Fool me once: How Tehran views the Iran nuclear deal

Europe and the US should focus their efforts on swiftly returning to the original nuclear agreement with Iran rather than holding out for the unlikely prospect of better terms

Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran is seen in the audience during the Special Address at the Annual Meeting 2014 of the World Economic Forum at the congress centre in DavosWORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/swiss-image.ch/Photo Moritz Hager CC BY-NC-SA

In Tehran, the initial hopes for what the Biden administration could offer Iran – particularly in terms of a revived economy – are fading. Iranian leaders recognise that, although the new president in the White House says he wants to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal, there has been little tangible shift away from the Trump-era maximum pressure campaign against Iran. While there is still a possibility that the agreement will be revived, it increasingly appears to Tehran that the process will be a marathon and not a sprint.

It is often difficult to find a consensus between Iranian leaders on the benefits of diplomacy with the West, but there is one point on which they agree: Tehran must end its “strategic patience” in the implementation of the nuclear deal. The rhetoric for public consumption varies between different camps in Iran, who differ on the extent and method of the response. However, political elites now generally agree that Iran should not allow itself to be ‘duped’ by the United States again – and that Tehran should not reverse any steps to accelerate its nuclear programme until Washington is certain to ease sanctions in return.

The mood in Tehran

Since the November 2020 US presidential election, Tehran has left the door open for the US to return to its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). And it has offered several pathways for achieving this. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, suggested that the European Union, as the coordinator of the Joint Commission established under the agreement, could choreograph a return to compliance – indicating a shift away from Tehran’s original position that Washington should lift all sanctions first before Iran reversed any elements of its nuclear programme. For now, the response on the US side seems less flexible – with Biden administration officials continuing to insist that Iran must return to full compliance with the deal before it receives any economic relief.

Last week, the Iranian authorities announced that, as of 23 February, they would implement a law requiring the government to further reduce compliance with the JCPOA. This would involve, most importantly, the suspension of voluntary implementation of some international inspections. It was only after this announcement that the US made a series of symbolic gestures to soften its attitude towards Tehran. For instance, President Joe Biden stated that the US is “prepared to reengage in negotiations” with parties to the JCPOA. The hardline-leaning Kayhan Daily and a government-affiliated newspaper credited Iran’s ultimatum with prompting these last-minute US moves.

Rather than worrying about their domestic rivals, power players in Iran are currently more concerned about how splits within Biden’s team are slowing down decision-making on the JCPOA in the US. Even the Rouhani administration has become more cautious than it once was about Biden’s willingness to return to the original nuclear agreement, fearing that his recent offer of talks is designed to force Iran to accept a broader set of terms. It is true that Iran’s latest decision to reduce inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was engineered by a parliament controlled by the so-called “Principlists” – a group comprising roughly equal numbers of hardliners and radical hardliners. But, even if the parliament did not have such a composition, the Rouhani administration would have felt that it had no choice but to send a strong signal against the United States’ indecision over how and when to return to the JCPOA.

Iran has been waiting for moves from the Biden administration that indicate it is serious about rejoining the JCPOA

So far, Iran has been waiting for moves from the Biden administration that indicate it is serious about rejoining the JCPOA. The measures the US has taken in recent days – such as easing travel restrictions on Iranians diplomats in New York and rescinding the Trump administration’s failed attempt to snap back UN sanctions – are largely viewed in Tehran as symbolic rather than substantive. In recent days, Iran has reportedly made progress in its talks with Asian countries over gaining access to its frozen offshore accounts. If these discussions do indeed move forward, it could suggest that the Biden administration is showing some flexibility, by providing Iran with access to these funds for humanitarian trade. Iran may regard such moves by Biden as a reasonable way to start a technical dialogue on how to implement the nuclear deal – one facilitated by the EU.

Diplomacy and domestic politics

Even as Iran sets deadlines for its JCPOA compliance, the clock is ticking in its domestic politics – with a presidential election scheduled for June.

The Principlists hope for an easy win in the contest, counting on the kind of relatively low voter turnout seen in the 2020 parliamentary election. Disillusioned with the futility of choosing the best bad option, the average Iranians needs a strong incentive to turn up at the polling station. But the hardliners’ optimism may be premature. In 2013 they were as confident that they would win as they are now. Yet, less than two months before that election, the tide turned.

Iranians often do not decide who to vote for until the last few weeks before an election. In an undisclosed national poll conducted by ISPA in December 2020, more than 38 per cent of respondents said that they might consider voting “if economic conditions improve”. As such, there is some concern among hardliners that a swift US return to the JCPOA, and sanctions relief, would improve the chances of Rouhani-affiliated candidates. This is why some commentators speculate that Principlists feel it is necessary to obstruct Rouhani’s efforts to persuade the US to ease sanctions before the election.

In theory, this is a sound Machiavellian move. However, it does not necessarily correspond with Iran’s current political dynamics. Most Iranian elites of all political leanings want to reduce the pressure on the economy, and recognise that US sanctions have a role to play in this. In their opinion, it is better for it to happen today than tomorrow, as highlighted in a recent string of interviews published on the supreme leader’s website.

Media outlets affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are not cheering for Zarif and his team, but they are not lambasting him either. The editor-in-chief of Javan, the flagship IRGC daily, has even called Rouhani’s recent technical arrangement with IAEA a “smart” move. And the Kayhan Daily has also cautiously supported the arrangement. At present, only a radical minority in the Iranian political system are against the revival of the JCPOA. Saeed Jalili, the former chief Iranian nuclear negotiator (and a possible contender in the upcoming election), represents this minority.

Yet, more broadly, Rouhani’s rivals prefer not to bet too heavily against the JCPOA. For one thing, they do not want the blame for Iran’s economic troubles to shift onto them. For another, they believe that public disapproval of Rouhani and his allies is so intense that even the revival of the JCPOA will not reverse it – and, as such, there may be little point in campaigning against the agreement. Finally, they have other tools at their disposal to weaken the pro-Rouhani coalition – which is extremely fragile – before the election. One such tool is parliamentary manipulation of the government’s proposed budget bill for next year – which, if implemented, would increase the dollar exchange rate and, accordingly, the price of staple goods in the months leading up to the election. This could make voters resent the Rouhani camp even more.

Iran’s electoral cycle could have an influence on the political space in Tehran for engaging with the US and Europe, but it is unlikely to be the most significant factor in whether diplomacy on the JCPOA succeeds. There is now a general consensus in Iran that the country should stabilise the nuclear deal with the Biden administration, thereby rebooting the economy through benefits granted under the deal. A more pressing issue for Iran’s leaders is whether the US will rejoin the agreement without seeking to change its terms.

It is highly unlikely that the US and Europe will be able to strike a broader agreement with Iran unless they first rejoin the original JCPOA – under either the current or next government in Tehran. The longer the US takes to rejoin the JCPOA, the greater the support in Tehran for accelerating the Iranian nuclear programme. In the coming weeks, European and US efforts should focus on a swift return to the JCPOA rather than holding out for the unlikely prospect of a new nuclear formula with Iran.

Ali Reza Eshraghi is the projects director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting’s MENA division and a visiting scholar at the UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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