Western officials are raising concerns that Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, will eventually torpedo the talks between his country and major world powers that are intended to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, which has been in disarray since the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the agreement in 2018. They worry that Raisi is already delaying the resumption of negotiations and that when the talks finally resume, his administration will put forth impractical demands. But the real obstacle facing the negotiations is not the Raisi government’s hard-line views, but the failure of Washington and Tehran to resolve the fundamental disagreements that thwarted a deal at the last round of talks in Vienna in June—even under the more moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani.

In fact, Iran’s new government seems resolved to carry on with the talks and is likely to pick up where its predecessor left off. Tehran remains invested in the progress made between April and June during six rounds of talks aimed at resuscitating the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But if the United States and Iran fail to adapt their positions to bridge the gap that separates them, they will remain at an impasse—with potentially disastrous results for both countries and the entire Middle East. If they seek a different result, then they need a different approach.

DAGGERS DRAWN

At the heart of the standoff are misperceptions on both sides. The Biden administration treats Iran as it would treat any adversarial negotiating partner, whereas Iran, burned by President Donald Trump’s withdrawal and wounded by the imposition of draconian sanctions, sees itself as the aggrieved party. For its part, the Iranian leadership believes that time is on its side: Washington has already sanctioned Iran to the hilt, it assesses, and yet Iran’s economy has survived and is now expanding. Given its nuclear program’s exponential growth, officials in Tehran think they are well positioned to build more leverage and extract more concessions from the West.

But the truth is that the collapse of the JCPOA would represent the worst of all worlds for both countries. If they fail to change tack when talks resume, negotiations are bound to end in deadlock. In the absence of a path to reestablishing the nuclear accord, the Biden administration would face huge political pressure to double down on Trump’s policy of applying “maximum pressure,” which the Biden administration opposed and has characterized as an abject failure. On top of that, Washington would be forced to make even harder decisions as Iran’s nuclear program reached the point of no return and recurrent Israeli calls for military action became louder and more resonant.

With Tehran and Washington at daggers drawn, the region would plunge into greater conflict and instability.

Iran already senses advantage in the regional power balance in the aftermath of the Taliban’s triumph in Afghanistan and the chaotic denouement of the United States’ longest war. Iran could encourage its allies and proxies in Iraq and Syria to more aggressively pressure U.S. forces to leave. Escalating tensions, however, could prove costly for Iran. Its nuclear advances would return the country to international pariah status: as Iran crosses more JCPOA redlines, the Europeans would reinstate UN sanctions that the nuclear accord lifted and impose their own bevy of multilateral sanctions. As a result, other nations would find it difficult to sustain trade with Iran. All this would inflict more pain on the Iranian people—who are already mired in myriad crises, ranging from economic stagnation to environmental degradation and the raging COVID-19 pandemic. Tehran would also risk being targeted by more covert operations that sabotage its nuclear facilities and critical infrastructure and assassinate its nuclear scientists.

The regional implications would be grave. With Tehran and Washington at daggers drawn, the region would plunge into greater conflict and instability, instead of seeing progress on de-escalation efforts between Iran and some of its Arab neighbors. Washington would then be looking at a corridor of chaos stretching from Afghanistan to the borders of Israel. For the Biden administration, the failure of the Vienna talks would derail a broader foreign policy agenda that has sought to shift the focus from the Middle East to global issues, such as fighting climate change, and great-power rivalries, especially with China. President Joe Biden could even find himself on the road to another Middle East armed intervention of the sort that he has so forcefully promised to avoid.

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS

The challenge facing Washington and Tehran is how to restore the JCPOA in the wake of the rupture instigated by the Trump administration. After six rounds of talks, the United States agreed to lift most, but not all, of the Trump-era sanctions on Iran. Tehran believes that some of the sanctions that would remain in place blatantly violate the original nuclear accord. For example, after the UN Security Council roundly rejected a U.S. resolution to extend the expiring UN arms embargo, the Trump administration placed a unilateral embargo on the provision or purchase of conventional arms to and from Iran. Iran views this policy as an attempt to thwart other countries from engaging in an activity that international law no longer prohibits. But given Iran’s involvement in the wars in Syria and Yemen, attacks by Iranian partners and proxies on U.S. interests in Iraq, and maritime altercations between Iran and Israel, the Biden administration fears that lifting the embargo would generate strong opposition at home and among regional partners. 

Some of the measures that the West expects Iran to take on the nuclear front are equally difficult to resolve. For instance, the Western powers want Iran to restore its “breakout time”—the length of time it would take Tehran to accumulate enough highly enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon—to one year, as the JCPOA envisions. Iran is now estimated to be only one month away from breakout. Given the advances that Iran has made in research and development since 2019, especially on centrifuges, simply dismantling the machines is probably insufficient to push the breakout period back to one year. What is required is mothballing the advanced centrifuges’ infrastructure and assembly lines, a step that Tehran considers both humiliating and beyond its JCPOA commitments.

If the United States and Iran hope to salvage the nuclear accord, they will have to show a willingness to explore new ideas.

The two sides are also far apart on the sequence of steps that they would need to take to return to full JCPOA compliance. Given that it was the United States that left the JCPOA, Tehran expects Washington to take the first step by rescinding the Trump-era sanctions and then giving Iran sufficient time to verify effective sanctions relief. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has explicitly made this demand. This stems from Iran’s bone-deep mistrust of U.S. promises: Iranian officials contend that they need to see the economic benefits the deal is intended to provide rather than accept promises of trade and investment that never bear fruit. U.S. negotiators seem willing to front-load a degree of sanctions removal, but they are not willing to lift all the sanctions at once and then wait weeks for Iran to return to compliance while its nuclear program continues to grow.

Additionally, both sides are seeking commitments that are not within the JCPOA’s original framework. Washington wants an explicit Iranian pledge that it will engage in follow-on negotiations toward a “stronger and longer” deal that might encompass Iran’s regional power projection. Tehran is seeking assurances that Washington will not pull out of the JCPOA once again or continuously undermine it by imposing new sanctions. Without the certainty that sanctions relief will be sustained over the long term, few foreign businesses will invest in Iran, and its economic gains from the deal’s revival will be minimal. Each side’s demands are understandable but hard for the other side to agree to absent difficult political decisions at the highest level.

SAVING THE JCPOA

The worst-case scenario for Washington and Tehran is not inevitable. Biden needs to personally engage on Iran policy and accept the political price for advancing core U.S. interests by putting Iran’s nuclear program back in the box. His emerging doctrine of avoiding military quagmires through diplomacy—and the courage he demonstrated in ending the war in Afghanistan despite the onslaught of criticism—suggest he is up to the challenge. Meanwhile, his Iranian counterpart, whose hard-line cohorts now control all the levers of power in Iran, should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good by seeking maximalist demands. Tehran should also set aside its symbolic refusal to negotiate directly with U.S. interlocutors—a policy that has only slowed the negotiations process and made it prone to misunderstandings.

To break the deadlock, both sides must retreat from some of their redlines. There is no reason for Iran to reject further talks in the future when the commitment is neither legally binding nor time bound—and when negotiations could address some of Tehran’s concerns about the shortcomings of sanctions relief. In the same vein, it is not in the United States’ interest to squander an opportunity to restrain Iran’s ability to develop unconventional weapons in exchange for an embargo on conventional arms that has failed to curb Iran’s indigenous arms industry and arms transfers to Tehran’s regional partners. The United States and its European partners should also come to terms with a shorter breakout timeline: if the original one-year timeline is unattainable, they should settle for a nine- or ten-month breakout window, which would be preferable to the breakout time of one month or less that would exist without a deal. Tehran should also swiftly respond to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s unanswered questions with regards to unreported traces of nuclear material found at Iranian nuclear sites that date back to Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear activities.

Outside of the nuclear talks, the Biden administration should encourage dialogue between Iran and its Arab neighbors to address some of their unresolved issues regarding Tehran’s role in the region. The Iraqi government has hosted three rounds of negotiations between Iranian and Saudi officials, as well as a recent summit including broader regional states. Washington should urge UN Secretary-General António Guterres to throw his weight behind a regional dialogue initiative that would bring together Iran, Iraq, and their six Gulf neighbors—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—to discuss confidence-building measures that could lead to a sustainable security architecture for the Persian Gulf region.

None of the concessions required to get the negotiations out of the doldrums will be easy. But if the United States and Iran hope to salvage the nuclear accord, they will have to show a willingness to explore new ideas. Diplomacy should be aimed at seizing the moment, based on the understanding that the Vienna talks could be their last chance to save a deal that—despite all its shortcomings—is far preferable and less costly than the alternatives.

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  • ALI VAEZ is Project Director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @alivaez.
  • VALI R. NASR is Professor of Middle East Studies and International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Follow him on Twitter @vali_nasr.
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