JCPOA: Talks Stall While Tensions Between Teheran And Washington Rise

“No one can stop us. If we want, we can build a nuclear bomb,” said Mohammad Javad Laijani, former Iranian diplomat. His words contain a strong warning to the enemies of the Islamic Republic, and to the world altogether, although he then explained that Iran will not actually proceed in this direction, as religious principles prohibit the production of weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, the possibility of the production of nuclear bombs in Iran is strongly concerning, as it would exacerbate instability in the Middle East, increasing risks of further conflicts. The resulting current diplomatic crisis is part of the Trump administration’s legacy in the Middle East. In 2018 Washington withdrew from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), paving the way for Iran to resume its nuclear program. Now, President Biden is looking to bring the United States back into the agreement, but is facing resistance both domestically and internationally. While talks are stalling, tensions are on the ascent.

The pact Washington withdrew from, the JCPOA, was agreed in July 2015 between Iran, the US, China, Russia, France, Germany and the UK. Its main objective was to set limits on Iran’s nuclear program by imposing restrictions (valid until 2030) on nuclear development and by introducing monitoring and transparency measures carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The implementation of the plan, starting from January 2016, was a remarkable step forward to the stabilization of the Middle East, as it decreased chances of conflict between Iran and its regional rivals – Israel and Saudi Arabia. In exchange for halting its nuclear program, Iran was to benefit from billions of dollars worth of sanctions relief, allowing its economy to start recovering from a long-lasting crisis.  

Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement was a mere political measure against Iran, although the White House justified such decision by criticizing the temporary nature of the JCPOA and its failure to control Iran’s ballistic missile program. The effects of the withdrawal were not limited to the nuclear issue, but rather dramatically undermined the credibility of international diplomatic and negotiation agencies and the global security architecture. As soon as the US reimposed sanctions, the Islamic Republic responded by resuming its nuclear activity. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the country began the uranium enrichment process that is necessary to produce a nuclear bomb, as well as the construction of new nuclear facilities. Concurrently, Iran is looking to improve its diplomatic relations with America’s archenemies: Russia and China. The head of the Iran-China Friendship Association (ICFA) – Alaeddin Boroujedi, recently said that a document has been passed to allow nation-wide operations and to facilitate the 25-year cooperation agreement between the two countries. On the Russian front, relations are said to be “developing quickly” and the Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi welcomed Vladimir Putin in Teheran on July 19th to talk about economy, security, and regional affairs. Commenting on Putin’s visit Ali Vaez, Iran director for the International Crisis Group, said: “This is no longer a partnership of choice, but an alliance out of necessity”.  

Given the network of alliances that is starting to emerge, the US is eager to get back into the agreement. The Biden administration made it clear that it intends to play a central role in the geopolitics of the Middle East, as shown by the President’s most recent visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iran on the other hand, despite its attempts to find new connections, undoubtedly suffers from the imposed sanctions and urgently needs relief. Talks to bring the US back into the JCPOA therefore started in April 2021, and until now, there have been eight official rounds of negotiations, the last one ending in March 2022. The most recent indirect talks took place in June 2022 in Doha, Qatar, but no solution has been agreed as of yet. Analyzing the stalled negotiations, Mehran Kamrava, professor of government at Georgetown University, explained that both governments are under extreme domestic pressure and are consequently trying to extract the most concessions from the other side, making irreconcilable requests. The US is pushing to extend its control of Iran’s missile program, while Iran is demanding more freedom of action. In addition to that, Iranian leaders have accused the US of inciting “Iranophobia” and to have an overall hostile attitude that is hindering dialogue. In this regard, the Biden administration seems to be continuing the policy of maximum pressure carried over from its predecessor, despite expectations of a more collaborative approach.  

Future scenarios are now uncertain: will Washington and Tehran eventually reach a satisfactory compromise? And how long will that take? While negotiations are leading nowhere, the possibility of creating a regional alliance against Iran, proposed by Joe Biden, may be a viable option. UAE political analyst Salem Al-Ketbi argued that only a network of “defensive alliances” would deter Iran and be able to defend any country it may threaten. The Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi commented on this by saying that the creation of a coalition against Iran will only lead to the escalation of tensions. “Mistakes” against the country will encounter a “harsh and regrettable response”, he further added. Nevertheless, the Iranian leader is currently under high domestic pressure, and it is unlikely that he would put any military action into place.  

The reinstatement of the JCPOA seems to be the only way to stabilize the region, even if only temporarily, and to avoid tensions with the US spiralling out of control. In order to reach an agreement, however, parties need to abandon pride and work together towards a realistic plan which, as most often happens, will not be perfect nor warmly welcomed by any of the sides. 

 

Camilla Giussani

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