangements. It would significantly heighten convictions across the Global South that building one's own national capabilities and steadfastly resisting foreign imperial brutes are a feasible strategy for a better world order.
It also could hasten the imminent end of the global colonial era and its corollary: globalized white supremacy. Arthur James Balfour and Cecil Rhodes are long dead, but their racist ideological legacies still ripple through the Israeli-American approach of dictating to Iran what it can and cannot do. A revived JCPOA would be a small but meaningful step on that journey to bury colonial arrogance forever, which we should all welcome.
—Rami G. Khouri is director of global engagement at the American University of Beirut, a nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative, and an internationally syndicated columnist.