Saturday, February 27, 2021

Reviving the Iran nuclear deal … a dangerous path


It took seven years since a senior US diplomat met his Iranian counterpart one day in the summer of 2008, until the two sides concluded the nuclear agreement aimed at preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

No one expects that this same long period will pass to ensure that the two sides are able to revive the agreement from which former US President Donald Trump withdrew, but US and European officials say that the road will be long and arduous if the two sides start moving on it.

Last Thursday, President Joe Biden’s administration said that it was “ready to send its special envoy, Rob Mali, to meet with Iranian officials and discuss ways to return to the agreement reached by Tehran and six world powers, whose official name is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”

Although Tehran made mixed signals at first, its Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, took a hard-line approach on Sunday, saying that “the United States will not be able to return to the nuclear deal before the sanctions are lifted.”

The whole point of the agreement is for Iran to reduce its uranium enrichment program, so that it becomes more difficult to store a quantity of fissile material sufficient for the production of a nuclear weapon, in return for easing the burden of the US economic sanctions and other sanctions applied to it.

In theory, it will be difficult to determine the path to revive the agreement, whose details lie in 110 pages representing its provisions and annexes.

And on the ground, this will represent a challenge for two reasons, the first of which is the dozens of sanctions imposed by Trump on Iran after withdrawing from the agreement in May 2018, and the second is the steps that Tehran implemented and violated the agreement in response to Trump’s decisions, after waiting more than a year.

Although the two sides have so far focused publicly on the issue of who is taking the first step towards reviving the agreement, as each insists that the other side be the initiator, a US official told Reuters that arrangements for the steps could be coordinated.

The official added, “I do not think that the question of who starts will be the most difficult issue … The difficulty lies in determining how each side sees commitment to the agreement.”

Challenges

The nuclear agreement concluded by Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States called for Washington to lift sanctions related to the nuclear issue only on Tehran.

After withdrawing from the deal, Trump imposed dozens of new sanctions for other reasons, including accusing Iran of supporting terrorism.

Experts say Biden will face political risks and may find it impossible to meet Tehran’s demands to lift these sanctions in light of criticism from Republicans and perhaps some of his party’s Democrats.

“This is a very politically sensitive issue in the United States because a number of it has been deliberately applied by the powers of terrorism,” said Henry Rom of the Eurasia Research Group.

“The two negotiating teams will have to go through a thorough process to determine what will be maintained and what will be lifted,” Rom added.

Another challenge is Iran’s support for factions in the Middle East region that it works for, including those accused of launching attacks on US forces.

In the most dangerous of these attacks since a year, a missile attack on US-led forces in northern Iraq on Monday resulted in the death of a civilian contractor and the injury of an American soldier, which makes it more difficult for Washington to appear as concessions to Iran.

Another difficulty is the US desire to release American citizens imprisoned in Iran, an issue that White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that Washington had begun discussions about with Iranian officials.

While it is possible to reverse some of the steps taken by Iran in violation of the nuclear agreement, such as enriching uranium by more than 3.67% and increasing its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, it may not be easy to reverse other steps.

Among these steps are the experiences gained from research and development activities using advanced centrifuges, which would help Iran raise the level of uranium enrichment to 90%, which is the necessary degree to manufacture a nuclear weapon if it decides to do so.

“How can the knowledge that they have gained be reversed?” Said Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution.

Delicate option

The authorities in Tehran are also facing a delicate choice in terms of responding to any initiative from the Biden administration, as Iran prepares for presidential elections in June, and the turnout will likely represent a referendum on the religious establishment amid growing feelings of discontent over economic difficulties.

The fragile Iranian economy, which has been increased by US sanctions and the Coronavirus pandemic, has left the ruling elite little choice but to negotiate, but the final decision is the decision of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.





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