Iran nuclear agreement and the future of US-Iran relations
As of now, the US and Iran are yet to conclude their talks in Vienna "on the terms of Washington return(ing) to the [Iran nuclear] agreement," according to The Guardian. Are these terms that The Guardian is referring to old ones, or are they new? After all, the two sides had already made an agreement under the Obama administration that the US, under the Trump administration, had walked out on. And is this agreement the endgame as far as tensions between the two countries are concerned?
According to many western pundits, the Biden administration coming to power in the US has increased the possibility of the US re-entering the Iran nuclear deal or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the chances of changing relations between the two sides. However, as far as most Iranian pundits are concerned, Biden becoming president did not alter relations between the two countries by much—although that could all change if the US re-enters the nuclear deal, and if the deal actually works. But that's where they have their big "if", because even though it was the Trump administration that walked out on the deal, the Obama administration never fully implemented US commitments, even though it had ample time to do so.
Biden was a part of the Obama administration as vice president. And the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Iran, which it called "crippling sanctions". These were the same sanctions that Trump imposed, calling them "brutal sanctions". The Trump administration killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, who was leading Iranian forces against ISIS in Syria. The Obama administration, on the other hand, played a key role in the war in Syria (in which Iran has been fighting on the Syrian government's side) and in the creation of ISIS in Syria through their regional allies—as revealed by a Hillary Clinton email from August 2014 published by WikiLeaks ("We finally know what Hillary Clinton knew all along—US allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding Isis", October 15, 2016, The Independent UK), a 2012 US Defence Intelligence Agency document ("Mehedi Hasan goes head to head with Michael Flynn") and as admitted by multiple top US officials on different occasions ("Syria: Potential fuse for greater conflagration", September 7, 2016, The Daily Star).
However, according to Iranian-American academic and political analyst Seyed Mohammad Marandi, "Iran is going to give Biden" an "opportunity to change" policies "if the US implements the [previously agreed] nuclear deal in full", which "they didn't under the Obama administration, despite the fact that Iran did".
However, the JCPOA was never a final agreement, and the Iranians have known that from the start. The US don't just want a nuclear agreement with Iran, they want Iran to stop all their "maligned" activities—which includes Iran's foreign policy towards Syria, Yemen, Israel and the region as a whole. They also want Iran to give up all its ballistic missiles—which the Iranians see as being their only deterrence against Israel. Even when Obama started negotiating with Iran, his administration wanted all of these on the table. But the Iranians said no. In the end, the Obama administration settled for a nuclear only agreement with the idea that Iran will never be allowed to have a uranium enrichment programme, even though the agreement says that Iran can have one—by building in what are called "Sunset Clauses", that pushes key decisions down the line by 10-15 years.
This, despite the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb, and that Iran is allowed to have a uranium enrichment programme for peaceful purposes as a result of being a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. And despite the Americans walking out on the deal, Iran has partially been fulfilling its part of the agreement by allowing the IAEA access to Iranian facilities for inspection. Yet, the Americans and the Israelis keep repeating that Iran is going to build a nuclear bomb in a matter of years—the former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, has been saying this since the early 1990s. Such propaganda demonstrates a deficit of good faith on the part of the US that the Iranians can clearly see through.
So even though the latest round of negotiations is a good sign, there are plenty of reasons to be cautious. The Iranians have made it clear that they are not going to give any new concessions to the US and have said that a deal has already been signed under the Obama administration and it is willing to implement it in full, if the US carries out its commitments first—including the lifting of sanctions and allowing Iran to use the international banking system, which was the most important part of the deal for Iran.
Moreover, the Iranians have also expressed their suspicion on the true motives for the US returning to this deal. If the US didn't feel it necessary to abide by it before—including under the Obama administration—then why bother resolving the matter? The Iranians were convinced that the US plan all along was to kick the can down the road and not resolve the matter—not until Iran agreed to its other conditions. If that is the case, then why is the US looking to smooth things over now?
Some have suggested that the reason for this are: i) Because the Biden administration wants to show that it is going to do exactly the opposite of what the Trump administration did, even if that's true only on the surface; and ii) Because of the growing US concern over the rise of China and its eagerness to "contain" the rising Asian superpower by focusing all (or more) of its attention towards the Asia Pacific region and less in other places like the Middle East.
However, if actions speak louder than words, the US seizure of 27 Iranian and Yemeni international news websites on June 22 suggests that the same thinking still holds sway over US policy. Moreover, on June 27, the US also conducted airstrikes against what the Pentagon said were "facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in the Iraq-Syria border region", at "President Biden's direction".
And finally, let's not forget the influence Israel and Saudi Arabia have over US foreign policy. Both of these countries have made it amply clear that they vehemently oppose any deal that results in the US lifting sanctions on Iran. So even if a deal is struck, will the US truly be able fulfil its end of the bargain? That is a question only time can answer.
But for now, the fact that the two countries have returned to the negotiating table at least, gives the region some hope for cautious optimism.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal