Will the Iran Nuclear Agreement Be Restored?
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 31 Jan 2022
26 Jan 2022 – An interview with Mojtaba Majidi of the Mehr News Agency (Tehran) on the Vienna Talks that are seeking to restore the Iran Nuclear Agreement of 2015 reached during the Obama presidency. When Trump became president in 2017, he denounced the agreement as harmful to Israel and not strong enough to control Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The U.S. withdrew in 2018, reimposing harsh sanctions, moves criticized at the time by the other five signatory countries (UK, France, Germany, Russia, China). Biden pledged to reinvigorate the agreement by rejoining, but has not wanted to override Israeli concerns nor generate a controversy at home. At present, it is quite uncertain as to whether these hurdles can be overcome.
Q1: Apparently Iran has taken a constructive stance on the Iranian nuclear issue and has sent a delegation to take part in the new round of negotiation on resuming compliance with the JCPOA. However, the US and Western countries still criticize Iran for not being serious enough in the negotiation. How do you evaluate Iran’s performance in the negotiation?
It is difficult to assess these public statements made by both sides with reference to the Vienna Talks. It appears to be a pre-negotiating communication with media platforms and public opinion, as well as in the US. It seems to be a way of blunting Israel’s criticisms for any negotiations with Iran that might lead to the restoration of the 2015 Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA), the end of sanctions, or improved relations between the two countries. We do not know how motivated the US and Iran are to give ground so as to reach an agreed outcome. The degree of negotiating flexibility and the red lines of both parties will become more obvious as their respective preconditions for agreement are put forward in the negotiations.
Having acknowledged this obscurity, I believe the main burden is on the US to demonstrate its sincerity and credibility. In 2018 US formally and unilaterally withdrew, Trump having repudiated the agreement soon after he was elected in 2016, subsequently reimposing sanctions and authorizing various unlawful covert operations in violation of Iran’s sovereign rights, as well as refusing to criticize Israel’s unlawful threats and uses of force against Iran. In this sense, it is vital that the US demonstrate its good faith, including a willingness to offer some sort of guaranty against a second repudiation of the JCPOA( Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) that would probably be combined with the reimposition of sanctions should the Republican Party return to power in 2025. To be sure, even a strong guaranty embedded in the restored agreement would be unlikely to be respected by Trump or enforceable. A US commitment to oppose any Israel’s future hostile acts directed at Iran would serve the purposes of the agreement, which aims at enhancing regional stability, but would also be vulnerabilities of American electoral politics.
Q2: Iran insists on the removal of all nuclear-related sanctions. Will the US do so? In fact, do you see any real political will in the US to reach an agreement?
I believe the US does seek stability in the Middle East. The question is whether it is prepared to pay the diplomatic and domestic political price of increased friction with Israel accentuated by the added difficulties with Congressional allies of Israel claiming a weakening of ‘the special relationship’ that the US has long maintained with Israel and the Biden presidency has repeatedly reaffirmed. It is less the absence of political will to reach an agreement, but the need Washington evidently feels to weigh the balance between the benefits of such agreement against the strong push-back in the US led by Trump-oriented Republicans. After the problematic manner of the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, Biden is undoubtedly sensitive to allegations from the American right that he is projecting an image of American weakness, regional disengagement, and global decline.
Q3: Iran has repeatedly stressed that the core purpose of this round of negotiation is to lift sanctions against Iran and normalize Iran’s economic and trade activities. How do you evaluate this appeal of Iran?
I think the genuineness and justification of this pursuit of normalcy on Iran’s part is sincere, deserves respect, and is mandated by international law and the UN Charter. Arguably, Iran has done nothing wrong that would warrant punitive actions of the sort taken or the kind of coercion embedded in the ‘maximum pressure’ approach to the Trump presidency. It is unlawful to threaten or use force as a tactic of diplomacy, and Iran has been constantly threatened over a period of many years, economically harmed, and politically destabilized by such tactics, as well as by the imposition of sanctions that have inhibited foreign investment and trade by third party countries.
Q4: Iran says the text of the 2015 JCPOA should be the cornerstone of the Vienna talks but the other side, in fact, is after a new 2021 JCPOA. How do you assess these excessive demands?
On its face, these US demands are unreasonable considering that it was its unilateral, unprovoked act that led to the breakdown of the agreed arrangements embodied in the 2015 JCPOA framework. Iran should not be politically expected to accept new conditions and constraints that impose additional limits on its freedom of action in a 2022 revamped version of the former agreement.
The argument for new conditions is to take account of Iran’s technological advances, its enhanced enrichment capabilities, improved centrifuges, and its alleged closer approach in know-how and time to acquisition of nuclear weaponry. It is notable that the CIA director has recently declared that there is no evidence that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability. Nevertheless, the expiration of key clauses of the 2015 JCPOA in 2030 is sufficiently close that there is pressure on the US, especially from Israel and counter-proliferation extremists to insist upon a longer termination date of 25 years from the time that a new agreement is signed.
Q5: Biden administration says it is not going to guarantee that the US will not withdraw from the possible future agreement like what Trump did. And even some in Washington are threatening to kill any agreement that Biden may reach. How do you assess the US stance and its effect on the talks’ process? How may U.S. domestic competitions ruin any chance of reaching a good nuclear pact?
I think this risk of a future obstruction of an agreement within the US is very high. The prospect of Republican electoral success in 2022 and 2024 elections cannot be disregarded, and are reinforced by public opinion polls.
Such outcome would undoubtedly raise pressures for restoring the Trump approach to Iran and an overall approach to Middle East politics more in accord with Israel’s preferences. It may be because Biden accords priority to domestic issues, including COVID, public funding of infrastructure (roads, bridges, airports, renewable energy), and improved race relations that the US will continue to adhere to its version of a hard-line approach with regard to both the Vienna negotiations on nuclear issues and in its overall relationship with Iran. At the same time, the US Government seems likely to engage in crisis management if the talks breakdown, and may believe it will have enhanced leverage to restrain Israel if it maintains the present status quo with Iran, meaning no new agreement and no sanctions relief. I think this would be a dangerous turn of events, likely to lead to a downward spiral in the Middle East that could produce open warfare.
Q6: Under such fragile circumstances threatening any possible agreement, how constructive role can Europe play? Basically, is Europe independent enough to be able to play a constructive role in securing any possible agreement? Or it will behave inactively as it did after Trump’s withdrawal?
I believe Europe is not likely to exert much influence on US diplomacy with Iran unless it fears the effects of a slide into war or aggravated instability in the Middle East. Europe seems currently more concerned about relations with Russia and China at this point, feeling a renewed dependence on the NATO alliance for its own security. In an atmosphere of a second Cold War Europe seems as though it will continue to accept Washington’s leadership. As well, European governments, above all Germany, but also France and the UK, remain subject to considerable pressure from Israel, and are not likely to take a strong independent position that is opposed by either Washington or the Israeli government.
I think Iran’s main source of leverage is to continue exploring the benefits of geopolitical realignment, especially in relation to China and Russia, but also seeking greater support from the Islamic world and by way of regional accommodations. .
Further in the background of the Vienna talks but in some respects Iran’s strongest diplomatic tool would be to support and advocate long languishing proposals for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (MENWFZ). Iran has somewhat surprisingly not yet voiced public vigorous objections to Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weaponry and their subsequent development. By making the MENWFZ an active peace proposal, perhaps enlarged to encompass categories of Weapons of Mass Destruction (that is, chemical and biological weapons), Iran would be taking a constructive stand consistent with its commitment to its reliance on non-nuclear defense capabilities and a security posture based on mutual principles of non-aggression.
Iran has a strong interest in promoting denuclearization for the region. Doing so would have additional benefits. It would expose Israel’s nuclearism, and accompanying hypocrisy. It might even exert pressure on Israel to change course and itself become receptive to the virtues of MENWFZ, which might include normalization of all inter-governmental relations. To make such an approach politically and morally feasible for Tehran, it would be important to reaffirm Iranian solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for basic rights. This factor would undoubtedly complicate the diplomacy surrounding the nuclear issue as Tehran would be inhibited from using ‘normalization’ with Israel as a bargaining chip in the nuclear context so long as Palestinian rights are being denied.
By raising these issues, I am suggesting the need for fresh thinking on all sides if the present signs of an impasse relating to the future of JCPOA are to be overcome, or if the Vienna process proves to be a failure with both sides shifting blame away from itself. This impasse would not exist, in my judgment, if Israel was not part of the diplomatic equation. This dysfunctional obstacle should be overcome or circumvented, and JCPOA restored in a form acceptable to both sides. Even should a favorable result be reached, it will not remove Israel from relevance, but would likely find Washington scrambling to provide Israel with tangible reassurances that its ‘special relationship’ with the US remains operative. Quite possibly, and most unfortunately, this could result in one more Palestinian setback in their struggle for basic rights if care is not taken by Iran to do its best to avoid such blowback side-effects or providing Israel with the latest weaponry or the funds to ensure that it maintains its regional edge with respect to military power.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London, Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. Falk is currently acting as interim Director of the Centre of Climate Crime and Justice at Queen Mary. He directs the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. His book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (2014), proposes a value-oriented assessment of world order and future trends. His most recent books are Power Shift (2016); Revisiting the Vietnam War (2017); On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019); and On Public Imagination: A Political & Ethical Imperative, ed. with Victor Faessel & Michael Curtin (2019). He is the author or coauthor of other books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance (2001), Explorations at the Edge of Time (1993), Revolutionaries and Functionaries (1988), The Promise of World Order (1988), Indefensible Weapons (1983), A Study of Future Worlds (1975), and This Endangered Planet (1972). His memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim was published March 2021. He has been nominated annually for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2021.
Tags: Iran, Middle East, Nuclear Abolition, Nuclear Deal, Nuclear Free Middle East, Nuclear Power, USA, West
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