At a panel convened to discuss the state of the Iran nuclear deal, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas urged Iran to take advantage of the opportunity presented by a new American presidential administration to re-enter diplomatic talks over its nuclear program. Maas’ overture comes as the virtual panel brought together leaders and diplomats from many of the countries still committed to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The agreement limited Iranian uranium production and refinement and facilitated inspection of Iranian facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Maas further added that “behind this is the question of whether a long-term solution to the decades-long dispute about Iran’s nuclear program can be found through negotiation.” One of the greatest threats to the negotiation process came from the United States. President Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement in May of 2018, claiming that it did not do enough to restrict Iranian nuclear production or military activities throughout the Middle East. Instead, Trump’s administration has pursued a strategy of “maximum pressure” using primarily sanctions to force Iran to agree to stricter terms.
Maas’ hope for new negotiations faces challenges from both major players, Iran and the United States. As recently as mid-December, Reuters reported that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei emphasized that even a change in American administration would not necessarily lead to an immediate return to the JCPOA. Khamenei has continued to decry American sanctions targeting both individuals in Iran and the Iranian economy at large, particularly those limiting access to humanitarian resources including the coronavirus. While the departure of Trump may take some pressure off of the Iranian government, the JCPOA was also flawed from the Iranian side and the confluence of forces that led to the signing of the agreement may be harder to corral again.
The election of Joe Biden plays a prominent role in whether Maas’ rapprochement plays out, whether within the previous framework of the JCPOA or as a new kind of accord. As Reuters reported, Biden supports returning to the JCPOA if Iran agreed to “strict compliance” measures. Bloomberg news also reported that Jake Sullivan, Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, has emphasized the need for international cooperation in bringing Iran back to reducing rather than growing its stock of fissile material and thereafter begin attempts to resolve Iranian regional activities.
One of the chief opponents to returning to the JCPOA is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In November, Reuters reported that Netanyahu stated during a speech that “there must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement. We must stick to an uncompromising policy to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons.” This hawkish attitude does not bode well for Maas’ hope for a return to solutions via negotiation. Recently, the unclaimed killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran in late November brought with it accusations that Israel, possibly in league with the United States orchestrated the killing. As BBC reported, following the assassination, Israeli media highlighted that the attack signals Israel’s opposition to rapprochement and that may warn Joe Biden of Israel’s resistance if he goes through with re-entering the JCPOA.
With the uncertainty and volatility of the Trump administration coming to a close, the new uncertainty comes from the unknown degree to which Biden will reverse course. Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote for CNN that Biden’s long to-do list may not leave the time or energy for a full-fledged diplomatic effort with Iran. Tasked with carving out his own response to the coronavirus pandemic and many domestic challenges, Biden may not wish to make a new Iranian nuclear deal a priority. Unfortunately, a half-baked approach will certainly not yield a comprehensive peace. Drastically reversing course on sanctions and re-engaging international partners and allies may be harmful if other countries and particularly Iran cannot be certain of American commitment after the fact.
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