The seven nations behind the 2015 Iran nuclear deal held meetings in Vienna on Tuesday to explore reviving it nearly three years after then-US President Donald Trump ceased American participation and began imposing a raft of new sanctions on the Islamic Republic. European negotiators relayed proposals and commentary back and forth between their American and Iranian counterparts, who remained on the sidelines, steadfastly avoiding direct talks.
This standoffish approach to diplomacy seems to underscore the idea that the proceedings will most likely take a great deal of time, perhaps lasting through Iran’s presidential election, which is scheduled for June. The US White House has seemingly sought to promote that idea, with officials stating both before and after the first round of talks that they are not expecting any sort of major breakthrough.
The two sides remain at an impasse over the question of who should act first in returning to full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Tehran insists that it will not reverse any of its violations until after the US has resume participation in the agreement and suspended all associated sanctions. Washington has generally taken the opposite position, suggesting that sanctions relief will come only after Iran has dialed back its uranium enrichment, reduced its stockpiles of nuclear material, and demonstrated willingness to abide by the provisions of the deal over the long term.
The other Western signatories to the JCPOA – the European Union, Britain, France, and Germany – meanwhile are obsessively working to break the impasse and salvage the existing deal by any means necessary. But there are tentative signs that the renewed negotiating process has taken them by surprise insofar as it has exposed less enthusiasm for this position than they might have expected from the Biden administration. Tehran, too, has seemingly taken this as an unpleasant surprise in the wake of widespread speculation that the presidential transition from Trump to Biden would lead to a dramatic reversion to a sort of policy that was in place when Biden was vice president under Barack Obama.
There are multiple reasons why this expectation has not come to pass. US State Department articulated one broad category of those reasons when it pointed out, ahead of the Vienna meeting, that geopolitical conditions had changed in a manner that necessitated a change in approach to dealing with the Islamic Republic. Administration officials offered little in the way of elaboration, but they were most likely reacting, in part, to domestic unrest inside the Islamic Republic which exposed a higher degree of vulnerability within the regime.
That unrest has been relatively subdued in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but was previously defined by a series of mass uprisings, including one that encompassed nearly 200 Iranian cities and towns in November 2019. That nationwide uprising led to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps opening fire on crowds of protesters, killing approximately 1,500. But this in turn helped to fuel further demonstrations in January 2020, just ahead of the novel coronavirus emerging in Iran.
Despite the lack of unrest on a similar scale during the preceding year, there have been recent signs of a renewed protest movement, which serious opponents of the theocratic regime describe as the continuation of uprising that popularized direct appeals for regime change. Although not even the Trump administration was willing to directly repeat these calls, it did give arguably unprecedented levels of attention to the underlying protests while also strongly intensifying economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime.
The international community overwhelmingly expected this approach to alter under the Biden administration, and it has done so in a sense. The US presence on the sidelines of Tuesday’s talks is evidence of this, given that it is something the Trump administration would have surely rejected out of hand. But even though Biden has signaled a willingness to return to the JCPOA under certain conditions, his administration has seemingly found it difficult to ignore the value of the leverage that the previous administration created.
Whether intentionally or not, the Biden administration is now giving its European allies an opportunity to recognize the same potential for making more intensive demands of the Islamic Republic. This is exactly the outcome that the Western signatories should pursue, but they can only do so once the Europeans recognize that by prioritizing the JCPOA’s restoration above all else, they run the risk of rewarding Iran’s most malign and threatening behavior.
The current European position might be more defensible if Iran had simply waited out the US presidential transition and made an effort to keep its relations with the EU on good terms. Instead, Tehran has made every effort to strong arm the Western world into providing more concessions, regardless of what the resulting wealth and international access might be used for. In February, for what appears to be the first time, a high-ranking Iranian official acknowledge that a fatwa supposedly barring the Islamic Republic from obtaining nuclear weapons has no practical weight. Tehran could act contrary to it, Mahmoud Alavi said, if Western adversaries “pushed” the regime in that direction.
This remark flies in the face of Tehran’s starting position in all previous discussions over its nuclear program, namely that the relevant work is strictly peaceful. The betrayal of that talking point cannot be overlooked or downplayed by European negotiators, and neither can the prior evidence of Iran deceiving fellow JCPOA signatories in order to continue advancing its goal of nuclear weapons capability.
Beginning several months after the US pulled out of the deal, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran’s Executive Director Ali Akbar Salehi, admitted on Iranian state media that authorities had created “countermeasures” against full compliance with restrictions on nuclear enrichment, and had avoided actually disabling the core of the Arak heavy water plant, as was required under the JCPOA. The practical significance of such deceptions was underscored as Iran made its systematic violations of that agreement, effectively revealing that the existing enforcement regime had never really had the intended effect of keeping Iran more than a year away from a nuclear weapon.
Now, Iran’s “breakout” time is down to as little as a couple of months, and may shrink even further as nuclear facilities finish mechanical testing of IR-9 centrifuges, which are capable of enriching uranium 50 times faster than the devices that were permitted to operate under the JCPOA. While the danger of this further advancement may still prompt some Western negotiators to push for immediate resurrection of the 2015 deal, this would be an act of needless desperation, and would disregard both the enormity of the threat and the amount of leverage created both by US sanctions and by Tehran’s domestic crisis.
As long as the opposing sides of the Vienna debate remain at their impasse, the European negotiators should take the time to shift their focus away from reestablishing the status quo and toward pursuing a better outcome for global security and the welfare of the Iranian people. As past and current protests in the Islamic Republic underscore, those two goals are in alignment more often than not, and both require holding the clerical regime accountable to a much greater degree than it has been in recent years.