In Vienna, an eighth round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program continues with little cause for hope that a deal is near. The Biden Administration wants a return to the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal agreed to in 2015 by Iran, the Obama Administration, France, the U.K., Germany, Russia, and China. Then President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from that deal in 2018, and Biden ran for President on pledges to bring it back. For now, Iran’s negotiators remain at the table, but they’ve made clear Iran is far from satisfied with the terms on offer. A decision in early February by Iran’s army to show off a new long-range missile doesn’t help.
The talks aren’t dead. In fact, a return to JCPOA would, in some ways, be easier than it was to reach the original agreement. The Biden Administration appears willing to accept a deal with looser limits on nuclear activity and to lift sanctions that weren’t part of the original agreement. In addition, parts of JCPOA begin to expire in a few years. Iran wouldn’t be making long-term concessions. By signing again on the dotted line, Iran could regain access to $100 billion in frozen foreign reserves and sell more oil at a market price that’s near $100 per barrel. A return to JCPOA would also open new trade and investment opportunities for an Iranian economy that badly needs them.
But Iran’s government, now led by hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, may not feel that Iran needs the boost. China’s willingness to ignore U.S. sanctions in order to buy Iranian oil has provided Tehran an economic lifeline it didn’t have when JCPOA was signed in 2015. That’s part of why Iran’s currency has strengthened against the dollar over the past two months to the highest level since Raisi became President.
Iran has reason not to trust Biden Administration promises. U.S. elections are on the horizon, and the GOP, which is generally more hostile than Democrats to any bargaining with Iran, is likely to take majority control of both houses of Congress. Today, Republicans can’t block a Biden deal. But they can complicate its implementation. They can also propose new sanctions on Iran, which, even with a Biden veto, could discourage or delay the return of international investment to Iran. Then, of course, there is the 2024 presidential election. The return of Trump, or the election of a Trump-endorsed nominee, would likely again scuttle any agreement.
Another reason there may be no deal: the Biden team is mightily distracted at the moment. With its pandemic policy in flux, inflation at historically high levels, its legislative agenda stalled, a credible risk that Russia will invade Ukraine, and a need to focus more attention on China, a new Iran deal can’t be a top priority.
The U.S. won’t remain at the bargaining table forever. Iran is now accelerating the development of its nuclear program, and Washington knows it can’t allow Iran to use endless talks as cover to build a bomb. But if bargaining breaks down completely later this spring, Iran could move quickly toward amassing enough highly enriched uranium for several bombs, advancing closer to an actual nuclear weapon than it’s ever been. If that happens, Washington will hit Iran with new sanctions, and Israel might well launch sabotage attacks on Iran’s physical and digital infrastructure. The risk of an escalating military conflict can’t be ignored.
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