Domestic Politics Haunt US-Iran Talks

Peace Advocate December 2021

Police officers stand outside a hotel, where a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission or Iran nuclear deal will be held, in Vienna, Austria, April 15, 2021. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

by Tom Huf

Not all analysts were optimistic about the window of opportunity for a quick return to the Iran Nuclear Deal in the first month of the Biden Presidency. The prospects for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to as the Iran Nuclear Deal, were already complicated in January 2021. Good intentions and mutual respect were no longer a common starting point. It was clear that there was a long road ahead.

How did we get here?

I continue to believe that there also was no such “window” before the Iranian presidential election in June of 2021 given the many differences in the internal political situation both in Washington DC and in Tehran since the Trump unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2016.   President Rouhani was a lame duck with no remaining support to negotiate after the US had left him and Iran with no reward for continuing to comply with the deal, one year after the US unilaterally withdrew.

In DC the events of January 6th, a poorly managed response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and extreme political polarization were just the tip of the iceberg. The JCPOA was not at the top of the agenda. There was no change of intent from the Biden campaign promise to return to the deal, just the grim political reality of other emergencies and priorities.  January 2021 was light years away from February 2015 when Iran surprised the world with rapid full compliance with the tough terms of JCPOA. 

After two weeks of Round 7 talks in Vienna – the first since June – that were so stuck in rigid positions of both sides that the talks were on the verge of total collapse.  The other JCPOA signers all intervened diplomatically in the past week and pressured Iran and the US to rethink positions and their commitment to proceed.  The result is that while the US is still broadcasting political bluster about sanctions and military maneuvers with Israel, both sides and our partners in Europe and Asia are heading back to the table in Vienna with some new ideas and attitudes.  Whether the solutions are a combination of interim agreements and other creative agreements, it is clear that adding more demands not in the original JCPOA is a non-starter for Iran.  The need for Iran is also to stay the course to drive home the already clear futility of sanctions and irrational attitudes about Iran that have taken root in Washington.  Both changes are are needed to make progress.  What form this interim and other agreements will take is a matter of speculation, but to be politically saleable it will need to protect Biden and Raisi from direct domestic political attack while enabling the US public position to appear tough on Iran.  

JCPOA Context and Consequences

A quick look backward provides a sobering reminder of how far we’ve come since 2015. The JCPOA required Iran to give up its leverage at the front end by exporting all highly enriched uranium – except the amount approved for medical use – and to cease enhanced enrichment by disabling a large percentage of its centrifuges. Iran took a great risk   by taking these steps first.  They trusted that the US and the other partners in the JCPOA would honor their reciprocal commitments to ending nuclear related sanctions.  Iran expected that its good faith would be rewarded with economic engagement with the West that was part of the nuclear deal. Enter President Donald Trump. 

In October of 2018 Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal, a move that had no justification other than political positioning with factions in the US and Israel. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had just repeated verification of Iran’s full compliance. It is hard to overstate the damage to US negotiating credibility that the reckless withdrawal caused. Replacing the JCPOA with a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign deepened mistrust of the US by the entire international community.    The White House and State Department attempted to justify this approach with a propaganda campaign that demonized Iran.  This US disinformation campaign further mischaracterized the JCPOA as deficient.  By doing this the Trump Administration deliberately ignored and contradicted the very principle that was the source of deal’s success, a focus on the only issue that could be embraced by all of the world powers: no nuclear weapons for Iran. In addition, the US position gave Israel de facto approval to conduct assassinations and provocative cyber warfare against Iran. This multi-pronged US disinformation campaign has no modern precedent.

Alongside the damage done by Trump, domestic concerns have also complicated a return to the JCPOA. Last Spring political commentators predicted that the Biden Administration needed to avoid provoking intraparty fights before the two large economic packages were approved in Congress.   Given continued Republican obstructionism, slim Democratic majorities could not withstand any defections. It took far longer than expected to advance Biden’s domestic agenda, a state of affairs that could have been further complicated by executive action on the JCPOA. The November 29 restart date for indirect negotiations in Vienna on the JCPOA is in accord with this domestic political necessity. 

Meanwhile in Tehran President Rouhani had become deeply unpopular for not delivering economic relief as promised by the JCPOA. He was predictably replaced by Ebrahim Raisi, a leader far more hostile to the West and with no experience with western cultures and politics. Public opinion surveys conducted in Iran before the June elections by the University of Maryland, showed the very strong popularity of Raisi based on his promise to end corruption. The loss in faith in the leadership and common belief that internal corruption was more responsible for Iran’s economic woes than the US maximum pressure campaign is surprising. 

This also confirms that extreme sanctions have failed to modify the behavior of the government. Maximum Pressure compounded by Israeli terrorism and assassinations had the opposite effect than intended. It reinforced Iranian resolve.  Now the US has few options. Bad policy has driven Iran into the economic orbit of China and Russia – not their natural trading partners or partners of choice. 

When the talks in Vienna resumed on the 29th of November the political landscape had flipped. Raisi and Iran still occupied the moral high ground, having held to full compliance for a year after the US abrogation. Only then did Iran implement stepwise increases in enrichment that are easily reversed. The failure to allow full IAEA inspections and replacement of camera systems damaged by Israeli cyberwarfare is just the latest in this series of easily reversed resistance steps by Iran. The US position is more tentative than before.  Alongside Israel, the US is one of two nuclear powers that are not party to the JCPOA, both of which entertain regime change rather than diplomacy. Israel is not even a signatory to the international arms control treaty regarding nuclear weapons – as is Iran.

Vienna II

The US returns to Vienna with a weak hand to play. The combination of withdrawal, the maximum pressure sanctions, and illegal assassinations has undermined US credibility.  Most third party observers, including the other partners to the deal, agree that Iran is being reasonable when it asks for assurances that US unilateral withdrawal will not happen again. Public opinion in the US that was once overwhelmingly in favor of the deal, and still polls as slightly in favor, has now become a domestic political leverage issue for the Republican Party, just one vote from regaining power in the Senate.

Some speculate that the nuclear issue has become almost irrelevant, and that economic power and regional power are the real issues in the Middle East now. The severely diminished credibility of the US even after the unfortunately narrow Abraham Accords has had the beneficial effect of encouraging Iran and Saudi Arabia and the UAE to start bilateral and trilateral diplomatic conversations. Extremely lucrative US arms sales and the war in Yemen are additional obstacles to the larger issue of defusing tensions.  

Before November 29th the domestic US impediments created a scenario that favored slowing down but not stopping the negotiations and opting for an interim agreement in Vienna that would satisfy both Tehran and Washington DC. Iran experts’ responses were that going slowly was advantageous except with respect to sanctions relief but that interim empty rhetoric was not in their interest. The first weeks in Vienna confirmed these assessments. There was no progress at all. Positions were rigid on both sides despite reports that the relevant nuclear issues had already been resolved before June.  At issue were the sanctions and non-nuclear conditions.  Active pressure during the past week by Russian diplomatic intervention and Chinese and EU pressure have warned against Iran and the US walking away from the deal.  

The Guardian and Institute for Peace and Diplomacy reported on Sunday that “the deal has been hauled back from the brink of collapse”.  While there are belligerent statements coming from Washington regarding tightening sanctions enforcement and conducting joint military exercises with Israel, close observers might note that it is more rhetoric than action.  The sanctions and enforcement are already so tight that no exceptions were made for humanitarian and Covid relief funding. Almost no corporation in any country dares to trade with Iran for fear of US secondary sanctions.  While China and Russia have purposely supported oil purchases, their corporations have not ventured further into defiance while both governments are improving their relations with Iran to defy maximum pressure. New belligerence came from Lloyd Austin last week echoing non-nuclear side issues that conservative Israeli politicians have been using to help defeat any return to the JCPOA. 

The path is not at all clear, but the reiteration of the high stakes by our partners in the deal auger well for ignoring some of these important but not relevant side issues and returning to the JCPOA. To succeed, the long term benefits for peace and stability must be reasserted.

By Tom Huf