US, Iran, and Nuclear Talks: Is There Way Out of "You Go First" Dilemma?

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“It only took Trump a moment to shred US involvement in the nuclear deal. It will take far longer, and with much more diplomatic finesse, to return to the position of July 2015.”

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Iran's President Hassan Rouhani says the US can return "within an hour to the 2015 nuclear deal,” between Tehran and the 5+1 Powers (US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China).

The Biden Administration says it will negotiate re-entry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which Donald Trump withdrew in May 2018.

So what's the problem?

Welcome to the "You Go First" dilemma:

Iran's Ambassador to the UN Majid Takht Ravanchi writes in The New York Times

The United States must immediately adhere to its commitments in the nuclear agreement...The new administration should also swiftly remove the new sanctions that the Trump administration placed on Iran...

Any half-hearted or partial fulfilment of the United States commitments will undermine what Mr. Biden has promised. But it will also be interpreted as insincerity on the part of the new administration.

Hours later, the new US Secretary of  State Antony Blinken says, "If Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same thing". He continues:

Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts and it would take some time, should it make the decision to do so, for it to come back into compliance and time for us then to assess whether it was meeting its obligations.

We are not there yet, to say the least.

It only took Trump a moment to shred US involvement in the nuclear deal. It will take far longer, and with much more diplomatic finesse, to return to the position of July 2015.

Each side has built layers that have to be removed one by one. 

On the American side, it is not just the comprehensive sanctions imposed in November 2018 but each subsequent blacklisting of Iranian companies, individuals, and foreign entities doing business with them. 

On the Iranian side, it is each step suspending a provision of the JCPOAL: exceeding the limits on 3.67% uranium, installing advanced centrifuges, and this month returning to enrichment of 20% uranium and producing uranium metal.

The layers are not permanent but not a single one will be lifted while the exchange between Washington and Tehran is "You First".

The Gap Over New Talks

Then there is the wide division between a return to the 2015 deal and a renegotiation of it.

Even before considering the hawks in Washington who oppose any agreement, the Biden

Administration has no inclination to return the clock to January 2017, before Donald Trump replaced Barack Obama.

Not only the US but also the three European powers - the UK, France, and Germany - want a revised agreement, including arrangements over Iran's ballistic missile program and extension of the terminal dates of the agreement's provisions.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said since November 2017 that a deal must cover missile development and production: "It should be completed with necessary points."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed in May 2018 for an "expansion of the negotiating framework".

Secretary of State Blinken said last week that there must be a “longer and stronger agreement” that would deal with other “deeply problematic” issues.

But Iranian officials, beginning with the Supreme Leader, are ruling out revisions. Ambassador Takht Ravanchi says,  “We will neither allow the JCPOA to be renegotiated nor will we allow anything to be added to it.”

Solving the Dilemma

Based on the public positions, there is no way back to the deal.

But the path to the 2015 agreement did not begin in public. Instead, back-channel discussions were held in 2012 in Oman, reportedly including the Supreme Leader's top aide Ali Akbar Velayati and US officials including Jake Sullivan, now the Biden Administration's National Security Advisor.

In public, the rhetoric was heated with Ayatollah Khamenei ruling out any negotiations with the Americans. But the "quiet" contacts maintained the possibility, and when new President Hassan Rouhani told the Supreme Leader in September 2013 of the extent of Iran's economic difficulties, Khamenei authorized formal discussions.

The lesson for today? Anyone who expects a quick US re-entry to nuclear deal will be disappointed. Meanwhile, except for those who are involved, we are unlikely to know of the contacts between the Biden officials, best seen as pragmatists seeking a way out of confrontation, and Iranian counterparts.

Those back-channel talks will not be enough for a resolution which means no US sanctions and Iran's return to 3.67% uranium. But they could be enough to check further steps weakening the JCPOA - and a reality contrasting with the Supreme Leader's position that “engagement with the Americans is "fruitless".

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