There is an ongoing debate in Iran about how best to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal, from which the United States withdrew in 2018. Despite international calls to renegotiate a new nuclear deal with the Biden administration, one which tightens control over Iran’s missile and nuclear programs, there is unanimity inside Iran that the nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), should be preserved. The real disagreement is about how to ensure this.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, says there is no point in trusting a Biden administration, let alone renegotiating a new nuclear deal with it, and that the United States should rejoin the nuclear deal and lift the sanctions on Iran.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is open to renegotiating with the United States and other global powers, even if it means revising some of the provisions of the JCPOA, in order to help lift the sanctions on Iran. The United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal and a plethora of tight sanctions could provide the Biden administration with more bargaining power against Iran.
However, in December, Iran’s hardline Parliament passed a nuclear law awkwardly dubbed the “Strategic Action to Annul Sanctions and Defend the Iranian Nation’s Interests.” This law is crafted to lay out conditions for Iran in complying with the provisions of the JCPOA once again. Rouhani’s government criticized the law, saying that it intends to derail future negotiations with the incoming US administration.
The law calls on Iran’s government to increase uranium enrichment to 20 percent and bars compliance with major segments of the JCPOA by encouraging the use of advanced 1,000 IR-2m centrifuges for enrichment in order to accelerate the storage of higher-grade uranium.
Furthermore, the law threatens to hasten Iran’s departure from the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), if the global powers do not help Iran to sell its oil and carry out international banking transactions. The Additional Protocol allows snap inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Finally, the law calls for punishing government officials who refuse to comply with it. Iranian officials could face up to 25 years in prison. Iran’s Parliament says the law’s strict provisions end the one-way street Iran was on, trying but failing to convince the global powers to uphold the JCPOA.
Iran’s hardline Guardian Council has endorsed the law. This means that Rouhani’s government must comply with the new law when it comes into effect in less than two months.
In this tight time-frame, Rouhani may not have enough time to convince the incoming Biden administration to return to the JCPOA without preconditions, although Rouhani says he has no doubt that the United States will return to the nuclear deal.
European partners to the JCPOA, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom called on Iran to not implement the new law. US allies in Europe, including Germany, think that a new deal should be negotiated. At the same time, to appease Iran’s hardliners, the Europeans reiterated support for the JCPOA and UN Security Council Resolution 2231 which upholds it.
However, it is clear that by passing the law, Iran’s hardliners are aiming to out-maneuver the Biden administration by forcing it to quickly rejoin the JCPOA. Moreover, it aims to pressure Biden not to capitulate to the Republican Party’s demand to craft a new nuclear deal which would include provisions to curtail Iran’s ballistic missile program and interference in the sovereign affairs of neighboring countries.
So far, the law has prompted the EU foreign ministers to agree not to set new conditions to revive the JCPOA. Iran’s hardliners have also forced the embattled Rouhani government to shift its position and support them.
Rouhani now argues that he will only talk to the Biden administration about reviving the JCPOA if Washington upholds its provisions. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif confirmed that Iran will reject new talks until the United States rejoins the JCPOA. He urged the European partners to the JCPOA to save the deal by remaining committed to it.
President-elect Biden has not made it clear how he aims to address this challenge. He wants to return to the deal, but at the same time wants to make changes to it to ensure its longevity. Biden’s National Security Advisor-designate Jake Sullivan says the United States will build a follow-on agreement.
Meanwhile, the Gulf states and Israel are urging the new US administration to design a new deal before easing pressure on Iran. The Trump administration imposed a plethora of tough sanctions on Iran during the last two years, and recently targeted organizations directly linked to the Iranian supreme leader. Other parties to the JCPOA, including Russia and China want the United States to rejoin the nuclear deal without stipulating preconditions.
Iran’s hardliners are untrusting of the United States, especially after the recent assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh which they blame on Israel and Washington. They also think that Rouhani is delusional to believe that US-Iran relations will normalize under the Biden administration. This is because Biden could be unsuccessful in lifting the Trump era sanctions on Iran or rejoining the JCPOA.
Iranian economists are warning the hardliners that Iran cannot survive under perpetual sanctions, and will face rising inflation. Rouhani’s government is already facing a severe budget deficit and struggling to deal with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, it is facing criticism as it has based next year’s budget on the assumption that the United States will rejoin the JCPOA and lift sanctions as stipulated under the nuclear deal.
The only body inside Iran that can stall the nuclear law’s implementation is the Supreme National Security Council, headed by Rouhani. But he will still need the supreme leader’s backing to do this. For now, the supreme leader and Rouhani both seem to be calculating their options and waiting to see what the US president-elect will do once in the White House.