By: Azin Sahabi

Lifting sanctions: A bridge too far

March 13, 2021 - 19:17

Given the determinant role of the U.S. Congress in grand strategic policy-making, any nuclear agreement with Iran is not obligatory unless it is approved by the American legislative body.

This makes it vulnerable to collapse by the next administration, as Trump ripped up the 2015 JCPOA, leaving intense diplomatic marathons all in vain.

During the 2020 presidential campaign and since taking office, President Joe Biden has been reiterating that if Iran returns to “strict compliance” with the original 2015 deal, then the U.S. will do the same. In this context, it seems that many commentaries and analyses published by the top U.S. think tanks take a “revival” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for granted.

While admitting several obstacles both Tehran and Washington face in the path forward, the think tanks speculate that finally, the parties will sit vis-à-vis at the negotiating table. In other words, it sounds that these informal policy makers’ calculations are primarily based on “definite” nuclear talks, not “likely” ones. 

Concerning this, Gary Samore, a senior official in the National Security Council for nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, speculates on “The Revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Day After.”

While accusing Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons in an interview with Brandeis University on March 4, Samore explains that currently, three points about Iran’s nuclear program are worth mentioning. 

Reduced yet it has potential to surpass 2015 level by yearend

Clarifying the first feature, Samore, who is commonly referred to as the “WMD czar”, compares Iran’s current enrichment capacity with the situation before the JCPOA went into effect. 

He believes that currently the capacity is reduced and argues: “In 2015, Iran had roughly 18,000 operating centrifuges and around 7,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. Today, Iran has roughly 6,000 operating centrifuges and about 4,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium.”

 He stresses that in surpassing the limits of the JCPOA, Tehran has played safe but “if Iran keeps doing what it is now doing, it will eventually surpass its 2015 numbers before the end of this year.”

“Break-out time maybe a couple of months”

To clarify the second feature, Samore addresses what other parties of the JCPOA call “the break-out time”. Notwithstanding lack of any robust, conclusive evidence indicative of a deviation in Iran’s nuclear program, Samore tries to manipulate the fact. While admitting that Iran’s nuclear activities are still closely monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, he claims that “break-out time maybe a couple of months.”

Reversable and nonreversible steps

To explain the third point, the pro-Israel figure talks about reversible nuclear steps and the nonreversible ones. Concerning this, Samore says: “Iran can easily reverse the steps it has taken and restore compliance with the nuclear limits of the original deal within a matter of weeks, which could be verified by the IAEA inspectors.”

Meanwhile, he admits, “The one activity that cannot be reversed is the experience Iran has gained by moving from research and development on advanced centrifuges (which is permitted under the JCPOA) to installing and operating entire cascades of advanced centrifuges.”

Samore mentions that based on the “compliance for compliance” approach, there exist several impediments for Tehran and Washington to overcome. In his point of view, these obstacles include domestic political dynamics in both capitals, mistrust, and bargaining tactics, which make both sides reluctant to take the first step. 

Finally, Iran at eventual informal talks 

The strategist reminds that in mid-February, the U.S. proposed to meet informally with the remaining parties to the JCPOA, including Iran “to break the impasse.” But “Iran rejected this offer saying that the time was not right for such a meeting.”

Against this backdrop, the fellow speculates: “Eventually Iran will agree to hold informal talks with the JCPOA parties and the U.S., but this episode illustrates the fragility of even getting negotiations started.”

Samore acknowledges that reversing Iran’s nuclear steps is “relatively straightforward and easy to verify” but “reversing sanctions by the U.S. is more complicated.”

Lifting sanctions: Too far a bridge 

To portray the likely goal of lifting Iran sanctions a bridge too far, Samore sheds light on several additional embargoes imposed under Trump’s tenure to link the sanctions to counter-terrorism, human rights, and missile proliferation.

He argues should the Biden administration try to restore the status quo ante, it requires lifting some non-nuclear sanctions besides those embedded in the JCPOA. 

To explain the barriers Biden faces at home, Samore mentions that in reviving the JCPOA this is Congress that enjoys the upper hand. Given the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), Congress has the right to review any new nuclear agreement with Iran. 

The expert foretells, although Biden does have the authority to lift these sanctions by executive action, Congress will strongly oppose offering such a relief just with a stroke of a pen.

Therefore, Samore highlights, “It is unlikely that Congress can muster the necessary two-thirds majority in both chambers to override a presidential veto if Congress disapproves of a U.S.-Iran agreement to revive the JCPOA.”

An orchestrated Persian Gulf security dialogue

Due to the current regional chaos coupled with deep mistrust among Iran, Israel, and some regional Arab states, Samore predicts that a “grand bargain” to resolve all the disputes in a whole pack is not feasible. Therefore, he says: “I expect the Biden administration will try to tackle each problem one at a time, beginning with Yemen. At some point, the Biden administration will probably try to orchestrate a Persian Gulf security dialogue among Iraq, Iran, and the GCC, which may reduce tensions, but it is unlikely to resolve underlying conflicts.”

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