Keeping with my developing interest in US-Middle Eastern relations, last night I attended a talk led by Dr. Ali Vaez and OU’s Dr. Joshua Landis entitled “Iran & the US: Will Diplomacy Work?” The discussion was based around the current negotiations between the US and Iran regarding a return to JCPOA and a potential new nuclear deal.
Dr. Ali Vaez is particularly suited to talk on this subject; he is the Crisis Group’s Iran Project Director, as well as Senior Advisor to the President. He led the Crisis Group in consultations that helped lead to the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the US, and he is well positioned to offer insightful observations about the current status of US-Iran relations.
A brief overview of the situation: In 2015, the US and Iran came to an agreement wherein Iran would cease its pursuit of nuclear knowledge and development of nuclear weapons, and in exchange would become more integrated into the European economy. Under the Trump administration, the US not only left the deal but imposed economic sanctions on Iran despite Iran holding to their obligations set forth by the deal. The Biden administration is trying to persuade Iran to reenter the deal, but currently they are facing a bit of a stalemate, wherein neither side wants to make a substantial first step towards compliance with the deal until the other does.
I already knew most of the above because of a global security course I’m currently taking. However, Dr. Vaez offered some insights and new information that I was not aware of.
Dr. Vaez discussed how the Biden administration would like to achieve full compliance with JCPOA before the end of the summer. This summer, Iran will be holding their presidential election, and the possibility is very high that the current administration will be replaced with a more conservative administration. Dr. Vaez said that from his point of view, it would be best and easiest if the US could convince the current administration to reenter JCPOA (since the current administration was the one to negotiate the deal initially) and then strive to negotiate a new deal with the incoming administration, which would probably be easier to do since there would be less infighting and less mistrust between the deep government and the new administration.
The trick is to get the current administration to agree to reenter JCPOA.
So far, the US has not taken any meaningful steps towards lifting economic sanctions. Biden has taken some symbolic steps, but lifting economic sanctions against Iran has been unpopular in Congress, and Biden needs Congress’s support. Until the US does take a meaningful first step, Iran seems unwilling to budge first. Compounding to this stalemate is the fact that the whole matter has become a bit of a public feud. The technicalities of trying to reenter the deal would have been better negotiated behind closed doors, out of the public eye, but instead the blame game is being played out in front of the entire world.
From Iran’s perspective, they are the aggrieved party. The US made this deal, and then they left this deal, and Iran did everything that was asked of them. Dr. Vaez said that they have been expecting some manner of mea culpa apology from the US ever since Biden’s inauguration, and the absence of one and the length of time it took for Biden to address Iranian economic sanctions has not encouraged enthusiasm on Iran’s part to make the first move.
This lecture over current Iran-US relations, as well as the global security course I’m taking, have really opened my eyes to the intricacies of global politics and the puzzle like nature of diplomacy. I’m reminded of playing of Catan with my family, where every party needs something, and you’re trying to negotiate in such a way that you ensure a good outcome for yourself while also maintaining goodwill with your allies/trading partners. Nothing is black and white in global politics, and all of the discussion and negotiation around restarting the Iranian nuclear deal is a prime example. It is up to the Biden administration and Iran’s government to decide on which path to take, and hopefully they decide on one that will benefit both our countries.
Dr. Vaez says, the best way forward? Direct communication, back and forth modest and incremental steps towards reentering compliance, and beginning with both sides each taking at least one step.