Iran and the United States are back at the nuclear negotiating table. Talks have so far been described as “constructive,” which translates from Diplomatese to English as “fruitless.” Seeing as these negotiations are being conducted by European intermediaries who literally shuttle themselves from the hotel where the Iranian delegation is situated to another where the Americans are lodged, it would be a miracle if a breakthrough were reached.
It isn’t just the protocols that represent an obstacle to progress, but the gaping chasm between the parties’ negotiating positions that is unlikely to be bridged. The United States maintains that Iran must take some concrete steps toward complying with the original accords before it budges. Presumably, that would entail reductions in Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium or the mothballing of its enrichment capacity. Iranian negotiators insist that they need to see each and every Trump-era sanction on the Islamic Republic lifted before they reciprocate. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister and lead negotiator Abbas Araghchi told Iranian PressTV that he would not accept a “step-by-step plan.” For Tehran, it’s all or nothing.
To their credit, American negotiators still nominally adhered to Joe Biden’s campaign-trail pledge to seek a better, more comprehensive deal than 2015’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). That implicit admission that the original Iran nuclear deal was insufficient is welcome, but the administration is handicapping itself if it’s looking for a better deal.
“I think what we can essentially rule out are the maximalist demands that the United States do everything first and only, in turn, would Iran then act,” State Department Spokesman Ned Price told reporters. “I don’t think anyone is under the impression that that would be a viable proposal.” Good. Maximalist demands should be ruled out. But no one said anything about minimalist demands.
The United States will have an easier time making the first overture by easing any one of the suite of sanctions currently targeting vital sectors of the Iranian economy, the Iranian regime, or the designated terrorist actors under Tehran’s control. What’s more, the United States appears to have imposed on itself a short window to secure something resembling a deal, making it the party most likely to blink first.
“The talks are taking place ahead of an Iranian presidential election in June, in which incumbent Hassan Rouhani cannot run again,” Politico Europe reported. “A more hardline leader would make progress on the diplomatic front more difficult.” Raising the specter of Iranian hardliners, who are forever waiting in the wings to sabotage progress, is an eerie echo of the kind of moral blackmail Barack Obama deployed so often against the JCPOA’s critics. And while Special Envoy Robert Malley told reporters that the U.S. would “negotiate with whoever is in power in Iran” and the Iranian political calendar cannot “dictate our pace,” nor could the U.S. afford to “ignore the reality of an election.”
Malley’s ambiguity is not reflected in the pro-deal press, which is eager to see negotiations produce some sort of framework ahead of Iranian elections. “Improved relations with the west might boost turnout among an Iranian public worn down by sanctions and a resurgent Covid outbreak,” the Guardian reported, “so could help reformists who had supported the deal only to have their political ground undercut by Trump’s actions.” This, too, is a familiar refrain.
The JCPOA was said in 2015 to have greatly empowered the reform wing of the Iranian theocracy, which Rouhani helmed. But what did we witness in the immediate aftermath of the Iran deal’s implementation? Iran-sponsored sectarian attacks in Iraq; the material and political support for a genocidal regime in Syria; weapons funneled to Houthis in Yemen; political instability in Lebanon and Bahrain sponsored by Tehran; and a vicious crackdown on political demonstrators inside Iran. All of this occurred before Donald Trump effectively abrogated the JCPOA in May 2018, after which Iranian provocations only became more reckless and provocative.
The idea that a nuclear accord with the West empowers Iran’s moderates presumes the existence of Iranian moderates—a presupposition that has time and again proven flawed.
But that seems to be the belief to which the Biden administration and its negotiators adhere. If so, they could convince themselves that they’re better served chasing an accord, any accord, at the possible expense of its terms. And the results of such a flawed approach are predictable. For all their talk of a better deal, we will likely end up with something even worse.
Update: The United States blinked first. As a gesture aimed at breaking the logjam, Reuters reports that the Biden administration is prepared to lift sanctions on Iran that are “inconsistent with the 2015 pact.” We will see if Iran reciprocates.