The Iran nuclear deal needs to be resuscitated but will Biden deliver?
Six years ago, in another era, EU’s Federica Mogherini emerged from a series of marathon meetings to announce to the world that an agreement had been reached with Iran. The permanent members of the UNSC – the UK, the USA, France, Russia and China – along with Germany had negotiated a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that would see to the neutralisation of Iran’s nuclear threat. As a result of historic diplomatic negotiations, the episode is seen as the crowning glory of a period wherein superpowers acted with poise and grace to resolve a conflict that had seemed inextricable. However, the ambitious accord was rendered toothless when the Trump administration announced that the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the agreement. Trump followed this announcement with the re-imposition of economic and political sanction that had existed prior to the deal. The world was dumbstruck.
While none of the other parties to the deal followed America, the European companies that had established trading relations with Iran were intimidated into shutting up shop. As waves of public scepticism spread through Iran, the Hassan Rouhani government bore the brunt of criticism from all corners, including from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Finally, as its currency plummeted and inflation soared high, Iran defected. One by one, every agreement limit imposed on Iran’s uranium enrichment programme courtesy of the nuclear deal was breached until the deal was reduced to a paper tiger.
However, all that is in the past or so the newly elected Biden administration will have you believe. Biden’s NSA Jake Sullivan, a former member of the Obama administration, has stated unequivocally that taming Iran’s renewed nuclear threat is their first priority. However, speculation is rife in Capitol Hill that the US government may not rejoin the JCPOA as a lot of water has flown under the diplomatic bridge since they withdrew. Since the US re-imposed its sanctions on Iran, Tehran has been intensifying its uranium enrichment programme rather than complying with the original plan of exercising restraint on that front. The US, in turn, used this as a pretext to justify its exit from the deal and urged the European trio of the UK, France and Germany to follow suit. This has created an atmosphere of distrust in an already fragile relationship between the US and Iran.
While tensions have eased up from the high they had reached last year due to the election of Joseph R. Biden – formerly, the VP in the administration that had crafted the deal and touted it as its biggest success on the international stage. Biden is said to be looking favourably at the possibility of a return to the JCPOA, but he will face stiff opposition from the Congress. Even amongst his appointees, not everyone is as forthcoming on the issue as NSA Sullivan. The Secretary of State Anthony Blinken remains largely non-committal and insists on Iran’s return to complying with the tenets of the deal beforehand. Even if that were to come true, it would be an uphill task to convince the Congress to roll back the sanctions given Iran’s unflattering humanitarian record. Moreover, who is to say the Congress will not impose new sanctions if and when Biden orders to suspend the existing ones?
Allowed to continue on its present trajectory, the Iranian administration would end up with a nuclear bomb in its basket by Christmas – a fact admitted by the US Secretary of State himself. While this should concern all countries in Iran’s neighbourhood, the American allies in the Middle East fear the worst without sanctions to keep a belligerent Iran in check. Economic sanctions levied by the USA comprise the only leverage that the western world has left over the current Iranian dispensation, and while a renewed JCPOA may stem the rise of its nuclear power, it would effectively allow Iran to run roughshod over its neighbours and its own citizens. Iran’s long and ignoble history of human rights violations and missile strikes against Israel, a prominent American ally in the region, does not help its cause either. All these factors make it all the more urgent for both the nations to reach a consensus rather than engage in a game of ‘Who blinks first?’ atop a veritable tinderbox.