The White House intends to offer Tehran a compromise – partial compliance with the nuclear deal signed in 2015 between Iran and a number of world powers for partial sanctions relief, Politico reported on Monday.
The proposal marks a shift from US insistence that Iran return to full compliance with the nuclear accord before any sanctions are lifted. The Americans are anxious to get the Iranian issue off their table, an expert explained.
The compromise being prepared by the Biden administration is one US officials hope will bring the Iranians to the negotiation table after a period of stagnation, according to the Politico report. The proposal, whose details are still under consideration, offers to lift some of the American sanctions currently weighing on the Islamic Republic, in return for a partial halt to its nuclear activity.
If true, this latest development is a sign of change in the Biden administration’s policy regarding Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Until now, Washington has insisted that sanctions relief is dependent on Iran first returning to full compliance with its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Iran has strayed significantly from its obligations under the agreement. Contrary to the deal, the country has enriched uranium well beyond the agreed purity limit, also increasing its stockpile of the material far beyond the accord’s allowance. In February 2021, The Wall Street Journal revealed that the Iranians have begun producing uranium metal, also forbidden by the agreement. The material can be used in the construction of nuclear weapons.
The Iranians, in turn, appear to have already ruled out the compromise. According to state-owned Press TV, a senior Iranian official said Tehran will stop its production of highly enriched uranium with a 20% concentration of uranium 235 – an element of the proposal outlined in the Politico report – only if all American sanctions are first lifted.
Iran has insisted that the US be the first to act and lift its sanctions, as it was the first to leave the agreement and fall out of compliance. President Joe Biden promised to return to the agreement during his election campaign, but so far, no progress has been made.
Reached in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, the UK, France, China, and Russia – plus Germany), along with the EU, the nuclear deal was intended to put the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites under international supervision and limit its ability to produce a nuclear weapon. The effectiveness of the deal was controversial. The EU and the Obama administration were strongly in its favor, while Israel and Saudi Arabia were its loudest critics, supported by hardliners in the US.
President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement in 2018, after calling it “the worst deal ever negotiated.” In its place, Trump instituted a “maximum pressure” policy regarding Iran, which included heavy sanctions.
Shimon Stein is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and an expert on arms control.
“Each side has its conditions and I think that Iran currently has the upper hand, while the US is trying to find a way to backtrack” on its insistence that Tehran act first, “after it understood that its condition that Iran return to full compliance with 2015’s JCPOA before it begins to lift its sanctions – that’s probably not going to happen,” Stein told The Media Line.
The US, Stein explains, is interested in “putting the nuclear issue ‘back in the box’; they want to take it off their urgent agenda as quickly as possible.”
Even within American nonproliferation policy, North Korea takes precedence, and so the White House is looking to secure progress with the Islamic Republic as quickly as possible, “even at the cost of swallowing their pride, to some degree.”
Contrarily, Iran currently enjoys an advantageous position, Stein believes. It is obvious that the “maximum pressure” policy has failed to deliver, he says, and data shows that “the Iranian economy will experience growth in the coming year,” despite the US sanctions. In addition to that, the Chinese and the Russians “support the Iranian position that the US should return to the agreement and lift the sanctions because it is the one that broke the agreement.”
Stein also points to the recent agreement between China and Iran. Signed over the weekend, it lays the foundation for a 25-year partnership. While Stein says this development has mainly symbolic value at present, it should help the Iranian economy, which in turn, lessens American leverage.
“All signs are indicating that Iran is under less pressure and that the sanctions – even if they are very painful – have failed to bring Iran to its knees, and it seems doubtful that they will manage to in the near future,” Stein says.
Speaking about the impending US proposal, Mark Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and an expert on nonproliferation, US foreign policy and nuclear issues, told The Media Line “it’s the politically expedient move for Biden to make right now.”
The current situation is dangerous, he says, with inspections “in a limbo for a couple of months” while Iran is keenly “determined to further break the commitments to the deal.
“It’s absolutely in US interest and it’s in global interest and I don’t see any downside other than the political liability it could create for Biden. There are no security or diplomatic reasons not to do this,” Fitzpatrick says.
The expert adds that Biden may be limited by opposition within the Senate, and “this may be as much as he can do right now.”
However, he is not optimistic that such offers for partial compliance will be successful. Instead, Fitzpatrick suggests the US make some concessions for humanitarian reasons.
“I really think the US could make some unilateral steps that it could fully justify on humanitarian grounds. Releasing some of the funds impounded is an obvious step,” he says, giving one example. “It’s a way to unlock the deadlock of sequencing. This is a way that the US could move first and unlock the deadlock.”
Dr. Neil Quilliam, an associate fellow with the Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program in the UK, agrees that progress needs to be made.
“The deadlock needs to be broken and it is really down to the US to start to unlock it,” he told The Media Line. “The US and its partners also know that time is pressing and unless one party takes the initiative then it will be too late − so the time for dancing is over.
“We can expect Iran to dig in its heels on sanctions relief,” Quilliam also expects, “but it will at least get things moving. If that fails, then we can expect back-channel talks to begin in earnest.”
The Islamic Republic’s upcoming election may delay an Iranian move by months, adding to the sense of urgency felt by administration officials, the Politico report stressed.
“If progress toward JCPOA re-entry stalls before Iranian presidential elections take place in June, negotiations are unlikely to begin until at least September, and by then any goodwill bounce associated with the Biden administration will be spent,” Quilliam says.
Fitzpatrick stresses that the time frame may be limited not only because of the elections.
“I think the next two months could be the make or break period for the JCPOA. If it’s not restored in the next two months, if Iran continues to break all of its commitments, it may be then impossible to restore it and parties may have to start over from a much more dangerous starting place,” he says.
The agreement has to be restored, he opined, “before Iran’s accumulated enrichment stockpile becomes more dangerous, before its research and development makes further progress and before we face a greater crisis. And that’s the urgency, even more so than the presidential elections.”
If this eventuality materializes, and the agreement is not restored, “we would be back in the situation of the 2011-2012 period, when Iran’s nuclear capabilities were at what Israel had described as the point of no return.” In this situation, a military option will be back in consideration, Fitzpatrick says.
US officials have repeatedly stated that they view the return to the deal as a springboard for discussing a wider agreement. While Iran has rejected this, saying there is nothing to negotiate further, Quilliam believes “it is essential that JCPOA re-entry is linked to other pressing issues, such as Iran’s support for militias, its proliferation of missiles and management of a regional ballistic missile program, as part of a wider deal.”
Progress that ignores this will draw strong opposition from regional players, US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, which will likely “act as spoilers should the US pursue a narrow focus,” Quilliam says.
Stein explains that the Biden administration is aware of the current severe time constraints, which influence its policy, but at the same time, the White House does not want to appear under pressure. This is causing officials to oscillate between a tough demand that Iran act first, and proposals such as the one revealed.
However, “at the end of the day, it seems to me that – if I had to bet – the US is the side that’s going to have to compromise,” Stein says.