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Iran - US: High Tensions Incoming

ARTICLES - 18 January 2021

On January 4, Iran sent a strong signal to the international community by announcing the resumption of its efforts to enrich uranium at 20%, thus going further in its transgression of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) of 2015. What does this decision signify? What can we expect following the inauguration of the new American administration, given that Joe Biden has announced his intention to reopen dialogue with Iran and resuscitate the nuclear agreement? Our special advisor, Michel Duclos, shares his analysis.

What prompted Iran’s decision to abrogate the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) by starting to enrich their uranium stocks to 20% at the beginning of this year?

This is of course a hardening of the Iranian position, which can be attributed to several mutually reinforcing causes. 

First of all, Tehran felt obliged to react to the November 27 assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh - a significant player in the Iranian nuclear program - as well as mark the anniversary of the elimination of Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020. The move to 20% uranium enrichment - almost a year to the day following the death of Commander Soleimani - results from a law adopted by the Majles (the Consultative Assembly) on December 3, a few days after the attack that claimed the life of scientist Fakhrizadeh. This measure is significant since the increase from 20% to 90% (military grade uranium) presents fewer difficulties than the increase from 4.5% (already achieved by Iran) to 20%.

It is thus evident that the latest measures taken by the Islamic Republic are part of a domestic policy game, one for which we are far from understanding all the ins and outs. The Majles law from early December, endorsed by the Guardian Council (an equivalent to the Upper House) on the same day, was intended to force the government's hand. On the surface at least, it was the conservative majority in Parliament that dictated its law to the reformist government. 

Iran has equipped itself with a powerful negotiating tool vis-à-vis Washington, with a "don’t mess with us" approach.

This law required the government to take a number of actions that violate the Nuclear Accord with Iran (JCPOA) if, within two months of the law coming into effect, the "other parties'' in the agreement had not brought themselves into compliance with the agreement, that is, practically speaking, if the US had not lifted its sanctions or if the Europeans did not circumvent the US sanctions. 

After some attempted resistance — including seeking arbitration by the National Security Council and the Supreme Leader himself — Mr. Rouhani's government decided to apply the law, in essence replicating the "tough" approach advocated by the Majles. 

This brings us to the third explanation for the Iranian decision, the one that ultimately really matters to outside actors: Iran has equipped itself with a powerful negotiating tool vis-à-vis Washington, with a "don’t mess with us" approach. Among other steps in the exit from the JCPOA, the law of December 3 provides for the establishment of a production capability for uranium metal — again accelerating the possibility of Iran’s access to a bomb. Above all it also provides for the non-application of the additional protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that is, mainly the reinforced inspection regime of the UN nuclear agency, without it being clear whether these various measures would take place during the two-month period or at the end of it. However, the Rouhani government has set February 19 — a few days before the deadline of February 25/26 — as the date by which it would assess the status of the lifting of sanctions. The end of January is therefore the window of opportunity for the new U.S. administration. One cannot exclude that the "tactical" move by Iran of accelerating its nuclear program becomes a "strategic" decisive action towards the bomb. 

What will the Biden administration do? Is there a chance that it will reach an agreement with Iran to reinstate the JCPOA? 

The clearest outcome of the Iranian approach is to saddle Washington with an ultimatum, in theory taking effect by the end of February, as mentioned above, thus only a few weeks after the inauguration of the new American administration. 

Was this the best way for the Iranians to establish a fruitful dialogue with the Biden team? Obviously not. The competition between "hardliners" and "moderates" was certainly at play in Tehran. However, it turns out that the Biden camp had in any case shown its willingness to move quickly in the process of returning the United States to the JCPOA. It could therefore make a move in application of its program while ignoring the Iranian ultimatum. The operation would certainly be more complex than the signing of two or three presidential decrees, as Mr. Zarif, the brilliant Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, would have us believe. However, one can indeed imagine that the new American president would, for instance, reinstate exceptions to the oil sanctions ("waivers") and allow certain financial flows with Iran to resume. Even if we would not immediately be in a "complete lifting of sanctions" scenario and a simple return to the situation of January 2017, it is hard to imagine how the Iranians could respond negatively to such an overture.

The Democrats' plans also include the idea of discussing more than just the re-establishment of the JCPOA, such as moving forward on negotiations extending to regional issues, Iran's ballistic program, and the "post-JCPOA" (which expires in five years). On this point as well, the Iranians are displaying a hard line, a point of consensus in Tehran between the different factions: absolute refusal. Here, the difference with the American approach could be fraught with consequences. The Democrats believe in the need to broaden the negotiations for two reasons: they see the sole focus on Iran’s nuclear program as the main reason for the failure of the JCPOA as negotiated by Mr. Obama; and they are determined to take into account the opinion of their regional allies, including of course Israel and Saudi Arabia. These allies are very reluctant towards any agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue and in any case want agreements that limit Iran's capacity to intervene in the region through its proxies or missiles. 

[The Democrats] see the sole focus on Iran’s nuclear program as the main reason for the failure of the JCPOA as negotiated by Mr. Obama; and they are determined to take into account the opinion of their regional allies, including of course Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The only opening that can be noted from Tehran pertains to the possibility of a security dialogue between regional actors once the JCPOA is back on track. It would be helpful for the Americans to take up one topic after another. 

What’s the role of the other signatories of the agreement: Russians, Chinese, Europeans? 

Germany, France, and the United Kingdom all expressed their disapproval of the Iranian decision to move to 20% uranium enrichment. They have also urged Tehran to give up the idea of producing uranium metal. It is striking that Russia and China did not join them on those points. It seems that Russia and China’s only red line is the maintenance of the inspection apparatus, leaving ample room for Iran to intensify its nuclear program. 

One might have also thought that the Europeans would have taken visible initiatives to prepare some groundwork for the future American government during the transition period between the Trump and Biden administrations. This has not been the case. It must be said that they have every reason to be concerned about the attitude adopted by Iran: Iranian leaders repeat that the violations of the JCPOA that they have authorised are reversible. However, the know-how acquired by Iranian scientists, in the field of advanced centrifuge technology for example, cannot be erased. Even in the event of a return to the JCPOA by all parties, it is unlikely that the agreement reverts to what it once entailed, that is, a one-year "time break" (the length of time needed for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons). That’s why for instance, the French Foreign Affairs Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian is now sounding the alarm.

The Supreme Leader himself stated that the real way to "neutralize sanctions" resides in a national self-sufficiency program, though without denying, as a somewhat subsidiary (rhetorical) option, the benefits that a lifting of sanctions would present under certain conditions. 

In this context, how might the Iranian presidential elections play out in June? 

Here again, we must be cautious: a rapid Iranian-American breakthrough before June could perhaps give a boost to the reformist camp, allowing it to better mobilize a base that is currently demoralized, but this is not a given. On the other hand, this prospect alone may be reason enough for the "hardliners" to raise the stakes and not allow their opponents a win. 

If one were to make a recommendation to Mr. Biden's team, it would be not to make this deadline a decisive part of the equation either way: in the Iranian system, it is ultimately the Supreme Leader who judges whether or not the time has come to compromise.

On the other hand, nothing proves that the "hardliners" are more attached to the nuclear program than other factions. Their priorities are likely elsewhere (e.g., particularly controlling Syria, missiles) and all Iranian leaders are aware of the state of economic and social decimation of their country. The Supreme Leader himself stated that the real way to "neutralize sanctions" resides in a national self-sufficiency program, though without denying, as a somewhat subsidiary (rhetorical) option, the benefits that a lifting of sanctions would present under certain conditions. 

But one should refrain from making recommendations to the new American government: the main leaders of the NSC (Mr. Sullivan), of the State Department (Mr. Blinken himself or Mrs. Sherman, his deputy) or finally of the CIA (Ambassador William Burns) were all very closely associated with the Obama era negotiations with Iran. They are all connoisseurs of the Iranian dossier, which in itself is a strong indication of the priority given to this issue by the Biden administration. It is worth noting that in 2019, Institut Montaigne hosted Jake Sullivan for a working lunch between experts devoted exclusively to the topic of Iran. 

 

Copyright : STR / afp

 

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