By Saeed K. Mavadat

Iran outlines plan to tackle possible U.S. return to JCPOA

January 19, 2021 - 21:42

TEHRAN – Iranian officials have moved to elaborate on Iran’s strategy to tackle a possible U.S. willingness to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal on the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Joe Biden is going to be inaugurated as the next president of the United States in a few hours. As of January 20, Biden will be in charge of steering U.S. foreign policy, which will put his campaign promises to the test. He is expected to face a litany of pressing issues externally right from the start. The 2015 Iran nuclear deal – officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – is at the top of the list.

During his election campaign, Biden vowed to rejoin the JCPOA if he won the election. “I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal's provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern,” Biden wrote in a September op-ed for CNN.

After he won the U.S. presidential election in November, Biden said he still stood by the views articulated in the op-ed but said that rejoining the nuclear deal would be “hard.”

In a December interview with CNN, Biden echoed the same position, describing the U.S. return to the JCPOA as being “very difficult.”

“He [Trump] has pulled out to get something tougher, and what have they done? They've increased the ability for them to have nuclear material. They’re moving closer to the ability to be able to have enough material for a nuclear weapon. And there’s the missile issues,” Biden said, adding, “All those things, I think, are going to be very difficult. But I know one thing: We cannot do this alone. And that’s why we have to be part of a larger group, dealing not only with Iran, but with Russia, with China and a whole range of other issues.”

Biden did not present any detailed plan to rejoin the deal. He only expressed willingness to reenter the JCPOA but he stopped short of saying how he would do so. Besides, the president-elect did not say why rejoining the JCPOA is going to be very difficult. Biden’s vague promise to return to the JCPOA has sparked speculations in Iran that he is either trying to buy some time or planning to return to the JCPOA gradually. In other words, Biden may have decided to adopt a step-by-step strategy to keep his campaign promise on the JCPOA.

Facing such a possible scenario, Iran has moved to hedge its bets by devising a plan to cope with challenges arising from Biden’s approach toward the JCPOA. Over the past few days, several Iranian officials pointed to what Tasnim, a semi-official news agency, called Iran’s “formal position” on the possible return of the Biden White House to the nuclear deal. The news agency made an interview with Mahmoud Vaezi, the Iranian president’s chief of staff, on Monday. Vaezi outlined a step-by-step plan for Iran to revive the JCPOA in case the U.S. wanted to rejoin it.

First of all, Iranian officials have demanded that the U.S. lift all sanctions that were imposed on Iran over the course of the Trump administration. In other words, Biden should reverse what Trump did against Iran to get Iran to reverse its nuclear measures.

“What we say is that whatever has happened under Trump’s administration must go back to the pre-Trump era. We are serious about this issue,” Vaezi told Tasnim. “Therefore, all kinds of sanctions on companies and individuals should be lifted.”

But lifting sanctions may not be a cakewalk for the Biden administration as the Trump administration worked to pile up sanctions on Iran under counterterrorism sanctions authority, a move that made it difficult for Biden to provide Iran with a quick sanctions relief and revive the JCPOA in the process.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has pointed to this issue in a recent interview with the website of the office of the Leader of Islamic Revolution, saying that the situation has changed after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA on May 8, 2018. The chief diplomat pointed out that a U.S. return to the nuclear deal will no longer be enough because the U.S. has imposed pre-JCPOA sanctions and changed their logic to terrorism-related authorities, which have made the lifting of sanctions even more difficult.

Zarif said that when the JCPOA was negotiated there was a different kind of sanctions on Iran and the nuclear deal has outlined how these sanctions would be lifted but the situation has changed after the Trump administration pulled out of the JCPOA.

“Over the past four years, Trump worked to hollow out the JCPOA and impose sanctions that even if the U.S. returns to the JCPOA, they will remain in place. For example, they (the Trump administration) removed nuclear-related sanctions on our Central Bank and Petroleum Ministry and imposed sanctions on them under counterterrorism authority. They basically changed the logic of sanctions,” the Iranian foreign minister noted.

And this may have prompted Iran to devise its plan, which, according to Vaezi, includes a set of reciprocal steps. The Iranian president’s chief of staff pointed out that Iran’s policy toward the U.S. in the future would be “commitment for commitment”, “implementation for implementation,” and “announcement for announcement.”

Under this plan, Iran may not reverse its nuclear measures all at once if the Biden administration decides to phase out the lifting of sanctions on Iran gradually. Iran has said several times that its nuclear measures are reversible but it did not say it will reverse the measures in one fell swoop. Therefore, the Iranian plan is probably intended to signal that if the Biden administration is to seek a sanctions phase-out, Iran will also back down from its nuclear measures gradually.

Whether Iran’s plan succeeds in convincing the Biden administration into removing sanctions all at once remains an open question. But if both sides choose to go through a gradual process, the revival of the JCPOA will likely take longer time than expected.   

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