STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT. The negotiations suggest that both the United States and Iran have dropped their demands that the other side first come back into compliance with the terms of the agreement before any concessions could be offered.
At the forthcoming meeting, European diplomats will serve as intermediaries with U.S. diplomats located separately from the meeting of the remaining participants in the accord – Iran, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Iran’s refusal to engage in direct talks reflects distrust within Iran’s political establishment. Iran reportedly has sought assurances, which U.S. officials cannot offer, that a future U.S. administration would not exit the agreement and re-impose all U.S. sanctions, as the Trump administration did in 2018. Such concerns are likely to affect many international negotiations, as global leaders may be wary of a potential return to the unpredictable and ad-hoc diplomacy of the Trump administration under future administrations. As Iran moves closer to presidential elections in June, the regime’s stance also reflects deep resentment within Iran over the January 2020 strike that killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) commander Qasem Soleimani and the assassination of key Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020, purportedly by U.S. ally Israel. Yet, the State Department stated that the United States would still be “open” to direct talks if Iran decided to drop its objections once the meetings begin.
The beginning of U.S.-Iran diplomacy, even if initially indirect, suggests that many of the hurdles to a full restoration of the 2015 nuclear agreement might be overcome. According to a U.S. State Department spokesperson, today’s meeting will discuss “the nuclear steps that Iran would need to take in order to return to compliance with the terms of the [nuclear deal]” and “the sanctions relief steps that the United States would need to take in order to return to compliance, as well.” There are no technical obstacles to Iran taking the nuclear steps required to return to compliance with the nuclear restrictions of the accord, if there is a decision in Tehran to do so. The sanctions on Iran’s economy that were re-imposed – and newly imposed – by the Trump administration can be readily identified and suspended by the Biden administration, which appears to have the political will do so. These sanctions must be suspended under the accord if negotiations are to proceed. The chief U.S. envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, told journalists: “The U.S. knows that in order to get back into compliance, it’s going to have to lift those sanctions that are inconsistent with the deal.” The agreement does not, however, require the United States to lift sanctions on Iran for its support for regional armed groups or acts of international terrorism, on Iranian arms purchases and missile and other strategic weapons programs, or its human rights abuses.
Still unclear is the issue of how the Biden administration will address those aspects of Iranian behavior that fall outside of the 2015 nuclear agreement. It appears that, at least initially, the U.S. is willing to return to the 2015 accord as it exists; this would entail that the U.S. does not try to expand the accord to include restrictions on Iran’s missile program or impose limits on its support for regional armed factions. The Biden administration has said that it would seek to address these broader issues in “follow-on” talks with Iran. However, there are no indications that Iran plans to accept any follow-on discussions on these broader issues, and the easing of U.S. sanctions will reduce U.S. leverage to compel Iranian concessions on those issues. Still, the Biden administration appears to have calculated that restoring the agreement’s limits on Iran’s nuclear program will buy time to design policy choices that address the full range of the challenges Iran poses to U.S interests and to U.S. allies (TSC).