Iran’s decision to resume uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow nuclear plant has sparked warnings from the European Union (EU). The EU has cited “serious nuclear non-proliferation implications.” This puts new US President Joe Biden in a tough position as he must work with Washington’s EU partners to rejoin the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal. Washington’s EU partners expect the Biden administration to promptly rejoin the nuclear deal amid Iran’s decision to raise uranium enrichment levels. Tehran’s decision to enrich uranium up to 20 percent is seen as a departure from its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal and a major blow to restarting nuclear negotiations.
Some of the nuclear deal’s important provisions like the UNSC restrictions on the transfer of conventional arms to Iran expired last year and other provisions like the UNSC restrictions on the transfer of ballistic missile technology to Iran will expire in two years. Since certain key provisions in the nuclear deal will expire soon, the United States is likely to focus on extending or terminating some timelines. Furthermore, major European powers have indicated that returning to the 2015 nuclear deal might not be enough, and a new agreement might be needed to addresses wider concerns related to Iran’s aggressive behavior in the region. Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had earlier said that “a return to the previous agreement will not suffice anyway and there will have to be a kind of nuclear agreement plus.” France and the UK have also expressed similar concerns and have called on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment. France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian during a meeting with UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed said that Iran has to “immediately resume full respect of its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA to preserve regional stability and avoid a serious proliferation crisis.”
Any new deal, as per several calculations, could potentially cover broader areas to restrict Iran’s aggressive behaviour in the region. It will not be straightforward for Biden to adjust the existing nuclear deal to include Iran’s ballistic missile program and stop its involvement in regional conflicts. Tehran no doubt will not agree to such adjustments. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently wrote for Foreign Affairs magazine that Biden must choose a better path by removing all the sanctions imposed by Trump and return to the 2015 deal “without altering its painstakingly negotiated terms,” even though the security challenges that Washington and its EU partners face in the region are now much more extensive compared to 2015 as Tehran has escalated and expanded its belligerency.
Biden rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal is complicated at this moment in time against the backdrop of escalating political and security developments in the region leading to the trust deficit widening between Washington and Tehran. Despite calls for a new round of negotiations, Iran continues with its aggressive behavior. For example, the IRGC recently seized a South Korean oil tanker in the Gulf waters amid tensions between Tehran and Seoul over the freezing of accrued oil payments by South Korean banks in response to US pressure. Iran has often depended on such aggressive behavior to put pressure on the United States prior to entering negotiations. Iran is fully aware that any new deal that does not address its ballistic missile program or its sponsorship of militias will not be accepted by the Arab Gulf states and other US allies in the region. Moreover, the EU raising the alarm bell over Iran resuming uranium enrichment will be a source of concern for Biden as he must find points of convergence with the EU in relation to dealing with Iran. Commenting on the recent developments, a European diplomat said, “It’s their tactical objective to pressure the Biden administration, but at one point if you fill the boat up too much it sinks.” Zarif has acknowledged Iran’s interest in taking advantage of the situation and using tactics to impose pressure on the Biden administration. He tweeted , “We resumed 20 percent enrichment, as legislated by our Parliament. IAEA has been duly notified. Our remedial action conforms fully with Para 36 of JCPOA, after years of non-compliance by several other JCPOA participants. Our measures are fully reversible upon full compliance by all.”
Biden’s nominee for US Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded to the recent developments and confirmed that the Biden administration must work urgently to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear state. Blinken also said that the United States would “seek a longer and stronger agreement to capture other issues, particularly with regard to missiles and Iran’s destabilizing activities.” The United States needs to consult with its EU and regional partners to ensure the longevity of any new nuclear deal with Iran, especially in light of Tehran’s escalating aggressive behavior. The Biden administration will have to walk a tightrope while negotiating with Iran to address the security concerns of its EU and regional partners.