U.S. Tiptoes Through Sanctions Minefield Toward Iran Nuclear Deal

Iranian officials and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) failed to extend a nuclear inspection agreement on Sunday, May 23. For the last three months, Iran and the IAEA agreed upon video recording inspections of Iranian nuclear sites, but Iran’s hard-line, conservative parliament derailed an expected extension of this agreement over the weekend. If the agreement isn’t extended, Iran could wipe inspection recordings from the last three months, which would break down relations between Western diplomats and Iranian officials.  

On this coming Tuesday, policymakers in Vienna plan to enter final talks to restore U.S. and Iranian compliance with the Iran nuclear deal. Critically, the United States has already committed itself to lift nuclear non-proliferation sanctions from Iran. Nonetheless, diplomats from both countries still must hash out the final details of removing the sanctions and returning Iran to full compliance, but Iran’s refusal to extend its agreement with the IAEA could destabilize potential compromise between American and Iranian officials during the upcoming week. 

Before these developments, foreign policy experts expressed optimism regarding the talks. Mikhail Ulyanov, the Director of the Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, noted that the negotiation’s participants believed “an agreement [was] ‘within reach.’” Enrique Mora, the EU coordinator at Vienna, echoed similar sentiments; he stated that “an agreement [was] shaping up.” Further, the U.S.’s diplomatic apparatus remains committed to reaching an agreement with Iran. According to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “we need to put the nuclear problem back in the box” by reinstating the Iran nuclear deal, which remains the U.S.’s first goal before addressing other issues pertaining to U.S.-Iranian relations. Yet, this optimism may be misplaced because the Iranian government and the IAEA were unable to reach an agreement, which was expected by foreign policy leaders. 

Consequently, officials from all countries involved must move forward, but with caution. First, Iran should extend its agreement with the IAEA to re-harness international trust. Even if it doesn’t, all parties should continue to negotiate. If they can compromise, an agreement could establish crucial diplomatic channels for future negotiations and peaceful settlements. For instance, the U.S. already plans to use current talks as a stepping stone to start future negotiations regarding Iran’s state-sponsored terrorism. Moreover, a reinstated agreement’s guidelines would prevent Iran from acquiring weapons of mass destruction in the near future. Moreover, the Iran deal’s nuclear inspection provisions could warn the international community in the event that conservative officials from Iran violate the agreement. Lastly, although the U.S. should lift nuclear-related sanctions promptly, it’s crucial that the United States continue to push for human rights reform through other sanctions on Iran. 

If Iran and the United States followed the aforementioned recommendations, this would mark a milestone for U.S.-Iranian relations. Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, distrust and confrontation have marred their relationship. For instance, President George Bush identified Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil.” However, under the Obama administration, the United States sought rapprochement with Iran to prevent regional nuclear proliferation and facilitate future cooperation. These developments didn’t last for long as President Trump reinvigorated tensions by leaving the Iran deal and assassinating Qasem Soleimani, a leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Broadly, Trump tried to use a hard-line approach to force Iran’s hand in the region, but this tactic emboldened Iran to violate the original Iran deal. If the U.S. moves forward with its current talks, President Biden could revive rapprochement with Iran. As a result, an agreement would alleviate regional tensions and could potentially prevent future confrontations in the Middle East through increased cross-national trust. 

In the short run, talks between the U.S. and Iran could reach a standstill because of the failure to extend the monitoring agreement. As previously stated, Iran’s hard-line parliament opposed an extension of the three-month deal, and it currently opposes the Iran deal because conservative legislators support the expansion of Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Therefore, the parliament’s ability to derail the agreement’s extension indicates that Iran’s conservative leaders may look for new avenues to destabilize negotiations to enact their political agenda. The current moderate President Rouhani supports reinstating the Iran deal, but he plans to leave office after the upcoming June elections, which the conservatives are projected to win. Thus, it’s critical that foreign policy leaders reach an agreement as soon as possible to prevent interference from conservative Iran politicians. If Iran and the United States cannot reach an agreement now, the next — probably conservative — president will most likely render a future agreement impossible. This reality makes pushing forward with negotiations even more critical to regional stability. 

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