As U.S. President Joe Biden begins a diplomatic push to revive a 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers, supporters of the deal say he will need a long-term effort to succeed, while opponents say he should focus instead on pressuring Tehran into a new and tougher deal.
The 2015 agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was reached between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5+1. It requires Iran to undertake eight- to 15-year-long curbs in nuclear activities with potential for weaponization in exchange for international sanctions relief. Former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 saying it was not tough enough on Iran, which has retaliated by exceeding the deal’s nuclear limits since 2019.
“We’re prepared to reengage in negotiations with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program,” Biden said Friday at the White House, in a speech to a virtual version of the Munich Security Conference, an annual forum on international security policy.
Biden, who has pledged to return to the JCPOA if Iran first resumes full compliance, responded positively to an EU proposal made Thursday for the six world powers and Iran to attend an informal meeting to discuss how to revive the agreement. A State Department spokesman said the U.S. would accept such an invitation, which has yet to be publicly offered.
The Biden administration also made two gestures toward Iran, withdrawing a Trump administration request for the U.N. Security Council to trigger a “snapback” of Iran sanctions, a request that other council members rejected, and easing some travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats working at the U.N. in New York.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded on Twitter by reiterating a demand for the U.S. to “unconditionally & effectively lift all [U.S.] sanctions imposed, re-imposed or re-labeled by Trump” since 2018 as part of what Trump called a “maximum pressure” campaign for Iran to end objectionable behaviors including alleged nuclear weapons development that Tehran denies. Zarif said Tehran “will immediately reverse” all of its JCPOA violations if the U.S. complies.
In one of several VOA Persian TV interviews on Friday, JCPOA supporter Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said it will not be possible for Biden to lift U.S. sanctions in the short term because of resistance to such a move from minority Republicans in Congress. He also said the U.S. gestures are unlikely to persuade Iran to abandon a threat to stop unannounced inspections by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency at Iranian nuclear sites starting Tuesday, a move that would further escalate Iran’s recent series of JCPOA violations.
“At the same time, [for Biden] to express a willingness to have a dialogue with Iran is an important step forward for both sides to find a common ground for reviving the JCPOA and to show that the ‘maximum pressure’ era is over,” Vaez said.
Behrooz Bayat, a Vienna-based Iranian former IAEA consultant and JCPOA supporter, said the U.S., other world powers and Iran have no alternative but to save the JCPOA in the long run.
“Pursuit of other policies such as the U.S. maintaining crippling ’maximum pressure’ Iran sanctions, or Iran advancing its nuclear program will not solve anything and could end in war,” Bayat said.
Biden has said his proposed conditional return to the JCPOA upon Iran’s resumption of full compliance would be a first step toward strengthening and broadening the deal to address what the U.S. sees as Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East, including its support for Islamist militias that have fought the U.S. and its regional allies.
Brookings Institution research director Michael O’Hanlon, a JCPOA critic, said Biden should use the financial leverage that Trump built with tightened U.S. sanctions to try to get a new deal that indefinitely restricts Iran’s uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities that it could weaponize.
“Iran is not going to like that idea. But there is a chance that at least some Republicans in the United States would [like that], creating a stronger foundation for this to be a durable deal and more importantly, shoring up the nuclear nonproliferation system in the Middle East,” O’Hanlon said.
Another JCPOA opponent, Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Biden should pressure Iran to make the first move toward reviving diplomacy by changing its behavior at home as well as that of its proxy militias that have staged attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and on U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia in recent years.
“Washington should be working with its regional partners as diverse as Israel to Saudi Arabia to see what they favor as an acceptable end-state [to their conflicts with Iran and its proxies], so that the inputs of those U.S. allies are included in a bigger, broader and better deal with Iran,” Taleblu said.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.