Have the Nuclear Talks Gone Beyond Iran’s Demand for Future Guarantees?


ByMahmoud Hamdy Abo El-Kasem

 Since the second round of talks in April 2021, Iran has put forward certain guarantees as  essential preconditions to revive the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran has demanded guarantees that the United States will not withdraw from the revived nuclear accord going forward and wants its  trade with the world to be unhindered  by US sanctions.

 Iran’s demand for guarantees has been exhaustively discussed and is neither logical nor reflects reality.  Iran’s demand for securing a guarantee that the United States will not withdraw from the deal in the future is not included in the text of the draft agreement, which  it has agreed to return to without any amendments.  In addition, the nuclear deal  grants all signatories the right to auto-balance in case of non-compliance with commitments by any party. Iran resorted to this right when Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal and imposed sanctions; Tehran in response reduced its nuclear commitments under the deal — as set out in Article 36 of the JCPOA which allows any party to “cease performing its commitments… in whole or in part” in the event of “significant non-performance” by other parties. This is Iran’s most  powerful card to counter any  potential US withdrawal from the future deal. Iran has actually  exploited this card to pressure  and force  Washington to  return to the nuclear talks. Perhaps this card will also prevent the  United States from taking any future steps which  might halt the deal, leading  to the complete loss of international control over Iran’s nuclear program.

As for the guarantee that no sanctions will be reimposed on Iran’s trade with the world, this will happen once the deal is revived. Since concluding the deal in 2015 until  Trump’s withdrawal in May 2018, Iran had been conducting  international trade without any restrictions. The door was open for foreign investment and Iran’s assets worth billions of dollars abroad were unfrozen.  Iran   began to freely export  oil, reaching nearly 2.5 barrels per day. Iran also carried out transactions with the world via legitimate financial channels without any impediments.  Iran will automatically secure  all of the aforementioned benefits in case the nuclear deal is revived. One should not forget that Iran, despite Trump’s tough policy since he came to office in January 2017  until his withdrawal from the deal in 2018, managed to largely benefit at the economic level in accordance with its rights stipulated in the deal.

 The Biden administration cannot provide Iran with  the guarantees it wants without congressional approval, which seems almost  impossible given the fact that the nuclear deal has been a point of contention between the Republicans and the Democrats. Several Republicans object to the conciliatory steps taken by the Biden administration toward Iran and believe that his lenient policy has given Iran more than it deserves as  Tehran continues to threaten the interests of the United States and its allies. They argue that the Biden administration erroneously focuses on the nuclear deal without tackling  other worrying issues posed by the Iranian political system. Iran is aware of what the Biden administration may give; a mutual return to the nuclear deal and probably less likely; lifting all the sanctions imposed on Iran since May 2018; the date of the United States’  withdrawal from the deal.

Moreover, an atmosphere of mutual trust has been created  amid the ongoing nuclear discussions. The concerned parties have already started to implement what has been agreed in the final deal; the United States  ended its wave  of consecutive sanctions on Iran a few months ago and allowed  it to receive part of its frozen money abroad, and waived restrictions on  its foreign trade. As a result, Iran’s economy has been more stable. Iran, on other hand, allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency  to pursue its inspection activities after it had been prevented from accessing Tehran’s nuclear sites. The  Biden administration also restored the nuclear sanctions waivers which  were canceled by  Trump in May 2020. It did this to aid the revival of the nuclear deal.

It is important to note that  the United States has actually refused to grant China and Russia any guarantees on their trade with Iran. The guarantees which Russia has spoken of are in regard to the nuclear field only.  Russia  has been allowed to resume cooperation with Iran on non-military nuclear projects at the Bushehr nuclear plant,  the Arak Heavy Water Reactor Facility, and the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). In addition, it has been permitted to transfer  surplus enriched uranium and heavy water as well as to maintain and upgrade the aforementioned sites.  So, it is unlikely that the United States will grant guarantees to any party as this will prompt other international parties to demand  guarantees, which will eventually lead to the violation of the balance rule stipulated in the nuclear deal which grants all parties equal rights to reduce their commitments if any party does not comply with the  obligations under the deal.

If the latest developments have gone beyond the question of guarantees and the draft deal has already been written, then, why does Iran still insist on the question of guarantees? Is it actually the real obstacle hindering the finalization of the nuclear deal?  

One may think that Iran uses  its demand for guarantees as a bargaining chip to strengthen its position at the negotiating table since the deal itself stipulates equal rights and commitments for all parties. Iran is fully aware of the fact that Washington will not accept granting guarantees, thus,  it is only exploiting the guarantees issue to bolster its negotiating position.

It is worth mentioning here that Iran raised  its demand of guarantees which has drawn huge media attention despite the fact that the lifting of sanctions was its  decisive demand. Iran probably resorted to  demanding guarantees in light of  ongoing suspicions  following years of mutual enmity and distrust with the United States. Iran’s demands also show the image  it aims to  portray about the United States at home and abroad: “an enemy that violates his commitments and does not respect agreements.” This definitely helps the Iranian government to reinforce the negative stereotypical image of the United States as “the Great Satan.” The Iranian government uses this slogan to justify  its legitimacy, to keep the revolution alive and to  protect  the country’s clergy.

The question of guarantees is still being debated across Iran for reasons irrelevant to reviving the nuclear deal, as the draft deal is already written and will probably be signed after the resolution of a few outstanding issues. These domestic debates  are most likely about Iran’s insistence on lifting specific sanctions; most prominently delisting the IRGC from the US terror list — which has already been discussed by US officials. Apparently,  these Iranian internal debates  aim to gauge the position of regional countries.   The United States’ probable delisting of the IRGC  was reflected in the remarks of US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price, “We are prepared to make difficult decisions to return Iran’s nuclear program to its JCPOA limits.”

 In light of the current developments, Iran may find another opportunity to  impose pressure or reap additional gains from  the deal. Iran’s relative success in addressing  its domestic economic crisis without  the revival of the nuclear deal has granted  it more time and cards to secure a better position at the negotiating table. Iran does not need, at least for now, the nuclear deal to be finalized. Therefore, it is not rushing to  wrap up the negotiations as the passage of time works in its favor — particularly considering the latest international developments; the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its ramifications that have hindered any potential US military move  against Iran — though Washington has talked about other alternatives to deal with Iran. Further,   Russia and China are still focused on securing future guarantees to trade with Iran without any restrictions. The world now is in the midst of  an energy crisis to such an extent that the international community is now eager to resolve the outstanding issues with Iran. The aforementioned developments have strengthened Iran’s position and have  allowed it to secure further benefits that were not among its top priorities when it first joined the negotiating table  to revive  the nuclear deal.

Mahmoud Hamdy Abo El-Kasem
Mahmoud Hamdy Abo El-Kasem
Managing Editor of JIS