Iran tasting ‘victory’ in resisting Trump, won't succumb to more maximum pressure: Ashton, Hagel

January 23, 2021 - 9:59

TEHRAN – Former European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who led nuclear negotiations with Iran before Federica Mogherini, and former U.S. defense secretary Chuck Hagel believe it is a “flawed” idea to imagine that building on Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign will make Tehran give more concessions, noting Iran that has tasted “victory” in resisting Trump, “will not succumb to more maximum pressure.”

“The American “get more now” camp argues the world has changed, so a simple return to the Iran nuclear deal is not viable. Its proponents think that the United States should leverage maximum pressure to extract more concessions from Iran on missiles, regional behavior, and sunset clauses. This argument is flawed because Iran, after tasting “victory” in resisting Trump, will not succumb to more maximum pressure,” Ashton and Hagel wrote in The Hill on Thursday.

“A return to the Iran nuclear deal is the necessary first step,” insisted Ashton, who is now the global European chair at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Hagel, also a former Republican senator from Nebraska.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed that put limits on its nuclear program in exchange for termination of crippling sanctions. However, Trump unilaterally pulled out of the agreement and introduced the harshest sanctions – nuclear and non-nuclear ones - in history on Iran. 

Exactly one year after the return of sanction, Iran announced that its strategic patience is over and started to gradually remove cap on its nuclear work. 

Following is an excerpt of the Ashton-Hagel article titled “How to revive the Iran nuclear deal”:

The Trump administration withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 and the maximum pressure policy has undermined this objective. The situation led to an escalation of the Iran nuclear program, emboldened the hardliners, decimated the domestic political opposition, increased regional tensions, and created suffering for Iranian citizens. The Biden administration faces a critical issue on how to reverse the escalation and stabilize the fragile and key region. A return to the Iran nuclear deal is the necessary first step.

Iranian President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif have reiterated a willingness for a full return to the Iran nuclear deal. President Biden has also made clear a wish to return in full. The other countries that have negotiated the Iran nuclear deal remain committed to it. But there are conflicts internally and between the parties on how to move forward.

The American “get more now” camp argues the world has changed, so a simple return to the Iran nuclear deal is not viable. Its proponents think that the United States should leverage maximum pressure to extract more concessions from Iran on missiles, regional behavior, and sunset clauses. This argument is flawed because Iran, after tasting “victory” in resisting Trump, will not succumb to more maximum pressure. Negotiations for a new agreement will take trust and time. The biggest hurdle for the United States is that any new agreement will need approval from Congress.

Further, any rule for negotiations or to establish conditionality hits the same stumbling blocks, especially in the absence of talks between the United States and Iran. One feasible action remains in the immediate term, which is a full return of the United States to the Iran nuclear deal and unilateral commitment of both sides to full compliance followed by full implementation. Preconditions must be avoided on both sides.

Under this scenario, both the United States and Iran would simultaneously announce a recommitment to obligations under the Iran nuclear deal and a rollback of actions that have undermined the agreement since 2018. For the United States, it means the lifting of all the new or reinstated nuclear sanctions and unraveling the set of psychological and legal constraints on banks and companies. This can be done through executive branch action, and the challenging process of rebuilding private sector confidence can commence with official reassurances from the Treasury Department.

For Iran, it means returning to the agreement limitations on all its nuclear material and other treaty limitations. All other countries involved in the negotiations must remain engaged with the Iran nuclear deal and provide a supportive environment for full implementation and next steps. Iran has asked for compensation for the impacts of the American withdrawal and for assurances that the United States will be in full compliance in the future. However, neither of these demands are preconditions and can be dealt with in the faithful and reciprocal return to the Iran nuclear deal.

Time is of the essence if the Iran nuclear deal is to stabilize the region. This balanced approach provides the greatest chance for success. It will enable both parties to avoid thorny issues. For Tehran, it is to not engage in unpalatable talks until there is a full return by the United States. For Washington, it is to avoid triggering the legal provision for approval from Congress, though legislative support will be important. It also avoids a hiatus for more nuclear activity by Iran. It will also circumvent delays associated with the Iranian elections this summer and tackle the restrictive aspects of legislation enacted by the Iranian parliament.

Further negotiations could and should be pursued after this first step on whether they address Iranian regional behavior, nuclear sunset clauses, the Iranian ballistic missile program, the American ability to reimpose snapback sanctions, or legitimate Iranian security concerns about United States or other arms deals in the region. Quiet preparations can run in parallel to enable the parties to engage in such talks rather swiftly.

But we cannot and should not put the cart before the horse. A return to the Iran nuclear deal now that Biden is in office will stabilize a dangerous situation and make the region and world more secure. It will also lay the necessary foundation for further negotiations on these other issues.

The real work must start to reverse the Iran nuclear program expansion and relevant United States sanctions, and then to rebuild an environment of diplomacy and establish mutually beneficial security arrangements. These next months will demand from all leaders a clear view of the perils and actions necessary for sustainable security in the Middle East.

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