Following Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 US presidential election, there was cautious optimism that the United States would quickly return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or the “Iran nuclear deal”) under the new Biden Administration. However, nine months after Biden’s inauguration, neither the US nor Iran have expressed much interest in keeping the deal alive.
The JCPOA was originally signed in 2015 after over a decade of negotiation between Iran, the US, Russia, the UK, France, Germany, China and the European Union. Iran agreed to eliminate or cut its stockpile of enriched uranium depending on the degree to which it was already enriched. In addition, the Islamic Republic agreed to enrich uranium only up to 3.67% for the next 15 years (enough for energy purposes but not military application) and reduce its number of gas centrifuges by two thirds for the next 13 years.
In exchange, Iran was to receive relief from crushing sanctions imposed mainly by the United States but also its European partners as well as Russia and China. Chiefly, Iran would regain access to $100bn in assets frozen by the US and, after a certain, the US would no longer sanction companies or enterprises doing business with Iran.
US foreign policy hawks railed against this agreement, citing Iran’s anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric as well as funding of groups designated as ‘terrorist organisations’ by the US Department of State including Palestinian militant group Hamas and Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah. It would not take long for the agreement to lose most of its effectiveness following the US’ withdrawal in May 2018 under the Trump Administration.
Not content merely to withdraw from the agreement, Trump reinstated additional sanctions on Iran that would deprive its citizens of even basic goods including parts for civilian aircraft as well as medicine, increasing the likelihood of accidents involving aircraft in addition to preventable health complications. Further, secondary sanctions meant that foreign direct investment in Iran plummeted following their imposition.
Matters came to a head early in 2020 when Trump signed off on an operation to assassinate Iranian general Qasem Soleimani during a visit to Iraq. The incident prompted widespread condemnation of the United States and Iran reacted by launching several attacks on bases hosting US troops which did not result in any deaths but did result in over 100 US troops being diagnosed with “mild traumatic brain injuries” according to the BBC.
While the current administration has not been as blatantly aggressive against Iran as was Trump, Joe Biden has shown little appetite for undoing the previous administration’s unilateral withdrawal of the US from the international agreement. Instead, Biden set out a list of demands for Iran to fulfil before the US returns to the agreement, such as halting enrichment of uranium beyond the amount permitted under the agreement.
Iran has flatly refused such demands, instead demanding that the US drop all sanctions enacted by the Trump administration since the US’ abandonment of the agreement. Indeed, this position has only hardened following the election in Iran of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi.
While this is another setback to the viability of the Iran nuclear deal, some hope still remains among European diplomats that it can be salvaged even in the face of US reluctance to return to the agreement it unilaterally withdrew from in 2018. This week, Iran is set to meet with representatives of the UK, China, France, Russia and Germany in Brussels. However, whether anything fruitful comes from such talks without US support remains to be seen.