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Iran JCPOA deal: To be, or not to be?

Apr 19, 2022

Will there, or will there not, in the end really be an agreement between the US and Iran, and the other UN Security Council, 5 plus Germany plus the EU?

If finally yes, against all, or difficult, odds – huge relief in the context of the Ukraine crisis. If no, or endless further protraction – huge regional uncertainties, and grave concern in capitals such as Baghdad, Jerusalem, Riyad and Abu Dhabi.

All eyes are now on the acute Ukraine crisis with all its regional and global implications – security crisis, energy crisis, nourishment crisis, migration crisis, potential global economic crisis, global health crisis and climate crisis, and more, all now directly and/or indirectly linked to Russia´s war with Ukraine. Indeed a tall European, transatlantic and global order. And a real threat to the multilateral order built in stages since WW2.

But then there are also the various regional security crisis areas; North Korea, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Syria, Libya, Cyprus, Yemen, Ethiopia, Sudan, Nagorno Karabach, Venezuela, and others, all crying out for engagement on the part of the (so-called) International Community – some frozen but dangerous, some open wounds, and dangerous.

And then there is Iran and the JCPOA issue, the key to Middle East stability. “Time is running out” for a solution and an agreement, said State Secretary Blinken already in January this year before the eighth round of proxy talks in Vienna. And now we are in mid-April and time should really be running out. On the other hand, on February 24 Ukraine happened, and before that Russia and Iran had entered into a comprehensive bilateral agreement. And after the start of the Russian invasion and Western decisions on punitive sanction, the Russian side made acceptance of the JCPOA conditional upon US acceptance ´that these sanctions would not affect Russian-Iranian trade.  Still, for all these added problems and the inherited heap of problems facing the Biden administration from the onset, diplomatic leaks indicated towards the end of March that a JCPOA deal was indeed almost a done deal, with very few problem items left to solve. There was, more or less, just the IRGC issue as the remaining stone in the shoe: Iranian last-minute demands that the US remove from its terror list the Khomeni-founded Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. So far, the US official response has been a resounding no.

Time running out for JCPOA?

So where does that leave the JCPOA, now that time supposedly is really running out? Could it be that the IRGC issue comes in handy as a comfortably exit for those (e-g- Israel and the GOP pro-Israel lobby in the US) not trusting the original 2015 JCPOA deal to be relevant and trustworthy in the context of Ukraine 2022, that is those that never trusted it to be a sufficient shield against Iranian nuclear weapon ambitions and as a deterrent against Iran´s regional power projection? Even though all other hurdles, and these were many and varied, were and are said to have been (miraculously) overcome. In spite of mounting tensions over Ukraine.

So if there is compromise agreement now on the ratio between US sanctions relief and an IAEA oversighted Iranian return to compliance with the original JCPOA as regards nuclear limitations, and on all the other sticky and politically controversial points, is it conceivable that there could be compromise agreement also on the (remaining) IRGC issue, having come this far?

This seems unlikely, given the stark contrast and contradiction concerning this issue as between the two sides. It is questionable that the Biden administration, currently preoccupied with the Ukraine crisis, could politically afford to confront allied Israel over this symbolic issue, and Iran can be expected to regard the IRGC as an existential issue that the Teheran regime can hardly afford domestically to sacrifice. And perhaps Iran now feels that with the back-up agreements it now has with both China and Russia, its need for sanctions relief as a result of a demanding compromise with the arch enemy, “the big Satan”, is now significantly less. And perhaps the Biden administration, focusing on Putin-Russia´s economic and political international isolation, is now tempted to feel that a JCPOA compromise solution would be so messy in implementation that costs override benefits, in spite of all the diplomatic efforts it has taken to seek a solution (even if European allies would strong disagree – fearing the consequences).

In case of JCPOA failure – is there a Plan B?

On the other hand, yes, there is the fear of the consequences of a failed JCPOA effort, so much so that ending the negotiations and admittance of final failure will be a hard bargain of blame gaming. For apparently there is no Plan B, in case of JCPOA failure, and (mutual) admittance of it. At least no US Plan B. Just like there was no US/Biden Plan B to the decision to terminate US military presence in Afghanistan.

And no wonder there is no Plan B, as the alternative to pressing on with the JCPOA proximity talks in Vienna even though “time is running – or has run – out”. For how could there be a thought-through Plan B on how – for the US and its European partners - to handle the myriad of uncertainties that would be the new reality after a JCPOA failure. How would Israel, deeply concerned about the JCPOA prospects generally and the fragile Bennet-Lapid government shaken and stirred by coalition unrest, react in this scenario? What would a JCPOA failure mean for the remainders of effective multilateralism? What would be the consequences for Iran-Arab relations, and for neighboring Iraq, squeezed between the main parties to the Middle East conflicts? And, especially, what would be the consequences for the cause of nuclear non-proliferations. All this, and more, a huge set of challenges for any US administration, no matter how preoccupied with the mother of security challenges, Ukraine, and Russia.

So, in view of this, prolonging the JCPOA talks, nonetheless, should be the preferred horn of the dilemma, as long as this option remains in the offing – for the US. But a lot is at stake, for regional and global peace.


Michael Sahlin