Dr Anicée Van Engeland, Associate Professor of International Security & Law, Cranfield University, comments on the latest developments in relations between Iran and the international community:
With President Biden’s announcement that the US will return to diplomacy, all eyes are on Iran. There is hope that the US will honour the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known commonly as the ‘Iran nuclear deal’, from which Trump walked away. Yet, the journey to restoring the JCPOA – or negotiating a new instrument – is fraught with obstacles.
There are discussions about the shape of an agreement: will the US, the EU and Iran go back to the original JCPOA as negotiated? Or will it take a new shape? What will be the role of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Israel if there are new negotiations?
The Iranian position on the US May 2018 departure from the JCPOA has been constant: the authorities expect compliance with the agreement, without additional conditions. They also want apologies and compensation. They demand assurances that the agreement will be treated as a binding contract and that no other US administration would walk away from it. The lifting of sanctions is, of course, required. In short, the Iranians are currently refusing to negotiate another instrument and want to come back to the JCPOA. Iran reportedly departed the agreement in 2019 by enriching uranium beyond the capped limit, but has declared it could easily come back to the required conventional amount, and the move is to be understood as a means to create leverage.
There is now the pressing issue of time: in June 2021, a new President will be elected in Iran. This leaves the Biden administration very little time to address the issue, as the outcome of the election could be in favour of hardliners. If a hardliner, including a hopeful former Guardian of the Revolution, win the election, it is unlikely that the US and Iran will open a dialogue: it has always been in the interest of the conservatives, traditionalists and hardliners to portray the US an enemy.
This delay in engaging in discussions has been attributed to US perspectives on Iran: for some experts, US imposed sanctions have been successful and the Islamic republic is on the brink of collapse. For others, Trump’s approach wasn’t an oddity but rather represented the US view on Iran and the Biden administration will not act differently. Iranians – authorities and population alike – have demonstrated little enthusiasm or trust when it comes to the way the US has portrayed the country, and there is little hope of an immediate improvement in the relationship between the two nations. Besides, all parties involved in the JCPOA, but Iran, have changed their minds, giving the impression that a contract is worth little value. On 3 February, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that “Iran has always fully respected int’l law. High time for the US to live up to its int’l obligations”. The breach of the contract by the US doesn’t entice Iranians to come back to the negotiating table, were it not to be for the lifting of sanctions.
Each party seeks leverage, and the delay in engaging with the Iranian authorities has given them time to action or adopt some posturing. On 3 February, the International Court of Justice announced it had jurisdiction on the case in which the Islamic Republic of Iran claims a violation of the 1955 Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations, and Consular Rights. The Foreign Ministry spokesman then said: “Using international legal mechanisms is part of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s government and foreign ministry in securing the rights of Iran’s honorable people on the international scene”. Iran’s application is therefore deemed admissible, and it is highly likely that the Iranian authorities will not withdraw the case from court, using it as leverage. Yet the legal procedure will be lengthy.
In reality, the US and Iran don’t have much leverage against one another. The Trump administration’s sanctions have only but strengthened the economic endeavours of the Guardians of the Revolution: many have thrived under the regime of sanctions. When in August 2020, UN experts called for the sanctions to be lifted as humanitarian exemptions didn’t seem to be working – exemptions that partly reflect the International Court of Justice October 2018 preliminary ruling – their report only addressed the segments of the population harshly bit by the restrictions. Overall, the sanctions have proven rather ineffective as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Institute of International Finance predict a growth of anywhere from 1.5% to 3.2% this year, whether the sanctions remain in place or not. The beneficiaries of this economy of sanctions will not easily agree to any form of return to the JCPOA or any diplomatic dialogue with the US.
There are additional elements to consider: it will be difficult to negotiate on the nuclear deal alone when the international community worries about Iranian military capability, its regional security approach, the imprisonment of several foreigners and violations of human rights. Other events have added to the tension: on 4 February, a Belgian court condemned an Iranian diplomat to a 20-year jail term for attempting to bomb a rally held by political opponents in France. Other elements have come in the way of possible diplomatic endeavours, such as the official Taleban visit in Iran, signalling the role of the authorities in Afghanistan. The assassinations of General Soleimani and several Iranian scientists will also affect any diplomatic discussions: the November 2020 killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist led Parliament to enact a law that could restrict international oversight of its nuclear facilities if sanctions aren’t lifted. Finally, the role of the European Union remains to be clarified. Zarif called for any JCPOA move to be supervised by the European Union, yet France seems to have adopted a rather uncompromising line while the Germans seem to seek a rapprochement.
While the Biden administration has engaged in a compliance for compliance strategy, the Iranians are busy with their daily lives, coping with a raging pandemic and worrying about which vaccines will reach them first and when the vaccination campaign will begin.