The Iranian nuclear talks are faltering amid disagreements between Tehran and Washington and the Biden administration is facing a challenge as several US senators have expressed their dissatisfaction regarding how the nuclear talks have proceeded. Recently, the US Senate passed a non-binding motion opposing any nuclear deal that fails to address Iran’s regional behaviour and ballistic missile program. The responses from Tehran indicate its inflexible position and unwillingness to accommodate any such conditions. Moreover, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in its latest report revealed that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium increased to more than 18 times the limit stipulated under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and that it has continued to obstruct the watchdog’s probe into uranium traces sampled at various undeclared sites. These developments indicate the challenges facing the Biden administration in order to revive the nuclear deal.
The non-binding motion was passed in the US Senate with 62 senators including 16 Democrats voting in favour of the motion. Republican Senator James Lankford introduced the motion in the Senate which also underlined the importance of not conceding any ground to Iran, especially when it comes to the Iranian demand to delist the IRGC from the US State Department’s list of Foreign Terror Organizations (FTO). Responding to the vote, US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez said, “It is a strong expression of sentiment about where we’re at with Iran and the concern that members of the Senate have with Iran’s trajectory here as it relates to its march toward a nuclear weapon — and what we try to do to prevent it.” By a vote of 86-12, the US Senate also approved a motion introduced by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The motion stated that the sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran and the IRGC must not be lifted in order to limit cooperation between Iran and China. During his speech, Senator Cruz said, “the Biden administration has refused to enforce oil sanctions against Iran, allowing Iran to sell more than a million barrels of oil a day, primarily to China.”
In the current context, several factors are likely to influence the trajectory of the nuclear talks and the prospect of reaching a deal. Firstly, the recent indications from Washington suggest that it may be considering a scenario where a nuclear deal is not achieved as President Joe Biden might not be willing to delist the IRGC from the FTO. This scenario will mean that the sanctions on the IRGC will remain in place, hurting Iran greatly, given the organization’s pivotal economic role domestically and externally in the region and beyond. Secondly, Iran has for a long time relied on escalating tensions amid crucial stages of talks. This has been a feature of Iran’s blackmailing strategy to achieve leverage or concessions at the negotiating table, with it launching attacks targeting US interests and threatening maritime security at crucial periods during the phases of the Vienna talks. However, it is yet to be seen how effective such a blackmailing strategy will be in light of the Biden administration facing intense pressure because of the bipartisan outrage both in the House of Representatives and the Senate over the details and trajectory of the nuclear talks with Iran. Thirdly, the Iranian government has not been able to mitigate the economic risks and revive the Iranian economy. Soaring food prices, inflation, unemployment and delays in paying teachers have caused widespread protests in Iran with several protestors calling for the death of President Ebrahim Raisi and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Iranian government might likely introduce some band-aid measures to ease the growing resentment against the ruling elites, however, the effectiveness and longevity of such measures remain doubtful considering the deep economic crisis that Iran is now facing. To address the economic crisis, sanctions relief is a must, therefore, the nuclear talks impasse is another pressure on the Iranian government. To try to alleviate the domestic resentment, Iran could increase its oil exports to countries like China and Venezuela. In recent months, several reports indicate that Iran has increased its illicit oil exports without any fear of repercussions. However, amid the conflict in Ukraine, Iranian oil exports to China are likely to be impacted as reports suggest that the EU is aiming to sanction Russian oil which will eventually prompt Beijing to buy more oil from Russia than Iran at discounted prices. Sayyed Hamid Hosseini, board member of Iran’s Oil, Gas and Petrochemical Products Exports Union, recently said that Iran’s exports may suffer upon Russia entering the market. This scenario could push Iran to agree to a nuclear deal and show some flexibility to alleviate domestic pressure and safeguard the faltering political system.
Against the backdrop of the aforementioned, in an attempt to save the nuclear deal, the EU’s chief nuclear negotiator Enrique Mora visited Tehran. Some sources indicated that Iranian officials handed to Mora a “proposal with revisited ideas,” consisting of other issues of priority and not IRGC-centric. Another source in Tehran stressed that there would be no resumption of nuclear talks without a clear response from the United States to the new proposal. “The Biden administration should decide, it can’t stay in the middle between the policies of [former President Donald] Trump and what [President Joe] Biden repeated during his election campaign.” The Iranian source further stated, “They master the art of over-simplifying complex issues, and taking things out of context, and this is creating more rifts over the nuclear agreement. It’s really easy to return to the deal, but Biden’s administration wants to have its cake and eat it too which isn’t possible.”
Given that the United States is unlikely to respond to the new proposal, Iran is likely to continue with its efforts to strike a nuclear deal on its terms by pressuring Washington to extend more concessions, as well as playing the Europeans off against the Americans and simultaneously engaging with other allies and partners to expand its trade prospects to further circumvent the tough US sanctions.