Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.05.12

Salvaging the Iran nuclear deal

the japan times on April 10, 2021

International Politics/Diplomacy National Security Middle East

The New York Times ran an article under the headline “Iran and U.S. Agree on Path Back to Nuclear Deal,” reporting that the two nations “agreed to try to synchronize Washington’s lifting of sanctions and Iran’s limiting of uranium enrichment.” While welcoming the good news from Vienna, few in Tokyo seem to be optimistic.

As a student of Middle East politics since 1978, I am one of those skeptics in Japan. The Times wrote that Washington and Tehran had agreed through intermediaries to establish two separate working groups to try to get the two nations “back into compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.” I sincerely hope they eventually will.

The mediation initiative was launched by European members of the deal together with the European Union. Russia and China, other signatories, also joined the negotiations. That said, this has been so far a desperate dual-track discourse to revive the aborted 2015 deal. The following are some of my personal observations:

The U.S. withdrawal

On May 8, 2018, President Donald Trump announced that “the U.S. will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.” The agreement, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was indeed “defective at its core” as Trump stated officially. This, in fact, was one of the few issues on which I do not completely disagree with Mr. Trump.

The JCPOA, as Trump said, “allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium and, over time, reach the brink of a nuclear breakout.” He noted it “lifted crippling economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for very weak limits on the regime’s nuclear activity, and no limits at all on its other malign behavior” in the Middle East.

I agree that it was not a perfect deal. Yet the abrupt unilateral withdrawal from the multilaterally concluded nuclear agreement was much worse than the deal itself. In that sense, Trump’s impulsive, impromptu and misconceived decision was a mistake. With that said, as the English proverb says, “It’s no use crying over spilled milk.”

Who concedes first?

Iran insists that it should be the United States that lifts its sanctions first. Washington, for its part, wants Tehran to first return to compliance. Can they reach an agreement? Theoretically yes, but in practicality, hardly because the real obstacle, essentially, will be an inability to synchronize their ideas and opposing agendas.

Even if wise Europeans managed to put the two nations in sync, it would be much more difficult for Washington and Tehran to reach a satisfactory agreement. It is simply because while Iran desperately needs the complete and irreversible lifting of all the U.S. sanctions, the United States needs to see the full denuclearization of Iran.

Is there enough time?

Such a deal would be possible if we had plenty of time to iron out an agreement during what will certainly be very thorny negotiations. The window of opportunity, unfortunately, seems to be narrowing because Iran is expected to hold a presidential election on June 18 in which incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, a relatively moderate reformist, cannot run again.

If the negotiations are not successful, Iran’s supreme leader may wish to see a hard-liner assume the presidency to confront the United States over the next four years. Even if the negotiations successfully continue, they may not bear enough fruit before the election, meaning a moderate reformist may not have a chance to succeed Mr. Rouhani.

Returning to the original deal

The JCPOA was not made of Lego blocks. It was always more like a fresh fruit salad that could spoil if not eaten in time. Trump’s impulsiveness and overeager attitude changed the entire game. If either Washington or Tehran made concessions, their domestic critics would have questioned their judgement.

On March 4, 2019, I wrote “As in the 1930s, we are entering once more an era of uncertainties where decisions by ‘intuition, coincidence and misjudgment’ prevail again. Trump, Moon, Kim or Xi have already started making such irreversibly wrong decisions and they will most likely continue to do so.” It was about East Asia then.

The Middle East is no exception now. “Political decisions by intuition, coincidence and misjudgment” I also wrote “creates a ‘new normal’ under which another series of wrong decisions continue to be made … .” The JCPOA could be another perfect example of such an unpleasant truth.

Who wants to kill the deal?

Finally, there are many so-called “assassins” who want to destroy the 2015 nuclear agreement, all for different reasons. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, for example, has been skeptical about an Iran-U.S. dialogue. Israel will be deeply concerned if the dialogue takes place. And of course, there are the anti-Iran hard-liners in Washington.

What if it fails?

Before Mr. Rouhani became president, the Middle East was a paradise for hard-liners. The neocons in the United States, the ultraconservatives in Israel and the IRCG in Iran hated and fought each other while also taking advantage of the chaos.

To me, it’s eerie and feels like deja vu. If the hard-liners from the three sides return to their belligerent ways, once such a vicious cycle resumes, it will take years, if not decades, for the international community to stop the global process of nuclear proliferation.

Does Tokyo need to be involved?

That is an affirmative. But make no mistake, it is not because Japan wants to become a member of the P5+2 framework, as some in Tehran might have misunderstood. It is simply because Japan wishes to see stability in the Gulf and ultimately a free and open Indo-Pacific region.