The US Return to the Iran Nuclear Deal: Credibility and Mistrust

Peace Advocate April 2021

by Tom Huf

Last week, it was announced that the United States and Iran would commence talks in Vienna on April 6th on the return of the US to the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA). This is a fulfillment of commitments made by then-candidate Joe Biden during the campaign to return to the deal. The Vienna talks are the manifestation of a proposal by the E3 – France, Germany, and the UK – in January that was rejected by Iran at the time for reasons that were clearly based on a lack of trust that the US would keep its promises and respect its international agreements.

While some critics have voiced frustration since Joe Biden’s inauguration that rejoining the deal was not being made a high enough priority, a closer look at the political landscape in both Tehran and Washington and of the depth of mistrust by Iran as to the credibility of US diplomatic commitments makes it remarkable that this process has started so soon.

The many roadblocks and poison pills left behind by the previous administration have required groundwork to commence dismantling direct and indirect US sanctions, the financial and banking regulations that now sanction any company doing business with Iran, and INARA congressional oversight that could cause delays and opposition to this process. Committing to dismantling these policies needs to avoid the politics of “who goes first” by working on a strategy of simultaneous agreements. Entering into these talks itself is a strong signal to the skeptic in Iran that this administration is committed to ending the maximum pressure policy and returning to the JCPOA.

The Biden team was finally in place in mid-March with the confirmation of Rob Malley as envoy to Iran and Richard Nephew as the sanctions expert who could, better than anyone, devise a strategy to unravel the malign Trump / Bolton economic warfare designed to hasten the collapse of Iran’s economy and generate regime change. And the urgency to close the deal well ahead of the June elections in Iran was seen as essential to getting the US back into the deal at all.

Context for distrust

The unilateral US withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, the assassinations of five scientists and a military leader between the years of 2010 and 2020, and the shut-down of trade with the West have caused Iran to take slow and deliberate, but reversible, steps to engage in Uranium enrichment rather than escalate military activities. The US policy that completely mischaracterized the JCPOA and caused domestic confusion among many political leaders has created an equally difficult climate of mistrust in the US.

The JCPOA was deliberately narrow and focused solely on nuclear matters in order to first solve that most sensitive of all security issues to clear the table for resolution of many other issues in the region and specifically some of Iran’s military activities and conflicts that were seen as needing to be addressed as add-on agreements. Such a new diplomatic initiative needs to include all parties to resolve the many disagreements regionally and in a comprehensive fashion.

What has changed in two months?

  • In Washington, the insurrection, as well as the effects of an obstructed transition process from the prior President, made it necessary to focus on securing approval of the foreign policy team before engaging in major policy initiatives.
  • In Tehran, the anticipation of the June elections has caused a shift towards conservatives opposed to a return to the JCPOA, that did not produce the economic benefits promised.
  • What has kept the prospect of talks on track through the past few months is the fact that there is general support for returning to the deal in both Iran and the US – however with significant opposition from conservatives in both countries. Public opinion measured in Iran periodically by the University of Maryland still shows a majority in favor of proceeding, and also found that despite the US maximum pressure campaign, that Iranians view their own government as having a significant share of the blame for economic mismanagement. Opinion polls in the US show significant support for the deal as well.

Action needed

It was announced after two days in Vienna that there was already agreement to establish two working groups: one to address the US return and the associated measures needed and the other to address Iran’s return to full compliance.

With the Administration now committed to diplomatic talks to return to the deal, there is a need to build support for diplomacy on the Hill. There is a letter being circulated by Senators Murphy and Kaine that encourages President Biden to get back in the Iran Nuclear Deal in its existing form. Click here to contact your representatives and senators to ask them to sign.