Although the US has recently indicated that it is willing to engage in talks with Iran in a multilateral forum sponsored by the EU in order to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it has also reiterated demands that could make the deal’s revival next to impossible.
First, Washington has insisted that the issue should be linked to Iran returning to full compliance with the agreement’s limits before the US can contemplate lifting sanctions imposed by the Donald Trump administration. The European parties to the JCPOA have also veered towards the American view as the Iranian nuclear stockpile and enrichment capability has grown. Iran exceeded the JCPOA limits on the level of uranium enrichment and stockpiling of enriched uranium beginning in May 2019 after waiting for a year for the European signatories to persuade the US to return to the agreement and remove sanctions.
Second, in statements by secretary of state Antony Blinken and other officials, the Joe Biden administration has strongly signalled that the US will return to the JCPOA only when its other concerns regarding Iran are satisfied. These include reining in Iran’s growing missile capability and reversing the trajectory of its regional policy that is perceived as inimical to American interests and those of its West Asian allies. In particular, the US wants Iran to curtail its backing for groups such as Hezbollah, which it considers terrorists, and its continued support for the Assad regime.
Both these demands are based on the strange logic that Iran, which was in compliance with the JCPOA for a whole year after the American withdrawal in May 2018, should be made to pay the price for the US’s return to the agreement. This despite the fact that Iran has adopted an incremental strategy of exceeding the limits imposed by JCPOA that can be easily reversed once the US returns to the original deal. The Iranian leadership has clearly indicated that Tehran would do so once the sanctions imposed by Trump are lifted.
Simultaneously, Iran has declared numerous times that linking extraneous issues, such as its ballistic missiles programme and its regional policies, to the JCPOA is totally unacceptable to it. Commentators often forget that the Barack Obama administration in its negotiations with Tehran had originally attempted to link these issues to the signing of JCPOA, but eventually realised that this would make an agreement impossible. They concluded that in the absence of a deal, the Iranian nuclear programme would forge ahead and end with either Tehran acquiring full-fledged weapons capability or a major conflagration in West Asia that could leave the region devastated and American policy in tatters.
The American demands and the European powers’ concurrence with them are based on the bizarre reasoning that the party that was in observance of the agreement must pay the price for the return of the renegade to comply with it.
The US-EU approach also ignores the historical context in which the Iranian nuclear programme is embedded. No consideration is given to the factors that led to Tehran launching its nuclear weapons programme in the first place.
After the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini had stated in no uncertain terms that Iran will not develop any weapons of mass destruction as such an act would be “un-Islamic”. Iran stuck to this policy well into the Iran-Iraq war and started to rethink the issue only when it became known that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons. One should not forget that the US supported Iraq in more than one way during the war — providing it with so-called “agricultural credits” to help buy weapons from Russia and France as well as providing satellite imagery regarding Iranian troop deployments once the tide had turned in Tehran’s favour. Therefore, the US was also responsible at one remove in providing Iran the motive for developing nuclear weapons.
Finally, Western policy makers and analysts ignore that the original sin of introducing nuclear weapons into West Asia was committed by Israel with French help and US connivance. It is, therefore, foolhardy to assume that nuclear proliferation in West Asia can be stopped as long as Israel continues to possess nuclear weapons capability. Iranian efforts at developing nuclear weapons cannot be divorced from this reality. Realising this fact would be the beginning of wisdom for policy makers and analysts dealing with West Asia.
The writer is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University