Since April 2021, Iran and other signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal (commonly known as JCPoA) have been engaged in active negotiations to restore it. President Biden’s administration declared its intention to move forward in that direction almost immediately after coming to power in January 2021. Many representatives of the Obama administration, who were personally involved in the negotiations from 2013 to 2015, received new positions in the Biden administration, and their desire to restore what they achieved in 2015 was quite understandable. Besides personal motives, the two and half years of the “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran launched by President Trump did not bring any tangible results. The Iranian economy did not collapse, and there was nothing close to “regime change.” Meanwhile, Iran started to enrich uranium in higher percentages in mid-2019 and, at the beginning of 2021, was much closer to the capabilities to create its first nuclear bomb.
The Biden administration stated its intention to finish the negotiations by the next presidential elections in Iran, hoping that the outgoing administration of President Rouhani would be ready to reach the new deal. However, this assessment was quite optimistic and not entirely in line with the complex reality of Iranian domestic politics. As conservatives were going to win the presidential elections, they had no motives to provide President Rouhani with another opportunity to claim foreign policy success. When Ebrahim Raisi won the June 2021 elections, the new administration asked for time to fully assess the situation. The sides returned to the negotiation table in November 2021, and in March 2022, the deal seemed imminent. Even the start of the war in Ukraine and Russian demands that Western sanctions should not restrict Russian ability to fully utilize the sanctions relief did not ruin the negotiation process.
However, in March 2022, Iran put forward a new demand to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the foreign terrorist organization list. The US placed the IRGC on its “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” list in 2019. The designation was part of the “maximum pressure” campaign then-President Trump imposed on Iran after pulling the United States out of the nuclear deal.
Another contentious issue was Iran’s demand to provide guarantees that future American administrations will not withdraw from the agreement, repeating the move taken by President Trump in May 2018. Meanwhile, the Republicans in the US House of Representatives and Senate pressured the Biden administration on Iran’s issue. On March 14, 2022, 49 Republican Senators signed a statement claiming they would not support the revived Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.
However, after months of deliberations, in late May 2022, President Biden decided to keep Iran’s IRGC on a terrorist blacklist. Tensions increased on June 8, 2022 when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) adopted a resolution criticizing the Islamic republic for failing to cooperate. The resolution – the first to criticize Iran since June 2020 – was approved by 30 members of the IAEA board of governors, with only Russia and China voting against it.
It seemed negotiations were at an impasse, and there was no way forward. However, as the primary mediator, the EU made additional efforts to revitalize the process. Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, met Hossein Amir-abdollahian, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iran on June 25, 2022 in Tehran. Iran and the United States launched another round of indirect talks in Qatar, mediated by the EU. The talks, which were held on June 29-30, did not bring any results. However, they paved the way for a new round of talks in Vienna in early August 2022. On August 8, 2022, the EU presented “the final draft” of the agreement, calling on Iran and the US to accept it. Then the ping pong diplomacy started. Iran sent its remarks to the US via the EU, and the US presented its views to Iran through European mediators. Iran dropped its demand to remove IRGC from the foreign terrorist list. However, the biggest hurdle was Iran’s demand that the IAEA close its three-year investigation into unexplained uranium discovered at several of the country’s old but undisclosed nuclear sites. As Iran sent its comments on the US’s latest suggestions in early September 2022, the US officials called Iran’s response “not constructive.”
The diplomatic crisis between Iran and Albania, triggered by alleged Iranian cyber attacks against critical Albanian infrastructure, added additional tensions to the situation. Albania severed diplomatic ties with Iran on September 7 and gave its diplomats 24 hours to leave the country.
It should be noted that the July 15 attack occurred ahead of a planned conference by the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian militant party in exile that relocated to Albania in 2016 with US financial support. Tehran considers the MEK, which critics have described as a Marxist-Islamist cult, a terrorist organization, while the US removed the organization from the foreign terrorist organization list in September 2012, changing the decision made by President Clinton’s administration in 1997. On September 9, 2022, President Biden imposed new sanctions on Iran over the cyberattack against Albania. The two reports released by IAEA in early September added additional complications to the negotiations. One report criticized Iran for the lack of cooperation in an ongoing investigation of the uranium found on undeclared sides. A separate report showed that Iran had expanded its enrichment and stockpile of highly-enriched uranium beyond the limits of the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has called both reports baseless.
The last move in this long drama was the September 10 joint statement by Germany, France and the UK. The three states claimed that while the sides were edging closer to an agreement, Iran reopened separate issues related to its legally-binding international obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its NPT safeguards agreement with IAEA. According to the statement, this latest demand raised severe doubts about Iran’s intentions and commitment to a successful outcome on the JCPoA. Germany, France and the UK stated that Iran must fully and, without delay, cooperate in good faith with the IAEA, and it was up to Iran to provide technically credible answers to the IAEA’s questions on the whereabouts of all nuclear material on its territory. The three states argued that the JCPoA could in no way be used to release Iran from legally-binding obligations essential to the global non-proliferation regime.
After almost two years of negotiations, the restoration of the Iran nuclear deal has seen many ups and downs. However, time is ticking, and if no deal is reached by the end of 2022, it would be impossible to revive the JCPoA. As Iran prepares to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the failure to restore JCPoA will bring Iran closer to China and Russia in the emerging multipolar world.