Samuel M. Hickey and Manuel Reinert
President Joe Biden’s much-discussed plans to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal are off to a bad start. After six rounds, indirect talks between Washington and Tehran were put on hold last June until Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, could take office on Aug. 5. Now, almost a month later, there is still no indication of when the next diplomatic session will take place.
By all accounts, Iranian leaders are eager to alleviate sanctions and revive the Islamic Republic’s moribund economy. However, they also took a number of steps, such as rapid uranium enrichment and research into uranium metals, that make a return to the deal difficult. Only by correctly interpreting the source of these mixed signals from Tehran will it be possible to determine whether the current impasse in talks can ultimately be overcome.
Iran appears to have embarked on a confusing high-stakes negotiating strategy as a result of both domestic political fissures and President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and renewal of sanctions, along with a series of high-profile assassinations and sabotage attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities, increased the popularity of Iranian hardliners and facilitated their return to power. In December 2020, while the moderate Rouhani administration was still in charge of the government, hardliners in Iran’s parliament (Majles) passed a law that requires Iran to advance its nuclear program in threatening ways until sanctions are lifted. This law, promoted over the objections of the departing administration, substantially limits the flexibility of Iranian diplomats and is a major obstacle to reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The question now is how the hardliners, after taking control of the government, will deal with the consequences of their December law and other escalatory moves. The ball is in Tehran’s court, and there is little that Biden and the rest of the world can do besides hold their ground and wait to see what the regime decides.
Raising the Stakes
As a result of the Iranian parliament’s actions, Iran’s nuclear program has advanced substantially. Iran is now enriching uranium up to 60 percent, far above the nuclear deal’s cap of 3.67 percent. Further, as part of a multi-stage process to produce fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, Iran is also producing uranium metal enriched up to 20 percent. The International Atomic Energy Agency recently confirmed that Iran has produced 200 grams of this metal, up from 3.6 grams in February.
Uranium metal can be used for civilian purposes or to make the core of a nuclear bomb. While the international community remains skeptical, Iran claims that it aims to produce uranium silicide fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. In practice, the reactor would irradiate uranium silicide pellets to produce medical isotopes, commonly used in diagnostic procedures for cancer and heart disease. However, on the road to producing this sophisticated uranium fuel, Iran must work with uranium metal, and this sort of metallurgy was banned for 15 years under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Russia’s response offers perhaps the best illustration of how serious Iran’s escalation is: In a break from its past whitewashing of Iran’s nuclear behavior, Moscow now believes that “Iran seems to be going too far.” In a joint statement, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have also registered their grave concern, arguing that Iran’s enrichment and production of uranium metal are both key steps in the development of a nuclear weapon and that Iran has no credible civilian need for either measure.
Raising the stakes further, these new activities are occurring while Iran has suspended a special monitoring agreement with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. With its December law, the Majles imposed a deadline to restrict inspectors’ access to Iranian nuclear facilities absent sanctions relief from the United States. At that point the agency and the Rouhani government negotiated a three-month work-around agreement that reportedly provided inspectors with the means to reconstitute a full picture of Iran’s nuclear program if the nuclear deal were to be revived. While the agency is flying blind for now, when sanctions are lifted they should subsequently get access to monitoring equipment that continues to watch Iran’s program in the meantime. The three months ended in May, but Tehran may have unofficially allowed monitoring to continue. Now, however, some of the recording devices need to be replaced and if they are not, the world may never be able to fully account for the activities of Iran’s nuclear program during this period. The resulting uncertainty could exacerbate existing tensions between the United States and Iran, as well as accelerate anxiety in Israel, which has long threatened a dangerous preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program.
What Is Tehran Trying to Signal?
Contrary to the image often found in US media, Iran’s foreign policy apparatus is not a monolith, nor can it be simply characterized as a top-down decision-making structure with the supreme leader exercising full authority from above. Ariane Tabatabai, now a senior adviser at the State Department, wrote in 2019 that Iran’s national security decision-making process can be better characterized as a “bargaining process, in which infighting and consensus-building shape policy outputs.”
These tensions and disagreements within the system were on full display in the debate over last December’s nuclear law. Following the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020, Iran’s parliament voted to manufacture uranium metal, suspend international nuclear inspections, and vastly increase uranium enrichment. Former Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and others associated with his administration have specifically blamed the Majles and the December 2020 nuclear law for the subsequent failure to lift US sanctions. “My administration did all the things to lift the sanctions,” Rouhani recently argued. “If the parliament law had not stopped us, we would have lifted the sanctions almost before Norouz [March 21, 2021].” His spokesman Ali Rabiei also criticized parliamentary “interference” with the executive branch, saying, “The government was from day one consistently opposed to parliament’s unusual path.”
Now, however, hardliners dominate the government, and it will be their strategy that determines the fate of nuclear negotiations. During the 2020 parliamentary elections, Iran’s Guardian Council excluded many of the more moderate and reformist candidates from contention, leaving the conservative Principalists faction with a decisive majority. Winning 221 of the 290 seats, they more than doubled their presence in the Majles. Moreover, the Supreme Leader handpicked Raisi to be president, endorsing the new president’s belief that only a powerful government can properly implement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The supreme leader also exerts considerable control over much of Raisi’s cabinet.
After Raisi’s election, an “implementation committee” was formed to help forge an internal consensus on how to approach nuclear negotiations. Created by the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Iran’s top decision-making body, it consists of representatives from the Rouhani administration, the incoming Raisi administration, and the Majles. It is unknown if the committee has come to a consensus yet. In July, this committee reportedly determined that the draft roadmap that Rouhani’s team had negotiated “is incompatible with the law passed by parliament in December about resuming Iran’s nuclear program.” The question is whether this is simply political posturing aimed at increasing Raisi’s leverage or, more ominously, a firm red line from the Iranian regime.
The Ball Is in Iran’s Court
It remains likely that the hardliners running Iran see a resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, with any concessions and sanctions relief that can be squeezed out of Washington, to be in their best interest. However, negotiations require flexibility and can easily be derailed by existing red lines. The December law was a show of force by hard-liners while the Rouhani administration was in office. Hardliners are now in control of the negotiations and are realizing that their maximalist stance is not going to achieve much. Unhappy with the status quo, they would like to see a breakthrough but seem to be hesitating over what strategy to adopt. This has led to a short-term approach that combines radical escalation and very partial compliance. The result, so far, is confusion, delays, and stalemate.
If Raisi and his government stick to maximalist demands — like making sanctions relief irreversible — while moving ahead with their escalatory measures, a return to the deal may soon become impossible. Iran would likely continue to advance its nuclear program, which could lead the United States to retaliate with more punitive economic sanctions. If tensions do escalate, it is possible that Iran could further reduce cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and its nuclear program could be referred back to the United Nations Security Council. At this point, Russia’s position on whether Iran had gone too far would become crucial.
Where Will Biden Go From Here?
The Biden administration’s initial optimism about reviving the nuclear deal is rapidly waning. Biden’s point man on the issue, Robert Malley, now assesses the future of the deal as “just one big question mark.” Senior US diplomats appear set on rejecting any concessions to Iran’s escalatory negotiating strategy. As one official said, “If they think they can get more, or give less to return to a deal … it is illusory.” Furthermore, the Biden administration will be wary not to waste additional domestic political capital on foreign policy, especially after Afghanistan. According to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “We have clearly demonstrated our good faith and desire to return to mutual compliance with the nuclear agreement … The ball remains in Iran’s court and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance.”
This is the right approach. For now, US negotiators should continue to wait and see whether Iran is willing to return to talks in Vienna. Ultimately, compromises on both sides will be necessary. But there are several reasons why it would not make sense to preemptively offer the hardliners a “better” deal.
First, Iran is now far from the guidelines of the original deal. Enriching uranium to 60 percent, even if this is in response to an act of sabotage against the Natanz nuclear facility, demonstrates the pursuit of capabilities with no civilian purpose. Second, Washington should not give the hardliners an easy win. Allowing them to use their undemocratic election to accumulate greater leverage would undermine the administration’s efforts to promote more moderate interlocutors in Iran. Finally, the better deal Iran wants may not be possible. Tehran would like to see Biden guarantee that a future US president cannot reimpose sanctions. But the nature of American democracy means that this isn’t a promise that Biden can make.
Despite all of the obstacles, reviving the nuclear deal should theoretically be easy. Iran wants sanctions relief, and the United States wants constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. While both the United States and Iran have accumulated bargaining chips, further escalation is possible, and it will be up to the new Iranian government to decide how to move forward and manage its own domestic politics. There is room for compromise on the timing and sequencing of a return to compliance with the nuclear deal. But hard decisions should be made now before the situation needlessly spirals out of hand.