The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action popularly known as Iran Nuclear Deal formulated in 2015 following protracted negotiation with Iran by the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany marked a turning point in the bilateral relation between the United States and Iran. Iran agreed to roll back its nuclear programme for the next ten years including suspension of uranium enrichment programme and allowed its nuclear research sites accessible to the inspectors of the International Atomic and Energy Agency. In return, the United States committed to withdraw economic sanctions and unfreeze Iranian assets worth billions of dollars overseas. The architects of the deal claimed that the JCPOA halted uranium enrichment programme which was very close to making nuclear bomb. They also hoped that the deal would usher in a climate of trust and goodwill amongst the countries in Europe, North America and Iran; and industrialised countries in the West would invest in Iran's oil infrastructure which needed urgent rehabilitation and development of economic zones in Iran. They also pinned hope that Iran would see dividend in advancing its economic activities in the post-sanction era and would gradually transform its relationship with militant organisations like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and Houthis in Yemen-- implying that Tehran would inspire its proxies to pursue non-violence in political struggle in their legitimate struggle to end occupation.
As the implementation of the agreement began, the opponents of the deal escalated their rhetoric. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu spearheaded the campaign. He came to Washington, addressed the joint session of the Congress and accused the Obama administration for rewarding Iran for its clandestine nuclear programme. Netanyahu found a sympathetic audience in the Republican Party. Its leader Donald Trump became an enthusiastic critic of the deal and vowed to abrogate it if he returned to power.
As committed President Trump at the very outset of his presidency extricated the United States from the JCPOA. In doing so, Trump did not consult the European countries who were also the signatories of the deal. He urged the European partners to renounce the deal but did not succeed. To make the implementation of the deal harder, the Trump administration imposed a series of new sanctions against Iran much to the shock of the international community.
The JCPOA was not the best creation. It could have been more comprehensive, farreaching and consequential in the event of breach of the agreement. But JCPOA was the best the negotiators could have produced. The deal is best when the concerned parties considered the provisions in the deal safeguarded their interests most; and in order to generate this confidence concerned parties pursued the tactic of "give and take". Those who felt the deal suffered from deficiencies need to be reminded that the option of improvement rests in carrying out amendments during implementation. By abrogating the JCPOA, the Trump administration renounced all opportunities to bring about improvements in the deal and placed the entire region into a precipice.
Joe Biden and the leaderships in the Democratic party who had spearheaded the multinational negotiation with Iran denounced the abrogation of the JCPOA. They vowed to restore the agreement at the earliest opportunity. Biden in multiple occasions during the presidential campaign reiterated his love for JCPOA with the intention that the message would reach the Iranian leaderships. The European leaders received the message with a sigh of relief. This generated a sense of optimism in Tehran.
After considerable hesitation Biden administration resumed dialogue with Iran with mediatory services of the Europeans on April 6 at Vienna. There was no face to face meeting. The European team was shuttling between the negotiating teams of Iran and the United States. Nonetheless, there was intensive discussion which resulted in the agreement to form two teams - one team would identify the concrete measures to be addressed by Washington, and another team to list the measures Tehran should address. An US official said, "Since the US withdrawal Iran has increased the quality and quantity of its enriched uranium, far exceeding the limits imposed by the 2015 agreement. It has activated more-sophisticated centrifuges, all of which would have to be decommissioned and placed under verifiable seal." State Department spokesman Ned Price hailed the progress of the meeting and acknowledged the difficulty of dismantling the network of sanctions erected after Trump pulled out of the deal. He added, "We know there will be difficult discussions ahead but again, this is a healthy step forward." Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi characterised the talks to be "on the right track but it's too soon to say it has been successful." The White House spokesperson said, "We expect this to be a long process and we continue to believe that a diplomatic path is the right path forward - there are benefits to all sides."
While the Vienna talks were underway, an Iranian ship was damaged in the Red Sea. Iran's spokesman did not say who was responsible for the attack but claimed that the ship acted as a logistical station for anti-piracy operations in the Red Sea. In March, Israel blamed Iran and vowed to retaliate for a mysterious attack on an Israeli-owned freighter loaded with vehicles in the Gulf of Oman. An official at the US National Security Council remarked, "We are aware of media reporting of an incident involving the Saudi owned military ship Saviz in the Red Sea. We can confirm that no US forces were involved in the incident. We have no additional information to provide." According to the Wall Street Journal, Israel had stuck at least a dozen vessels heading for Syria since late 2019, including Iranian ships or those carrying Iranian oil.
On Sunday, April 11, Iran's main nuclear facility at Natanz was attacked. Reportedly, it was both a cyberattack and an explosion that destroyed power transmission and caused fire in the facility. Iranian official blamed Israel for the attack which caused a blackout and damaged centrifuges. The US officials quickly denied any involvement in the incident, but observers doubt that such an attack would have been carried out by an enemy without the knowledge, if not imprimatur of the United States. Following the attack on Natanz facility, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Araghchi revealed that another 1,000 centrifuges with 50 per cent additional capacity would be deployed at Natanz, apart from replacement of the damaged centrifuges. He also confirmed that IAEA has been informed of advanced uranium enrichment drive. In November IAEA reported that Iran had stockpiled more than 2.4 tons of uranium and enriched up to 4.5 per cent which is 12 times the weight limit set by JCPOA.
Israeli leader Netanyahu said recently, "We must not return to the nuclear plan because a nuclear plan is a threat to the state of Israel and to the security of the entire world. At the same time, we need to curb its aggression in our region."
The recent maritime warfare at the Red Sea, Gulf of Oman and the attack on Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz are obvious indications that the opponents of the resurrection of JCPOA are making all out efforts to sabotage the talks that began last week after a long delay. The Biden administration has taken a longer time than necessary to initiate the dialogue with the involvement of the European partners. Now though the talks have resumed, the Americans are not prepared to commit what they would do with regard to the sanctions. Iranians have waited long four years for the reversal of the damage done by the Trump administration. Now even the new administration is dragging its feat and the adversaries are taking the opportunity to create obstacles against reviving the US- Iran diplomacy.
Washington needs to be clear as to what sanctions it is willing to lift now while Tehran needs to agree to have direct talks. If Iran sticks to the position that every sanction imposed since 2017 must be removed, though legitimate, the talks will reach a deadlock. The longer it takes to reach an agreement in Vienna on how to rejoin the JCPOA, the more the likelihood of derailment increases. The onus now rests on the statesmanship of American President Joe Biden and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.