Russia and Global Security Risks
The Future of US Sanctions Against Iran and the JCPOA Participants’ Approach

Despite the fact that the US elections are over and the Biden administration has enough of a chance to define its foreign policy priorities, the upcoming Iranian presidential election may shift Tehran’s foreign policy priorities and can result in a different future for the JCPOA, writes Zohreh Khanmohammadi, Researcher of Russian Affairs at the Tehran Institute, following up on the discussion “Return to the Deal? The New US Administration and the Prospects for the JCPOA.” Follow the link to read a Russian perspective in Ivan Timofeev’s article.

The relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran manifests itself as a confrontation, moderated by a necessity for balancing. For four decades, since the Iranian revolution, sanctions have been imposed on Iran over such issues as human rights and the nuclear dossier; however, the door for negotiations and interaction between the two sides has remained open. During these years, the 2017-2020 era, which was defined by the presidency of Donald Trump, it was different: Iran was unaccustomed to Trump’s behaviour. His exit from the nuclear deal and other international agreements not only failed to deliver Washington positive results, it also imposed costs on Joe Biden’s administration, which has committed itself to return to the deal.

Return to the Deal? The New US Administration and the Prospects for the JCPOA. An Expert Discussion

With respect to Trump’s approach towards the nuclear deal with Iran and the 5+1 talks, it can briefly be said that despite the COVID crisis, Trump relentlessly pursued the implementation of his banking and economic sanctions on Iran towards the end of his term, which hindered Tehran’s transactions for the purchase of medicine. Washington could have used the COVID pandemic as an opportunity, and cited human rights, which it ostensibly defends, in justifying a reduction of international pressure on Tehran’s ruling administration and decreased the burden of commitments on the next administration. Washington could have gained by exempting medicine and medical equipment from sanctions. Not only did it do nothing about that, it also prevented the IMF from loaning five billion dollars to Iran as part of a relief programme to assist countries suffering from the COVID pandemic. Therefore, as United Nations rapporteur Alena Douhan points out, the US only values human rights issues as instruments that serve its political goals.

The arrival of Joe Biden, with his promise to return to international agreements and accords in parallel with the humanitarian posture of the US Democrats in foreign policy, opened a window for the US to resolve the disagreements it had created by exiting the nuclear deal, as well as a US return to the deal and subsequent sanctions relief. However, Washington’s setting of preconditions for a return to the deal and adopting of some measures in this respect were indicative of its desire to revive the deal in a new framework, one unacceptable to Iran. Before going any further, it should be noted that Iran’s upcoming presidential election is an effective variable in both Iranian and US calculations. Despite the fact that the US elections are over and the Biden administration has enough of a chance to define its foreign policy priorities, the upcoming Iranian presidential election may shift Tehran’s foreign policy priorities and can result in a different future for the JCPOA. Therefore, Rouhani’s government is trying to use Biden’s inclination to return to international agreements as an opportunity to revive the nuclear deal and remove as many sanctions as possible, so that Iran’s economy would no longer suffer.

Therefore, at the present juncture, the US and Iran are trying to use sanctions and the development of the nuclear programme, respectively, to balance each other, and would adopt some punitive and persuasive measures to direct each other’s behaviour.

On the one hand, Iran has failed to implement the additional protocol and moved to stop IAEA inspectors from accessing its nuclear centres; on the other hand, Tehran and the IAEA have agreed on the safeguards and the continuation of the IAEA’s necessary supervising activities in the country for three more months. This shows that Tehran has left open the option for interaction and negotiations, while preserving its authority. Washington has done the same, and has given Tehran the green light that it would allow the release of Iran’s frozen assets in South Korea and Iraq, but at the same time targets Iran’s military attaches in Syria to project some power, and assure its regional allies of the White House’s continued support for them.

Therefore, it should be said that although the Biden administration wants to return to the nuclear deal and is trying to revive it, it does so by setting preconditions and defining frameworks that prevent timely sanctions relief. Its expected that the US “carrot and stick” policy will persist in the short run, and a major shift in the trend of sanctions removal seems unlikely. As this goes on, it compels the other signatories to the deal to re-examine their position towards the first nuclear deal and second-guess the way Washington behaves, as all actors involved in the deal have obligations to fulfil.

The European Union has essentially failed to question US policies. While trying to project an independent posture, Brussels took a paradoxical policy on Iran and the Iran nuclear deal. After Trump’s exit from the nuclear deal, the Europeans limited their interactions with Iran within the JCPOA on the one hand, and on the other hand designed INSTEX. This was aimed at facilitating cooperation with Iran, but ultimately turned out to be useless. 

Europe’s Financial Mechanism for Iran (INSTEX): Will It Be Enough to Save the JCPOA?
Hamidreza Azizi
More than eight months after US President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) with Iran and in a bid to save the deal from the total collapse, Germany, France and Britain announced on January 31 the establishment of a new financial mechanism to enable trade with Iran.

With Biden taking office and his call for a return to the nuclear deal, we see the EU backing away from tabling a resolution in the IAEA board of governors aimed at encouraging Tehran to return to negotiations with Washington. Europe’s bandwagoning policy would destabilise its interactions with Iran. Beijing is another actor; it would pursue its cooperation with Iran more intensely and would seek a middle ground in the short run to expand its cooperation with Tehran. What would Moscow’s choice be, between the US and the EU, with which it has experienced increasing tensions, and the “eastern axis” of Iran and China?

We can imagine three scenarios for the Russian approach toward cooperation with Iran in the framework of JCPOA:

  • Russia will continue bilateral cooperation with Iran, taking the behaviour of the US and West into consideration, as well as the upcoming Iranian election. In this format, Iran and Russia will pursue regional cooperation, economic interaction (especially vaccine diplomacy), and so on.

  • Russia will play the role of moderator by keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons in order to reduce Western pressure.

  • Russia will get closer to Iran and establish a Russia-Iran-China triangle, and in this format will establish a balance of power against Western actors in the region.

As a result, it must be said that the revival of JCPOA should be a priority in the JCPOA participants’ foreign policy. Whatever Iran and the US do in moving away from the JCPOA and its order will prove to be disruptive; not only Iran but also the other participants will suffer, and related costs will increase.

Iran and the Future of JCPOA: Amid Hope and Fear
Hamidreza Azizi
In the current situation, it seems that Europeans have understood that although the new US sanctions are aimed mainly at Iran, their impact would go well beyond the Iranian territories, putting at risk their own economic and security interests.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.