The Iran Nuclear Deal: From ‘Maximum Pressure’ to a Chance for Diplomacy




President-elect Joe Biden wants to rejoin the Iran nuclear accord, a deal that would limit Tehran’s nuclear program.

Biden hopes to reach a broad and long-lasting agreement.

The murder of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has damaged the diplomatic process.

The Nov. 27 murder of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, assumed to be the main architect of Iran’s nuclear program after the 1979 revolution, has angered Tehran. A mere days afterward, the Iranian parliament passed a new law allowing the country to stop United Nations inspections of its nuclear sites and to speed up uranium enrichment. Iran has stated that, should the current crippling economic sanctions not be lifted within two months, the provisions of the new law will go into effect. Yet, despite this, official news from government representatives show that the existing expectations for negotiations with the United States remain unchanged.

Iran does not want to appear weak; it is also difficult to ignore the wishes of Iranian hard-liners wishes for retaliation. Yet the Iranian leadership can only benefit if it continues the “strategic patience” policy it employed this year until Joe Biden becomes president on Jan. 20.

Who Will Take the 1st Step?

It is believed that Fakhrizadeh’s murder was the work of Israel, done with the blessing of Donald Trump’s administration. The killing was “clearly meant to wreck the prospects of Iranian-American diplomacy on the eve of Biden’s inauguration,”

Maysam Behravesh and Erwin Van Veen wrote in Foreign Policy. But if Iran refrains from confrontation until the new presidential administration, there might still be a chance for a renewal of nuclear talks.

In May 2018, President Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal, a pact that limited Iran’s nuclear program and allowed for inspections in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Trump employed a policy of “maximum pressure,” reinstated economic sanctions on Tehran, and, in response, Iran ceased to comply with parts of the agreement. President-elect Biden stated that he will rejoin the accord, originally signed by Barack Obama, and that he will lift the current sanctions if Iran continues with “strict compliance of the nuclear deal.”

This is good news for the Islamic Republic and the other signatories of the agreement (Great Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia) which never lost hope of America’s return to original accord. In August, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, stated that he hopes for a “stronger and stronger” future nuclear accord with Iran. The question is who will take the initiative.

“There will be secret discussions that will determine this. Currently, it seems that the Americans want Iran to take the first step while Iran insists on an American overture. This will be decided through negotiations, including what each step of the process will look like. There are several ideas about what Iran must do to entice the U.S. to return to the agreement, and vice versa,”* said Sir Richard John Dalton, former British ambassador to Iran. Dalton hopes that after Jan. 20, and perhaps even before then, there will be a mutual desire to begin quiet negotiations between Tehran and Washington beyond the presence of the media.

Iran Must Meet New Conditions

Iran’s economy shrunk by 5.4% in 2018 and 6.5% in 2019. It is expected that it will continue to shrink in 2020. Yearly inflation has reached 30%, Iran’s currency has plummeted. “Were Mr. Biden to jump back into the nuclear deal quickly, it would mean lifting the sharpest sanctions and giving up much of this leverage. That would be a mistake. The president-elect says he wants to reestablish trust with America’s allies, but he will do that by negotiating competently, not by rolling over,” the Economist reported. The Economist asserts there are intermediate steps Biden could take to lower the pressure, as he is in a position to negotiate a broad and long-lasting agreement.

Biden has said that he will strengthen parts of the deal and extend restrictions ending at uncoordinated times. Critics of the deal have attacked these very aspects of it: its short-term clauses, its inability to police Iran’s missile program, and Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region. Is a stronger deal involving so many parts possible?

“Iran must make a commitment to discussing such questions. This can happen after a period of time has passed, a period that includes the revival of the nuclear deal with the U.S. I do not see why an agreement on missiles and regional activity could not occur. But I do not believe that it is possible to reach a deal on the renewal of the nuclear deal in addition to these added questions at the very beginning,”* Dalton said.

Trump’s “maximum pressure” has hurt Iran, which has been cut off from the world economy. But the current administration has not been serious about reaching a new agreement. Currently Tehran is closer to the creation of a nuclear bomb than it was in 2016 – the beginning of Trump’s term. Trump’s actions have strengthened Iran’s hard-liners and weakened politicians who are willing to talk to the West. Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, who negotiated the nuclear deal, must leave his post due to term limits next year. A possible hard-liner president will make negotiations difficult.

In an interview with The New York Times, Biden said that “it will be difficult” but that “the last goddamn thing we need in that part of the world is a buildup of nuclear capability.” Only diplomacy can prevent that.

A Clear Stance

Dalton does not think that Iran will successfully reach an agreement with the U.S. that will compensate for the damage Trump’s sanctions have done to Iran’s economy. “It is currently unclear where the balance is between the maximalist requirements of both countries. It will take a few weeks to clear the air. Perhaps a few rounds of discussions in December, January, and perhaps February will occur before a direction becomes apparent,” the former ambassador concluded.*

Editor’s Note: Although accurately translated, this quote could not be independently verified.

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