The ongoing talks in Vienna (Austria) between Iran and the P4 + 1 group of countries to revive the nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has revived hopes of a wider thaw in relations between Iran and the United States.
Most of the international community – barring Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – welcomes this development, especially after four turbulent years under the previous Donald Trump Administration.
But expectations of a revival of the nuclear deal do not necessarily mean that it is going to happen, not in a seamless fashion anyway.
For a start, Iranian and US positions on the nuclear deal – and what the two sides expect to gain by coming back into full compliance with the JCPOA – are further apart than is openly admitted.
Above all, Iran is deeply reluctant to re-engage with a flawed deal which demands severe constraints on the country’s civilian nuclear program but which stops well short of offering full sanctions relief.
After weathering the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, Iran feels both vindicated and defiant. Combined with the country’s enhanced leverage – in the form of more advanced centrifuges – this state of mind indicates Iran is in no mood to compromise.
From an Iranian point of view, while a lasting nuclear deal may be desirable for economic reasons, it is not necessarily indispensable. The Islamic Republic can continue to thrive in the world without the JCPOA.
A history of constraints
Iran’s civilian nuclear programme has now been subjected to extreme forms of outside controls – principally by the International Atomic Energy Agency – for nearly 20 years.
Beginning with Iran’s signing of the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty in late 2003, the Islamic Republic’s nuclear industry has been subjected to more intensive scrutiny than any other country’s program.
The irony of course is that the one entity which indulges in baseless scare mongering about Iran’s perennially imminent acquisition of nuclear weapons, has never signed the NPT nor has its nuclear industry ever been subjected to a single inspection by the IAEA.
This is all the more remarkable when we know that the Israeli regime has an estimated 90 nuclear warheads, with fissile material for up to 200.
Iran signed up to the JCPOA in July 2015 in good faith and not as it was widely speculated at the time solely because of the adverse impact of sanctions.
Iran agreed to suspend key parts of its nuclear program, notably limiting uranium enrichment to only 3.7% purity, primarily as part of a desire to place its relations with the Western powers, and principally the United States, on a more stable footing.
This stability was blown away of course when Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal in May 2018, subsequently not only re-imposing nuclear-related sanctions but a host of additional sanctions as well.
But the truth is even the Obama Administration did not fully live up to its obligations under the JCPOA, for it only facilitated partial sanctions relief.
Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA was a bitter experience for Iran and one which the country’s leadership is unlikely to forget in a hurry.
The JCPOA’s legal status as an agreement, as opposed to a treaty, means that any future US president can unilaterally withdraw from the deal with minimal personal and national costs, as demonstrated by Trump’s behaviour.
Furthermore, as one American scholar has argued even if the JCPOA qualified as a treaty that still would not prevent a US president from tearing it up if he believed – as Trump did – that the deal is inconsistent with US national interests.
The regional environment
Beyond the inherent flaws of the JCPOA, coupled with the difficulty in obtaining verified sanctions relief, Iranian leaders have other incentives for holding their ground in Vienna and in any subsequent negotiation setting.
Iran’s strengthened role in the region is yet another indicator of the failure of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy in so far as the previous US Administration had identified Iran’s regional emasculation as a key criterion for entering into fresh negotiations.
But Iran has demonstrated the ability to simultaneously shore up its local regional allies, fight a semi-clandestine maritime war with Israel and to reach out – albeit tentatively – to regional rival Saudi Arabia.
More broadly, while the US continues to maintain a strong presence in the region, the grand strategic trajectory points to a gradual American withdrawal from the region.
America’s retreat from the Middle East may not be as precipitous as its withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it is a certainty for a variety of reasons, not least the much-vaunted, if not serially delayed, pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region.
Needless to say America’s retreat from the region is a big gain for Iran, and potentially for the Arab states of the Persian Gulf as well, provided a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia takes hold.
In terms of Iran’s nuclear programme, a lighter US footprint in the region translates into lesser American leverage, which in turn means Washington’s ability to directly pressure Tehran will be reduced.
Looked at from a more positive perspective, the US withdrawal from the region creates greater incentives for Iran to develop its civilian nuclear program to its fullest extent, not least to derive maximum benefit from nuclear energy and broader derivatives.
Settling the nuclear question
This brings us to the heart of the matter. The dispute centered on Iran’s nuclear program has become attritional as demonstrated by nearly two decades of negotiations, deals and inspections.
The program has also attracted increasingly bold US-Israeli sabotage operations, beginning with the world’s first major cyber attack dubbed Stuxnet, a collaborative effort by US and Israeli intelligence agencies codenamed Operation Olympic Games.
The world’s most sophisticated cyber attacks targeting Iranian uranium enrichment facilities ran concurrently with physical attacks, notably the assassination of leading Iranian nuclear scientists.
These sabotage operations appear to have intensified in the past year, as demonstrated by two attacks against the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, and most dramatically of all the assassination last November of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
While these sabotage operations undoubtedly have an adverse operational impact, they do not alter the trajectory of the nuclear program nor do they unduly influence Iran’s strategic calculus.
In fact, Iran has successfully demonstrated over two decades that it can withstand sanctions and sabotage and at the same time advance and slow down its nuclear program as it sees fit.
This begs the question as to whether Iran really does need a nuclear deal. From an economic point of view, the answer may be positive as sanctions undoubtedly have an insidiously deleterious impact.
But from a broader geopolitical and strategic standpoint, the answer is less certain in view of Iran’s growing stature and ambitions in the region and beyond.
All options are on the table for Iran in the decisive years ahead as the region undergoes more painful transformations, as evidenced by the shifting balance of power between the Islamic Republic and its adversaries.
Hitherto, Iran has given neither serious consideration nor planning to developing nuclear weapons, but as the country’s powerful intelligence minister, Seyed Mahmoud Alavi, warned in early February, this calculus could change especially if Iran is forced into a corner.
While the outcome of the Vienna negotiations hangs in the balance, what is clear is that a no-deal scenario is not the end of the world.
Fresh negotiations can start in late summer or autumn after Iran’s presidential election next month.
But ultimately a sustainable nuclear deal is in fact more consistent with the interests of the US and other adversaries than it is with Iran’s.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.