By Azin Sahabi

For the “sanctions team”, Iranian clock is not ticking

March 14, 2021 - 16:22

TEHRAN- In an exclusive interview on March 11, former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who served as one of Washington’s key nuclear negotiators, told CNBC: “Time is running out for the United States to engage in meaningful diplomacy with Iran…”

With Iran’s presidential elections in June, Moniz, co-chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative think tank, says: “I would expect a hiatus while the new Iranian administration gets organized.”

Like most of American analysts, Moniz, a professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes that the Iranian principlists (conservatives) will lead in the June presidential elections, and should this happen, the already down-the-heel nuclear deal would be much more complicated to manage.

Moniz who appeared as Iran’s Ali Akbar Salehi counterpart to work out the technical aspects of the JCPOA in 2015, warns: “There are probably just about 10 weeks left for some serious diplomacy. There’s a pretty short fuse here to get something done before the Iranian elections will naturally call for a bit of a reset.”

Against this backdrop, it appears that the Biden administration neither intends to rush to a deal with Tehran nor slows its pace due to Iran’s imminent elections. State Department Iran envoy Rob Malley clarified on Wednesday that elections “are not a factor” in likely nuclear talks.

In his first interview since taking office, Malley, one of the American negotiators in the JCPOA talks, told Axios: “The pace will be determined by how far we can get consistent with defending U.S. national security interests.”

Undoubtedly, while Biden seems quite determined to swiftly reverse the process Donald Trump conducted towards the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the timeline is anyone’s guess.

Commenting on Malley’s recent expressions, Sanam Vakil, deputy head of the Middle East (West Asia) North Africa program at Chatham House, says Malley’s comments are primarily geared toward a domestic U.S. audience.

She explains that Malley tries to signal those seriously opposed to a revival of the JCPOA at home that the administration “intends to take a tougher approach. But it doesn’t mean that they are not going to be mindful of the potential political transitions inside Iran.” 

Moniz also expresses concerns about Iran’s parliamentary law to suspend the Additional Protocol to the NPT which allows snap inspections. Such a law, which is in line with Paragraph 36 of the JCPOA, obligates the Iranian government to stop implementing some nuclear commitments in retaliation for the abrogation of the nuclear deal by Washington and introduction of maximum pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic.

Meanwhile, Moniz welcomes the three months agreement between the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) made on Feb. 21 which followed the parliamentary law. He says: “I think the first step will not be a full restoration of the agreement on either side, but both sides can take some big steps very early on to set the stage for succeeding steps.”

Iran has rejected an offer from the European Union to restart nuclear talks with the Biden team, insisting that no talks are needed for a U.S.  return to the nuclear deal that Donald Trump ditched in May 2018.

Describing Iran’s decision to reject talks as a “negotiating strategy, frankly, not working”, Moniz underlines: “I think what it’s done is actually narrowed the political space on both sides for an agreement to be reached in a short time.”

Indeed, the deep-rooted mistrust between Tehran and Washington besides domestic politics in both capitals foment reluctance by each side to take the first move to rekindle the nuclear deal. In this context, making any arrangement between Iran and the U.S. before August can be considered a remote prospect.

Therefore, Henry Rome, a regional analyst at Eurasia Group says “What’s far more important to the survival of the JCPOA and U.S.-Iran relations is what happens on June 18.”

June 18 is the date for presidential elections in Iran.

Notwithstanding Moniz's concerns about shortage of time for diplomacy, some American analysts believe that regardless of any political affiliation of Iran’s future president, Rouhani’s successor will hardly have any incentives to honor the commitments he makes. Thus, they claim the possibility that an agreement made under Rouhani may not last, is it actually essential to broker a deal before the new president takes office in Tehran.

Besides, some experts emphasize that rather than being obsessed with Iranian domestic politics, Biden’s administration should be mindful of the dynamics. In their point of view, while looking beyond the Rouhani administration in terms of nuclear diplomacy is wise, linking the fate of such a talk to the likely future status of Rouhani’s nuclear team would not serve the American interests.

Accusing Iran of conducting aggressive regional policies, Moniz stresses that Iran’s activities are a “major, major challenge to the United States and its friends in the region.” He adds: “Whether it’s Saudi Arabia’s oil supply chain, or whether it’s Israel’s security, especially with regard to Lebanon and southwest Syria, I believe that the JCPOA is probably a necessary step on the way to further discussions to resolve those critical regional issues.”

In a piece of opinion in Boston Globe on March 27, 2018, Moniz pointed out that when negotiating nuclear disarmament with the former Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan invoked “trust, but verify”. However, for the American side at 2015 nuclear talks with Iran, the North Star was and must be “Don’t trust, and verify, verify, verify.”

In fact, the Iran team at the Oval Office is slowly but smartly taking shape. Now, sanctions expert Richard Nephew, a member of the U.S. negotiating team at the JCPOA talks, serves as Malley’s deputy. Also, Jarrett Blanc, who led the implementation of the deal under Obama is another figure and more members are expected to be added. This implies that perhaps, in Washington’s “sanctions team" calculations to hit the big time in reviving the JCPOA, “time” factor does not play a critical role.

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