In Vienna, an eighth round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program continues with little cause for hope that a deal is near. Biden Administration seeks a return of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a nuclear agreement that was signed in 2015 by Iran and the Obama Administration. It is the deal Iran, France, Germany, Russia and China agreed to. In 2018, President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of that agreement, and Biden was elected President with promises to restore it. For now, Iran’s negotiators remain at the table, but they’ve made clear Iran is far from satisfied with the terms on offer. A decision in early February by Iran’s army to show off a new long-range missile doesn’t help.
The talks aren’t dead. A return to JCPOA could be very simple. The Biden Administration appears willing to accept a deal with looser limits on nuclear activity and to lift sanctions that weren’t part of the original agreement. JCPOA will also expire within a few years. Iran wouldn’t be making long-term concessions. By signing again on the dotted line, Iran could regain access to $100 billion in frozen foreign reserves and sell more oil at a market price that’s near $100 per barrel. For an Iranian economy in desperate need of them, a return to JCPOA could open up trade and investment possibilities.
But Iran’s government, now led by hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, may not feel that Iran needs the boost. China’s willingness to ignore U.S. sanctions in order to buy Iranian oil has provided Tehran an economic lifeline it didn’t have when JCPOA was signed in 2015. That’s part of why Iran’s currency has strengthened against the dollar over the past two months to the highest level since Raisi became President.
Iran is unlikely to believe the Biden Administration’s promises. The U.S. election is imminent, and both the Houses of Congress will likely be controlled by the GOP. This party is more hostile to Iran than Democrats. Today, Republicans can’t block a Biden deal. They can, however, complicate the implementation of any Biden deal. Even with Biden’s veto, they can propose additional sanctions for Iran that could deter or slow down international investment. There is also the election in 2024. Any agreement would be rescinded if Trump returns or if a Trump-endorsed candidate is elected.
There may not be a deal because the Biden team seems distracted. With its pandemic policy in flux, inflation at historically high levels, its legislative agenda stalled, a credible risk that Russia will invade Ukraine, and a need to focus more attention on China, a new Iran deal can’t be a top priority.
The U.S. won’t remain at the bargaining table forever. Iran is now accelerating the development of its nuclear program, and Washington knows it can’t allow Iran to use endless talks as cover to build a bomb. But if bargaining breaks down completely later this spring, Iran could move quickly toward amassing enough highly enriched uranium for several bombs, advancing closer to an actual nuclear weapon than it’s ever been. If that happens, Washington will hit Iran with new sanctions, and Israel might well launch sabotage attacks on Iran’s physical and digital infrastructure. The risk of an escalating military conflict can’t be ignored.