Despite the harsh anti-Iranian rhetoric employed by Donald Trump before and after his unilateral withdrawal from JCPOA in May 2018, it appears that the US would now prefer a new negotiated deal with Iran over the more complicated and costly option of going for regime change.
But the US hopes of forcing Iran to the negotiating table for a more comprehensive deal have so far remained frustrated. The fact remains that neither serious domestic problems, in the form of violent nationwide protests at petrol rationing and price increases, nor huge anti-Iran demonstrations in places like Iraq and Lebanon, have influenced an Islamic regime that remains weakened but ostensibly defiant.
Failure of the ‘4+1’ (UK, France, Germany, Russia and China) to provide Iran with the practical support it needs to overcome US sanctions, has forced Iran to reverse some of its agreed undertakings under JCPOA, along with hints that it might altogether withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty it had signed in 1968.
The decision to restart uranium enrichment activities at the Fordow facility, as confirmed by the IAEA, has prompted a serious response in the shape of a ‘Joint Statement’ from the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, UK and the EU High Representative, who warned Iran that “the potentially severe proliferation implications of its action have been inconsistent with the JCPOA’s clear provisions on Fordow and represents a regrettable acceleration of Iran’s disengagement from commitments under the JCPOA.” This, however, is precisely the assessment that Iran hopes will ultimately persuade the ‘4+1 ’ to put its money where its mouth is in countering US sanctions and making it worthwhile for Iran to remain committed to its previous pledges.
Within Iran’s ruling establishment, reluctance on the part of the US and its regional allies to confront Iran for shooting down a US drone or orchestrating other attacks against shipping and oil facilities in the Persian Gulf has bolstered confidence amongst hardliners opposed to any kind of compromise over the nuclear issue. Their ascendance, at a time when the credibility of the Rouhani government who negotiated the agreement has become seriously eroded, has further complicated matters, in that it has prompted Iran to pursue a more provocative course of action that risks – much to the delight of the Trump administration – losing the support of the Europeans who could escalate actions against Iran.
Nonetheless, simple arithmetic suggest that, while Iran may be able to withstand various economic and political pressures in the months preceding the US elections, containing such pressures in the longer term involves a serious gamble key Iranian decision makers might not be willing to make. Hence both Iran and the US, each for its own separate reasons, have reached a pivotal moment where they can choose either to arrive at some form of a ‘do-able’ deal or to further escalate matters at a cost of severe political damage to themselves; and this comes at a time when both governments are facing huge domestic challenges, as well as greater instability and violence in the region.
But breaking the current impasse is contingent upon some kind of an interim gesture by the US, with ‘back channel’ assistance, that provides Iran with the incentive it needs to come to the negotiating table – especially given that the contours of a potentially acceptable arrangement that covers issues such as the sunset clause in the existing JCPOA agreement, continued monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities as well as some kind of a comprehensive agreement covering Iran’s missile program are within grasp.
On matters pertaining to the region, once again recent developments suggest that hitherto hostile and uncompromising stances between Iran, the UAE and Saudi Arabia may have finally reached a turning point, in view of the realisation by the likes of the UAE that finding ways of de-escalating tensions through dialogue and diplomacy is by far the preferred option for ending tensions and violence in places like Yemen and Syria.
For the longer term, it is also worth noting that within Iran, all decisions aimed at reaching any kind of a ground breaking compromise, not just with the US but even key regional states such as Saudi Arabia, is considered in the backdrop of fierce feuding waged by various competing factions jockeying for the promotion or protection of their interests in the all important battle for succession in the post-Khamenei era. Ironically, US ‘maximum pressure’ has actually made an impact on this all important debate, in that it has worked to discredit forces of moderation – such as the current incumbent government, which wanted JCPOA to serve as a stepping stone for reducing Iran’s forced economic reliance on China in exchange for much closer economic ties with the US (and its EU partners), especially in key areas having to do with the petroleum industry and aviation.
By helping to get new talks started, something that entails offering the Iranian government a face saving incentive, such as a temporary freezing of some sanctions, the US will not only strengthen the hands of pragmatic moderates in Iran as well as promoting regional stability but will also open up Iran’s trillion dollar investment market to the West.
Such an approach would offer the clearest path for ending the current standoff. Moreover, a new agreement that is able to overcome Trump’s previous objections to the JCPOA will not only help restore a measure of credibility to forces of progress and moderation seeking a different future for the country, but more importantly for now, it will help reduce the various economic pressures imposed on ordinary Iranians who have been the main victims of America’s ruthless sanctions policy.