Unnamed sources have said that Americans close to the Biden team quietly but informally began last November talking to some Iranian leaders to rekindle diplomacy over the agreement. 

American politicians who originally opposed the agreement even as it was being negotiated have been warning ever since Joe Biden won the presidency that the United States should not restore it. If there are talks about bringing back the agreement, they say, these must include discussion of Iran’s missile development program and some of its other actions in the Middle East that they view as destabilizing. A number of these critics are the same people who were eager to invade Iraq 18 years ago as part of a twisted version of Pax Americana. Some of them have in the past called for taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities despite the potential for a deadly response by the Tehran government, which has its own hardliners who also opposed the nuclear deal from the outset.

Opposition to the agreement isn’t exclusive to Republicans. When the Senate voted on it six years ago, four prominent Democrats voted against—Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, and Chuck Schumer of New York. Whether they see why it’s better to have than not have an agreement, even a flawed one, remains to seen.

On the other side, Iran’s Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said last week that continued U.S. sanctions may push his nation to reverse its vow not to pursue nuclear weapons. On state television, he said, “Our nuclear program is a peaceful program and the supreme leader clearly said in his fatwa that producing nuclear weapons is against religious law and the Islamic Republic will not pursue it and considers it forbidden. But let me tell you, if you corner a cat it might behave differently than a cat roaming free. If they push Iran in that direction, it would not be Iran’s fault but the fault of those who pushed Iran.”

When Trump withdrew from the agreement, reimposed the old sanctions, and added new ones, it  didn’t force Iran to bend. Rather, in a series of step-by-step actions announced in advance, Tehran has rebuilt a large stockpile of low-enriched uranium, enriching some uranium to 20%; made a few grams of uranium metal; installed more uranium concentrating centrifuges than allowed; and used advanced centrifuges—all violations of the agreement. Its leaders say it remains under no obligation to comply with the agreement since the United States doesn’t. But Iranian leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani, have said they will only return to full compliance after the U.S. does. The Biden White House has said it won’t take action on sanctions until Iran returns to fully complying with all the agreement’s provisions, something international inspectors repeatedly reported the Islamic republic had done prior to Trump’s withdrawal.

The U.K., France, and Germany—the European nations that participated in negotiating the JCPOA—followed up Blinken’s call with a joint statement with the United States calling on Iran to return to ”strict compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA, the United States will do the same and is prepared to engage in discussions with Iran toward that end.” That doesn’t explicitly say so, but if the United States were itself to return to strict compliance, that would obviously require a lifting of sanctions.

Separately, on Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel talked on the phone to Rouhani, according to the German foreign affairs office, telling him that it is “now time for positive signals that create trust and raise the chances of a diplomatic solution.” She “expressed her concern that Iran continues to fail to meet its obligations under the nuclear agreement,” Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in an official statement. The high-level meeting came in response to Iran’s ambassador Kazem Gharibabadi’s letter to The International Atomic Energy Agency, which stated that Iran was going to impose the restrictions on short-notice inspectors, effective Feb. 23.

On Friday, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif repeated on Twitter that when the sanctions are lifted, “we will then immediately reverse all remedial measures. Simple.” 

Not so simple, really. Since Trump’s withdrawal, Rouhani has taken immense flak from the hardliners. Nasser Hadian, a professor of political science at Tehran University, says the lingering impact of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal “has been tremendous. Certainly, it has strengthened the radicals, and discredited those who have supported Europe and the U.S.” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei scolded Rouhani for trusting the Americans, with whom negotiations are “poison.”

Jalil Bayat, a lecturer of international relations at Allameh Tabataba’i University in Tehran, writes at Responsible Statecraft:

It’s clear that the position of reformists, notably President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, has been severely weakened, having put their trust in the United States to abide by the JCPOA. In rallies to celebrate the 42nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution earlier this month, anti-Rouhani slogans in a number of cities were common. And Zarif has been called a traitor by powerful members of parliament. Hence, it seems that the continuation of the current situation will leave the moderates and those favoring relations with the West with declining chances in June’s presidential election. A candidate running on a platform in favor of leaving the NPT and manufacturing nuclear weapons could well emerge among the top ranks.

As noted recently by Biden’s Special Envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, the Supreme Leader will remain the ultimate decision-maker regardless of who succeeds Rouhani after the election. While accurate, however, this view may prove too optimistic particularly given Iran’s recalcitrance during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eight years as president. As Zarif has repeatedly warned, the window of opportunity for serious diplomacy between Tehran and Washington is now closing.

Without negotiations a breaking point is sure to be reached, with a potentially grim outcome. A senior State Department official told The Guardian Thursday, “We’re not going to resolve this unilaterally. We’re not going to resolve this in a vacuum. We’re not going to resolve it by assuming that one side is going to take steps on its own. The only way this is going to happen—if it is going to happen—I assume will be a painstaking additional process. It will take some time for both sides to agree what they will define as ‘compliance for compliance’.”

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