By Azin Sahabi

Think tanks: Who should take the first step to revive the JCPOA?

February 21, 2021 - 11:49

TEHRAN- While President Joe Biden and his close circle reiterate Washington's interest to rejoin the JCPOA, many Western experts have been underling the lack of a particular agenda to address the issue. However, reviewing policy notes published over the last two weeks by American think tanks may imply that the broader agenda will be gradually disclosed.

To commence the nuclear diplomatic process between Iran and U.S., both parties are too reluctant to take the first step. In this context, top think tanks have been implicitly and explicitly recommending that to ensure that a revival of the JCPOA would not squander the American leverage over Iran, it is Tehran who should make the first move.

At the time being, while approving Biden's insistence on the necessity of Iran's return to full compliance, experts argue that merely waiting for Tehran to take the first step before any move, Biden would make a mistake. 

In fact, at the time being, it appears that think tanks overtly urge Biden to "make the first move to revive the Iran nuclear deal."

Moreover, perhaps, Iran's parliamentary law to limit the UN inspectors' access to its nuclear activities has also contributed to this seemingly changed trend. 

The institutes which advocate this approach stress if the U.S. takes the first step in the future diplomatic process, it will boost Washington's leverage over Tehran. Therefore, the Oval Office should take the initiative to gain the upper hand in terms of negotiation with Iran to pave the way for follow-on negotiations on Iran's nuclear program and regional activities. 

In other words, the U.S. can turn its leverage meaningful and productive in case of using the JCPOA as a potential ace up its sleeve. 

 “Play cards wisely” at the table  

In an analysis published on Feb 15, Mahsa Rouhi from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs elaborates on how Biden's administration can turn the current pressure against Iran effective.

Rouhi, an expert on Iran's nuclear program, says although the "maximum pressure” campaign impaired Iran's economy, "they have not succeeded in changing Tehran's behavior regarding its nuclear program. Indeed, Iran has not offered additional concessions."

She believes that Trump's embargoes on Iran were meaningless since they were not used proportionally "to produce desired policy outcomes."

Moreover, the Belfer Centre emphasizes that "by reviving the nuclear accord, the U.S. government will not squander any sanctions leverage, but if it plays its cards wisely, it could enhance its position for follow-on negotiations on Iran's nuclear program and regional activities.”

ICG: “Cap, freeze and roll back Iran’s nuclear program”

Mentioning Iran's parliamentary law to limit the UN inspectors' access to its nuclear activities, Ali Vaez from the International Crisis Group (ICG) emphasizes that "if Biden is willing to be bold and invest the necessary political capital in resuscitating the deal," a way out of the current stand-off may be visualized.

The expert underlines: "This would need to take the form of a three-phase process that can be summed up in the non-proliferation shorthand of ‘cap, freeze, and roll back,’ and would require closely synchronized steps between the two sides."

Presenting the scheme of the first step, ICG proposes a number of recommendations "to cap the current stand-off and prevent it from escalating":

- "From the U.S. side, this would mean revoking Trump's 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear deal."

- "While authorizing the secretaries of treasury and state to start the process of returning the U.S. to full compliance with its own commitments under the deal, but without necessarily detailing how the U.S. will lift sanctions."

Against the backdrop, Vaez anticipates that Tehran would be "inclined to issue a political directive halting implementation of its legislation on UN inspectors' access and thus continuing to abide by the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, ICG describes a complementary move from the American side to "begin to restore a measure of trust between the two sides through a humanitarian gesture."

The expert points out that Tehran's request for an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to manage the health crisis is still unanswered since ten months ago.

To explain the "humanitarian gesture" which the U.S. can make, Vaez suggests that notwithstanding Iran's status in the U.S. as a "state sponsor of terrorism," which requires U.S. representatives on the IMF's Executive Board to vote against granting the loan to Iran, there still exists some channels that the loan could pass through with support from other board members. In this regard, he stresses that such a move will be possible "if the U.S. gives a quiet signal that it does not object". He adds: "In order to prevent possible diversion, the IMF could disburse the funds through authorized humanitarian channels and the World Health Organization for the purchase of vaccines."

ICG clarifies that the above measures will not result in any immediate sanctions relief from the U.S. However, they can demonstrate the Biden administration's political will to preserve the U.S. national security interests as well as its commitment to humanitarian values, which "helping the Iranian people fight the pandemic" can signify.   

Describing the next phase, Vaez writes: "The subsequent reciprocal set of steps would be for Iran to freeze the most problematic aspects of its nuclear program."

In his view, the "most problematic aspects" of Iran nuclear program are: 

"Enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, which is perilously close to weapons-grade."

"Work on uranium metals that could be used in reactor fuel and nuclear weapons."

- "Research and development of more advanced centrifuges." 

ICG explains that in response, "the U.S. could grant waivers to some of Iran's oil customers so that Tehran can restore some of its oil exports and repatriate its revenues."

The analyst believes that if Iran and the U.S. can fulfill these moves, "both would then have enough time and space to negotiate a timetable for a series of staggered additional synchronized steps that would bring them back into full compliance with their obligations. It would be best if this could happen before Iran's elections in June, but if not, it should be done by August, when a new Iranian president enters the office."

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