Friday, February 26, 2021

The road back to the Iran nuclear deal is long and bumpy …


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

No one expects that this same long period will pass to make sure 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 initially gave mixed signals, 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 to produce a nuclear weapon, in return for easing the burden of the US economic sanctions and other sanctions applied to it.

Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons.

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

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 party is the initiator, an American official told Reuters that arrangements for the steps could be coordinated.

He told “Reuters”: “I do not think that the question of who starts … will be the most difficult issue.”

He added that the difficulty lies in “determining how each side sees commitment” to the agreement, pointing to identifying the US sanctions that can be lifted, as well as the question of the steps that Iran has taken, so can all of them be reversed?

Politics, prisoners and proxy factions

The nuclear agreement concluded by Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States required that Washington lift only sanctions related to the nuclear issue from 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 possibly some of his party’s Democrats.

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

He added, “My negotiating team will have to go through a thorough process to determine what will be maintained and what will be lifted.”

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

In the most dangerous of these attacks in 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 American desire to release American citizens imprisoned in Iran, an issue that Jake Sullivan, the White House National Security Adviser said, that Washington has started 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 percent and increasing its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, it may not be easy to reverse other steps.

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

“How can the knowledge that they have acquired be undone?” Asked Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution.

The authorities in Tehran are also facing a delicate choice in terms of responding to any initiative from the Biden administration, at a time when Iran is preparing for presidential elections in June, in which turnout is likely to 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 negotiation, but the final decision is the decision of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

However, it is not yet clear whether the two sides can return to the negotiating table.

On Tuesday, Iran threatened more steps to reduce its commitment to the nuclear agreement, especially by stopping some surprise inspections carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations.

Experts said that this may not necessarily spoil the opportunities for negotiation, but it increases the challenges.

A French diplomatic source said: “Despite everything, we are still in a precarious situation, and its risks will increase in the coming days. It is important to quickly revive diplomatic efforts.”



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