Why the US needs the JCPOA, or the political meaning of diplomatic deadlocks

MOSCOW, 15 Nov 2021, RUSSTRAT Institute.

The JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is a political agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France, with the participation of Germany, usually referred to as the “5+1 deal”. Signed by the Foreign Ministers of the signatory states in Lausanne in April 2015. The goal is to limit Iran’s nuclear program and prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Negotiations between the parties to the deal were conducted for 10 years prior to the signing of the agreement. The peaceful use of nuclear power plants is allowed to Iran in exchange for giving up the development of nuclear weapons. In this case, the sanctions imposed on it earlier by the United States, the EU and the UN Security Council were lifted from it. A total of 1,733 sanctions have been imposed on Iran – the highest level of sanctions in the world.

939 sanctions were imposed on state bodies and institutions of Iran, 140 on banks and subsidiaries, 394 on individuals, 195 on airlines, 205 on ship companies. Deliveries of military products related to uranium enrichment technologies and rocket engineering, purchases of Iranian oil and oil and gas products, and investments in the Iranian petrochemical industry are prohibited. The IAEA is involved in monitoring the state of Iran’s nuclear industry, but Iran places obstacles in front of its work.

The UN adopted 5 resolutions against Iran, at the country level sanctions were repeatedly adopted by the United States, once by the EU, and combined sanctions were adopted by Canada, Australia, South Korea and Japan. For 42 years of their application (since 1979), the sanctions were used as a means of political pressure on Iran. They were constantly changing – some were canceled, others were introduced, but they were never completely removed.

In itself, Iran’s nuclear program has never been called a sufficient reason for US sanctions. That would be too odious. The United States, as is its custom, charges Iran with supporting terrorism, human rights, and developing a nuclear missile program. In total, the sanctions have caused trillions of dollars in damage to Iran’s economy.

Nevertheless, despite all the losses, Iran is stubbornly striving to possess nuclear weapons. Its nuclear program, which began during the Shah’s regime, continues and is an entire industry, including enterprises for the extraction, processing and enrichment of uranium, research institutes, experimental reactors and nuclear power plants in Bushehr covered by air defence systems.

The United States, Germany and France initially helped Iran develop nuclear fuel cycle technologies, but sought to prevent their development into the production of weapons-grade plutonium. A program to produce only low-enriched uranium was imposed on Iran. The enrichment limit was set at 3.27%. Now, under pressure from the United States, Iran has announced its desire to enrich uranium to 20%, but has not said when it intends to do so.

In 2017, the Trump administration imposed new sanctions on Iran, and in 2018 announced the US’ withdrawal from the Iran deal. The reason is Iran’s development of a nuclear program to circumvent sanctions. The White House considered the JCPOA obsolete and demanded a new treaty that more strictly restricts Iran.

However, Biden, having come to power, announced his readiness to return to the JCPOA, which was largely caused by certain pressure from Germany and France, which were the main buyers of Iranian oil. Biden repaired Trump’s damaged relations with his main European allies by making concessions on the Iran deal, among other things.

The US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA and subsequent return to it under the pressure of European allies made it clear to Iran that the US position is weak. It is absolutely clear that the possession of nuclear weapons is the main national task for Iran. Iran understands that to achieve this goal, it will have to pay a price, because none of the nuclear countries wants a new member of the nuclear club to appear in Iran, and therefore the opposition will be tough and long-lasting. However, Iran believes that here the end justifies the means and bargaining is inappropriate.

Iran’s concessions are manipulative in nature and are designed to ease the pressure here and now, then adapt to the restrictions and find ways to circumvent them. Iran has always succeeded. And so, in principle, the Trump administration’s response was reasonable.

But Iran has skilfully played on the conflict of interests of the United States and Germany with France, who sought to preserve cheaper Iranian oil supplies. Iran understood that EU leaders were irritated by the US desire to use the Iranian problem to hit their economic interests and prevent the strengthening of their sovereignty.

When Trump exhausted the means to put pressure on his main allies and forced them to deepen ties with China and Russia, Biden decided to rectify the situation, but fell into a negotiating trap. Iran caught the high point of the US’ need for success in the JCPOA negotiations and immediately pushed up the price of the agreement to unacceptable terms.

Now Iran believes that the United States is not a party to the JCPOA deal and therefore has no right to demand anything from Iran. It must first return to the deal, but Iran is ready to accept it only under certain conditions. It demands that the United States, in fact, completely lose face, putting forward three conditions: an admission of guilt for the failure of the deal, the lifting of all sanctions at once, and a promise never to withdraw from the agreement in the future. For the United States, this ultimatum is deliberately unacceptable. This is a slap in the face to Biden and his administration. It is clear that the ultimatum will be rejected.

However, Iran is strengthening its position – in early 2021, it restricts IAEA inspections and announces its readiness to start enriching uranium to a level of 60%. Iran understands that it is approaching the status of a threshold state, and after crossing this threshold, negotiations with it will be completely different – everyone will be faced with this fact, like what happened with the DPRK. They don’t speak the language of ultimatums with a nuclear state.

The United States, for its part, is demanding that Iran start making concessions, and only after that will it be ready to gradually reduce sanctions. There is a clear impasse in the negotiations, out of which there is no way out due to the ability of each side to build up leverage and use new bargaining chips.

 

Problem statement.

Currently, the negotiating strategies on the JCPOA are characterised by the fact that the parties are engaged in a fierce fight for an advantageous position on the eve of the start of negotiations. The trump card is the very fact of entering into negotiations. The one who forces the opponent to sit down at the negotiating table on their own agenda and, in fact, on their own terms, will show dominance. The negotiation model is a forceful one, with the use of manipulative elements. Moreover, the coercive part prevails, and therefore, in fact, negotiations are impossible, since the exchange of ultimatums is not negotiations.

Iran uses the manipulation of time and status. It uses the fact that the United States is not present in the negotiations and works through intermediaries. Iran announces its readiness to return to the negotiating platform in Vienna in a few weeks. This is too long for the US. Iran’s pre-conditions are humiliating for the United States. Neither the time nor status satisfies the United States, and it is fighting to change this. Iran has already gained pace in the opening round. The terms have been announced by Iran, and negotiations over them are underway with the help of intermediaries.

At the same time, since the negotiations are multilateral, Iran finds itself in an unfavourable negotiating situation, when it is alone against a bloc of six countries. The coalition between them is shaky and situational, and on many other issues all its participants are in conflict. Iran easily uses this to circumvent the negotiating trap: it announces that it will negotiate with each side of the five separately, one-on-one. It will not allow a collective meeting where five people will twist Iran’s arms.

This will allow Iran to further delay time and speed up work on the nuclear project. Resuming the dialog without specifying the start date is far from completing the deal. Bilateral negotiations with each participant will allow to achieve most of the goals set – there will probably be talk about a compromise, where in exchange for reconciliation with Iran’s nuclear status, guarantees of interest to each side on a whole range of international problems will be discussed.

Iran expects some understanding from Russia and China regarding its security and role in international affairs. Iran’s status is already largely determined by its capability of using force. Iran’s involvement in the Middle East is important, first of all, for Russia and, to a large extent, for China.

In Transcaucasia, Iran restrains Turkey, while in Syria it helps destroy the Islamic State and bears the main burden of personnel losses. The Iranian army is 873,000 people. Defence spending is $13,194 million, or 2.7% of GDP, which puts Iran in 4th place among the countries of Africa and the Middle East concerning this indicator. Iran’s main arms suppliers and security partners are China, Russia and Syria.

Germany and France are still interested in relations with Iran. Their desire to strengthen their sovereignty and get out from under the USA umbrella may lead to the formation of the Berlin-Paris-Beijing-Moscow-Tehran axis in a certain development of the situation. And this situation may arise as early as 2025, when the conflict between China and the United States over Taiwan will be resolved in favour of China, for which there is every chance.

The basis of this axis will be Beijing and Moscow, and its key links will be Berlin with Paris and Tehran. It is Berlin and Paris that can support Beijing in developing its technological base for the production of microchips. Moscow will provide military and logistical support to the Belt and Road Initiative, while Tehran will provide logistics and military force.

For China, this will be especially important, since in the case of a hybrid (using proxy forces) accession of Taiwan, the Delhi-Tokyo-Washington-London axis will arise. And it will be directed against the Berlin-Paris-Beijing-Moscow-Tehran axis. This is understood in all world capitals, and therefore Tehran is counting on a deal not so much with the United States as with Beijing and Moscow. Realising that in this case, Berlin and Paris will have more reasons to support Iran and also come to a compromise.

All of this does not mean that it is acceptable for Russia and China to turn Iran into a nuclear power. Even though the West understands its limited ability to stop Iran’s nuclear program, Russia and China would like to delay this moment as long as possible. And during this time, achieve maximum benefits from Iran, the EU and the United States.

However, given the pace of dynamics of the situation around the JCPOA and Iran’s nuclear program, no one has any illusions about its possibility of stopping Iran’s progress towards nuclear status. Not only the United States and Europe, but also Russia and China will never be fully-fledged allies for Iran, and Iran will not be such an ally for them. Neither ideologically nor geopolitically are the interests of Iran, Russia and China identical and they never will be.

One way or another, the Iran factor has already become an important constant in world politics, and it is impossible to reverse the process. Too many countries are interested in Iran maintaining its subjectivity and ability to negotiate.

Iran understands that there is a struggle going on not only with it, but also for it. This gives it room for manoeuvre and cancels its interest in the JCPOA deal. What Iran is doing in this regard is blatantly torpedoing the negotiations, which Iran needs as a screen to gain time. It is precisely this time that the United States is trying not to give Iran, forcing it to return to the deal as soon as possible.

That is exactly why the US State Department, through the head of the Press Service, Ned Price, said that Iran’s nuclear program is the most urgent problem in the Middle East.

“Our first priority is to determine whether we can agree on a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, not as a means of salvaging the JCPOA, but as a means of ensuring that Iran is once again permanently and verifiably denied the opportunity to acquire nuclear weapons. We are focused on this as our first step,” Ned Price said, and this fact makes a lot more sense than the words of the Press Secretary.

The fact that this statement was made not by Biden or even Blinken, but by a State Department spokesman, suggests that the United States does not have the resources to push Iran towards breaking the negotiating deadlock, and the point of need is the highest of all the participants. That is, this is the weakest position, fraught with inevitable defeat. And none of the top leadership in the US administration wants to associate themselves with it, but it is necessary to state a position. Therefore, this is done by a minor official of the State Department responsible for press relations.

But in addition to the hierarchical level of the American speaker, there is also his text. The US is focused on identifying its capabilities as a first step, while Iran is already on the final stretch of the road, and the United States was exposed by the fact that at first it left, without putting the squeeze on Iran, and then it wanted to return, also without forcing Iran into submission. That is, the United States is not sure about, and does not really know, its resource, and therefore cannot determine the zone of a possible agreement.

Here, Russia and China have a problem balancing their interests with each other and with the interests of all other participants. Any outcome of negotiations leads to the strengthening of some of them, and it is important for Russia that its strengthening is maximum, and the strengthening of others is minimal. All the other members of the six also strive for this.

At what point the vectors of application of forces will converge, it is now impossible to determine, and most importantly, it is difficult to say what time limit can be given to Iran from the point of view of the interests of Russia and China, realising that for Iran this limit is desirably maximum, and for the United States it is minimal.

 

Conclusions.

1. At the moment, the JCPOA treaty is extremely necessary for the United States and absolutely not necessary for Iran. The United States is looking for opportunities to return to the negotiation process, and Iran is trying to prevent a return.

2. Iran is openly stalling for time and expects to turn the situation around in the course of bilateral negotiations with each member of the negotiating six.

3. The United States and the United Kingdom seek to prevent bilateral negotiations with Iran and try to oblige Germany and France to disagree with its demands. Bilateral negotiations within the six nations nullify the role of the US as the leader of the negotiating alliance and deal a blow to the UK.

4. The prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is a matter of time, and no one can determine what that time will be. That is precisely why Biden refuses to comment on questions about the timing of the JCPOA negotiations, saying evasively: “All in good time”. Republicans will not forgive Biden for the failure of the negotiation mission and will blame the collapse of the strong position achieved by Trump. This could cost the Democrats victory in the 2024 presidential election.

5. Iran, becoming a nuclear state, will split the unity of the West and cause a creeping process of political resource flow to its side. Many now-neutral states in the region will align themselves with its policies. The positions of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait will weaken, and the US’ adventurism in the region will increase. Israel will lose its exclusivity, and the United States will not be able to provide it with its former status. Turkey’s capabilities will be significantly reduced, which will hit the UK’s plans.

6. In negotiations with the EU, Russia and China, Iran’s position will become tougher and its demands will increase. Given the inevitability of such a process, an important question for the EU, China and Russia is to what extent they should now take a stand against Iran’s nuclear program.

It is important not to spoil relations when we have to talk about compromises with Iran in its new nuclear status. And first of all, it will concern the formats of agreements on security in the Middle East region and the Persian (Arab from the Arab point of view) Gulf. It is clear that these agreements will be concluded without the decisive role of the United States.

7. In any case, Iran’s nuclear status remains hypothetical and unclear in terms of the time of its occurrence. However, negotiations with Iran are already being conducted with this perspective in mind, which is used by Iran as a strong position.

8. Sanctions are putting a strain on Iran’s economy in its war in Syria. This is another reason why the United States is interested in putting sanctions pressure on Iran.

9. It is advantageous for Russia and France to oblige Iran to confirm its mandate in the UN Security Council every six months. This means that every six months, Iran must coordinate its position with each member of the six. This is a lever of influence on Iran, which it seeks to avoid, and the members of the six – to prevent it from doing so.

Institute for International Political and Economic Strategies – RUSSTRAT

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