The United States and Iran are in a staring contest, and neither wants to blink first – at least that’s how the BBC Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, described the current political impasse.
Since president Joe Biden took office on 20 January, the countries have been locked in a stalemate over the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA), which the Donald Trump administration withdrew from in May 2018, reimposing sanctions on Iran – despite the country not having violating the multilateral accord. These actions prompted Iran to speed up its nuclear programme after May 2019 by incrementally breaching aspects of the JCPOA.
With both Iran and the United States signalling a desire to return to the deal, one might think the path back was fairly straightforward. But it’s full of landmines otherwise known as “domestic considerations”. Neither wants to take a false step that could blow up back home.
On Tuesday, apparent progress was made, with both parties meeting in Vienna (albeit staying in separate hotels) alongside the remaining signatories known as the P4+1: Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany. It was the first time the US has been present at a multilateral meeting with Iran since Trump left the accord.
For the past few months, the US and Iran have been mirroring each other’s demands. The Biden administration has reiterated that the United States will return to the deal and lift nuclear-related sanctions if Tehran returns to strict compliance. Iran has reiterated it will do so once Washington removes sanctions – specifically those on oil and banking. Though there was no “immediate breakthrough”, in the words of State Department spokesman, Ned Price, another meeting is slated for Friday.
Much of the nascent Biden administration’s focus during its first 100 days in office was, and continues to be, on the US economy and coronavirus pandemic, which includes the passing of a $1.9tn stimulus package in March and a $2.3tn infrastructure plan currently in the process. It’s also assembling its team and getting political appointees approved by Congress.
The chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, senator Bob Menendez, holds the keys to confirming members, key players such as ambassador Wendy Sherman, the former lead nuclear negotiator, who is the nominee for deputy assistant secretary of state. Menendez has a “history of making matters difficult for presidents”, and was never a fan of Barack Obama’s policy of diplomatic engagement with Iran. This has already started to play out with Biden’s pick for undersecretary of defence for policy, Colin Kahl, an Obama-era appointee who also played a role in securing the nuclear deal. Kahl is receiving bipartisan pushback in part for his support of the JCPOA.
On 25 March, Menendez was one of 43 signatories to a bipartisan letter calling on Biden to seek a broader deal with Iran that would encompass its ballistic missile programme and regional activities, which is also a view shared by some US officials within the administration.
Meanwhile, in Iran, there are domestic politics at play, too. The presidential election is on 18 June, which is in part why the Vienna meeting finally took place. There is concern, especially among European signatories – Britain, France, and Germany – that the window for engagement over the JCPOA may soon close for months. Iran typically doesn’t make big decisions once election campaigning kicks off and until a new administration settles in office.
The status of the nuclear deal and sanctions will be a big topic during televised state media debates and will be used as a way to denigrate moderate candidates. The hardliners, a faction that was always vehemently against the multilateral deal, now call the JCPOA one of President Hassan Rouhani’s biggest failures. Many analysts are betting on a hardliner to win the June vote in what is expected to be a historically low election turnout.
There is also a swift push for a return to the deal because of a law passed by Iran’s parliament in December 2020, after the assassination of the country’s top nuclear scientist. The law requires, among other things, that Iran withdraw from the additional protocol, which prevents short-notice inspections of nuclear sites. On 21 February, Iran secured a three-month interim inspection agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The hardline-dominated parliament quickly pushed back and accused the Rouhani government of “bypassing the law”. This could indicate that hardliners may want to take credit for ending the political impasse under a new government.
The biggest worry right now among diplomats and analysts alike is that, if this stalemate continues with neither the US nor Iran budging, it could become harder to revive the current deal. It doesn’t help that Iran believes that Biden is practising the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure policy” in all but name.
As a result of that very policy, Iran’s economy is in dire straits. However, the US’s economic leverage is starting to dissipate, with talk of South Korea unfreezing almost $7bn in assets held in one of its banks, and the signing a of 25-year strategic accord with China – in which Beijing promises to invest $400bn in exchange for cheap oil. The Iranian economy is adjusting to the shock of sanctions, and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank predict 1.5% to 3.2% growth.
Iran may end up taking all the time it needs to not blink first.
Holly Dagres is a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs