Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, and executive director of The Red Lines Project, is the author of “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen” and host of its Evergreen podcast. He formerly was a correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary belong solely to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
With America joining the renewed talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear agreement shunned by Donald Trump, the United States has taken a giant step back into the global community of nations. Sadly, we are now reduced to playing a sharply weakened hand.
It will take some deft management and out-of-the-box thinking on the part of America and Iran to snatch success from the jaws of what could still be catastrophic failure. And it is on the cusp of just such failure where the world is now suspended – with the clock ticking loudly.
At the end of the first day of the Vienna meetings on Tuesday, the chief Iranian representative, Abbas Araqchi, told Press TV of Tehran that talks “are on the right track,” but added that Iran still expected the US to lift all sanctions before Iran would agree to resume compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name of the 2015 agreement. Iran refused to meet face-to-face with US representatives, which means that delegates from the other countries involved – Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – will meet separately with the American team.
The origins of where we find ourselves stem from the errors of the Trump administration, whose 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA sought to break apart an agreement that had held the real promise of fulfilling its mandate – to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Three years on, there’s a fresh urgency for both President Joe Biden and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani to restore the deal. On June 18, Iranian voters will go to the polls to choose a successor to Rouhani, who put his stamp on the nuclear deal six years ago and is still among the forces within Iran most committed to its restoration.
“There’s a small window of opportunity to de-escalate tensions, revitalize diplomacy prior to Iran’s presidential election in June,” Suzanne DiMaggio, senior fellow of the Carnegie Development for International Peace said at a Monday media briefing on arms control.
The results of Iran’s parliamentary elections last year did not offer an encouraging road map. The number of hard-liners in the legislature surged on the heels of a record low turnout and the disqualification of thousands of more moderate aspirants and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who plays a central role in choosing who may run for president, has said the country should be run by a hard-liner.
Even if a relative moderate wins the presidency, the postelection period is likely to be fraught. A new president will face considerable pressure to put his own stamp on the proceedings, select a new set of negotiators and decide in what fashion to return to the table. If at all.
Much of this uncertainty revolves around the vast web of sanctions that multiplied under Trump and that Rouhani and Khamenei have insisted be lifted before Iran’s return to the agreement can even be discussed. The thicket of more than 1,500 sanctions includes actions against Iran’s missile program and its subsidy of Shiite terrorist organizations that have no direct tie to its nuclear program.
But sanctions are not the only obstacles. In the years since the agreement was effectively suspended by Trump’s withdrawal, Iran has been quietly expanding its knowledge of nuclear engineering, building new state-of-the-art devices, particularly centrifuges to a level closer to bomb-grade than permitted in the agreement.
“There’s an element of irreversibility here on both sides,” Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, said in Monday’s briefing. While Iran can’t get back the nearly three years of economic losses caused by the Trump administration’s “irresponsible maximum pressure campaign,” said Davenport, the US can’t reverse Iran’s knowledge on the advanced centrifuges and other research and development.
It’s true that such issues must be dealt with before any deals can be reached. Still, the longer the world waits for a return to some sort of agreement controlling Iran’s actions, the harder it will be to stop Iran’s advances in research.
All involved recognize that time is running out. “Even in recent weeks, Iran has continued to take steps away from the JCPOA and our concern with that is that over time, the so-called breakout time has continued to shrink,” State Department spokesperson Ned Potter told a media briefing Monday. Potter noted that the breakout time for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon was estimated at 12 months when the JCPOA was in full effect. “That time has dwindled,” he said.
So what are the alternatives for those meeting in Vienna? Some European diplomats believe that the original deal is on such precarious life support that the only viable path is to negotiate a new one. This would likely involve a new government in Iran – a total roll of the dice.
In the meantime, Iran has been seeking to make its own way in the world. One critical consequence of the Trump withdrawal has been to push Iran deeply into the arms of Russia and China, which have expanded their own roles in the region. Equally, China has signed a 25-year $400 billion trade and investment pact with Iran, deepening its ties and role in the region – giving Iran another alternative should talks not lead quickly to a solution of its liking.
Against this backdrop, Vienna’s negotiators are most likely looking for a confluence of common interests, using the existing window of opportunity to reach an agreement before a new president takes over in Iran.
There would appear to be two potential paths going forward. First, the most direct – the Biden administration simply returning to the JCPOA that Trump sought to torpedo. Then it’s largely a question of sequencing and seeing who blinks first. Will it be the US lifting sanctions or Iran spiking its new centrifuges and allowing inspections? Or, ideally, both at the same time.
The other option is the possibility of scrapping it all and starting all over – with new issues like Iran’s missile program, aid for Shiite militias, even the war in Yemen on the table along with a broader regional nonproliferation pact drawing in Saudi Arabia, Israel and all their neighbors.
Often, however, simple is just better – at least in pursuit of a program that could keep nuclear weapons out of Iran’s hands for enough time to work on solving other problems central to a stable and peaceful Middle East.