By M.A. Saki

Ex-assistant secretary of state proposes ‘a return to private negotiation’ to revive JCPOA

February 20, 2021 - 21:32

TEHRAN - Thomas Countryman, a top arms control official in the Obama administration, suggests “a return to private negotiation” between Iran and the United States for a revitalization of the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Iran and the new Biden administration are caught in a standoff on who should take the first step to restore the JCPOA.

Officials in Tehran say it is the United States that quit the JCPOA in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions, and naturally it should be the first side to return to the agreement and lift sanctions. 

In response to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran waited for a whole year that the remaining parties to the nuclear agreement, especially the European trio (E3), to protect the Islamic Republic from U.S. sanctions. However, seeing no tangible action Iran started to gradually reduce its commitments to the JCPOA in accordance with paragraph 36 of the JCPOA.

But, in December the Parliament (Majlis) adopted a legislation forcing the Rouhani government to speed up nuclear activities in order to force the U.S. and other parties to the JCPOA to lift sanctions on Iran. The parliamentary legislation, called “Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions and Protect the Nation’s Rights”, also obliges the government to suspend the Additional Protocol to the NPT if sanctions are not lifted by February 21. 

However, Iran has extended the deadline to February 23. Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, visited Tehran on Saturday to hold talks with Iranian officials about suspension of the Additional Protocol. 
Iran has been insisting that it will immediately reverse its remedial measures if sanctions are lifted. 

Countryman says, “From an Iranian perspective, that the U.S. - which first violated the JCPOA - should move first to restore it makes sense logically, legally and politically. But imagine for a moment if the February 21 deadline had been set by Washington instead of Tehran.  If the U.S. had said ‘Iran has until February 21 to resume full cooperation, or else....’, the Iranian reaction would have been ‘We don’t respond to ultimatums and deadlines’. Any Iranian government that did move in response to a deadline would face withering criticism from opponents at home.”

The former top diplomat says the ratification by the Iranian Parliament is considered an ultimatum and the Biden administration does not want to “allow a perception” that it is bowing to the pressure by Iran.

“Whether or not the Iranian Majlis would admit that its legislation is intended to pressure the U.S., it is - de facto - an ultimatum.  And it should not be surprising that the Biden Administration does not want to allow a perception that it folded in the face of an Iranian ultimatum,” notes Countryman, the current chair of the Arms Control Association board of directors who served as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation during the Obama administration. 

The former top diplomat criticizes the United States and Iran for issuing ultimatums, making threats and setting deadlines for each other, believing such an approach puts pressure on each side.  

“Ultimatums, threats, deadlines, and negotiating through public statements are all ways that the U.S. and Iran have usually dealt with each other.  Usually, such tactics bring as much pressure upon oneself as they do upon the other side,” Countryman remarks.

He says both President Joe Biden and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani seek reactivation of the nuclear deal and to achieve such a goal both the United States and Iran need to conduct private negotiations.

“To get back to full implementation of the JCPOA - a goal shared by both Presidents - will require an end to the obsession with “who will move first?” and a return to private negotiation,” Countryman suggests.


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