Is a Minimalist JCPOA in the Works?

Domestic and foreign policy concerns have changed completely since last September when negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action were halted, and both officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Conservative majority in the Iranian Parliament have given positive signs of their desire to revive the deal. Domestically, political and economic pressures are greater than they have been in decades. Internationally, too, the mental shock from the Chinese president’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia and the backlash over accusations of the use of Iranian drones in the war in Ukraine have drastically changed the outlook for Iran. Despite what many officials expected, there has been no opening either in the outcome of the war or in the energy crisis, and there’s still no sign of the “cold winter in Europe” that was promised. Add to that Russia’s increasing difficulties in its war of attrition in Ukraine and the potential of Vladimir Putin himself taking a domestic hit from the war. The war in Ukraine has not led to greater unity in the eastern camp as many thought it might. Given these circumstances, we will soon see Iran send a strong signal that it is ready to negotiate and revive the JCPOA. But the chilly response that Western powers will likely give to that signal raises several questions:

1. Given the West’s position, is there any hope for resuming negotiations to revive the JCPOA?

2. If the West does return to the negotiating table, what kind of agreement can we expect to see revived?

3. What would conditions be like if the JCPOA were revived, and more importantly, what kind of relationship could we expect with the West after its revival?

As for the first question, despite the West’s reluctance so far, sooner or later it will most likely return to negotiations. For that to happen, two important factors will be the end of the current protests in Iran and the details of Iran’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis. There could be two reasons for the reluctance that the U.S. and to a greater degree Europe have shown so far. First, they fear the consequences that negotiations and cooperation with Iran could have on their own domestic politics. One of the particular aspects of the current outlook is Europe’s more negative position toward Iran relative to the U.S. Traditionally, Europe, which is closer to our region and which is more likely to be affected by crises in the Middle East and eager to access the Iranian market, has always had a greater desire to work with Iran. But this time, the reaction of European officials to signs from Iran have been either negative, like those from Germany, or complete silence. Whereas the Americans continue to announce that diplomacy is the best solution, yet the revival of the JCPOA is not on their current agenda; European officials have not discussed diplomacy as a response to their issues with Iran in a while. Last Wednesday, a spokesperson for the German Federal Foreign Office even said, “From our point of view, there are currently no indications or reasons for a resumption of the Iran nuclear negotiations.” Nevertheless, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell could also play a useful role in breaking the ice between the two parties. However, based on a critical tweet that he wrote after meeting recently with Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Jordan, it appears he doesn’t currently see himself in a position to coordinate anything. Borrell is currently the only path left, but as long as that path exists, there is no good reason for a great nation like Iran to try to resort to the Arab microstates that just recently issued a hostile statement with China against Iran.

As for the second question, it is likely that the West will still want to work off of the “final text” that Borrell announced on Aug. 8 and a revival of the 2015 JCPOA as a base and, as in the past, refuse to discuss other issues by claiming that they are beyond the scope of the agreement. If recent statements by former Foreign Affairs Minister Kamal Kharazi are any indication, Iran may also be ready to put those issues aside. In this case, only the issue of safeguards remains, and it is still possible that the other side could insist on the relevant paragraphs in Borrell’s “final text” and demand that Iran resolve the issue with the International Atomic Energy Agency. We could even see the West take a stricter line toward implementing the agreement.

The third and most important question is to what degree can a revival of the JCPOA under these conditions help advance normalization of trade and economic relations between Iran and the rest of the world as is called for in clause 29 of the agreement and in the preamble of U.N. Resolution 2231. It is likely that any new agreement will be less of an achievement for Iran when compared to the original 2015 JCPOA. If current conditions persist, the agreement would likely only ease restrictions on Iranian oil sales, business exchanges and related banking operations and would not incentivize further economic cooperation. In fact, the U.S.’ previous withdrawal from the agreement and changes over the past several months, including the involvement of the Financial Action Task Force, could make international companies and banks even more reluctant to work with Iran than before.

According to its preamble, the JCPOA is supposed to help bring about peace and security both in the region and around the globe. If such a perspective no longer exists, it is likely that even if they agree to revive a minimalist version of the JCPOA, the Western parties will use other methods such as sanctions on various goods to cut into Iran’s potential revenue gains from the agreement. Another important question is whether under this new agreement, the Western powers will use sanctions unrelated to the nuclear program to pursue the so-called next step that Joe Biden mentioned early in his term, meaning negotiations for a longer, stronger deal and negotiations over the sunset provisions. The sunset provisions in particular will almost certainly become an issue sooner rather than later, since according to the current agreement, the limits on Iranian missiles are to be lifted in October 2023, Resolution 2231 and the trigger mechanism included therein will expire in 2025, and limitations on enrichment will expire in 2030.

These questions and uncertainties, along with potentially many others, are currently under consideration, and it is unlikely that the Islamic Republic’s usual foreign policy tactics will be able to successfully deal with them. As such, a change in foreign policy is necessary.

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply