On June 10, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Mariano Grossi warned that Iran’s latest moves on its nuclear program could strike the “fatal blow” to efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear agreement. That agreement, signed by Iran and the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, was upended when the then President Donald Trump pulled the US out in 2018. Despite his campaign pledges in 2020, President Joe Biden has not found a way to return the US to formal participation, and Iranian actions in recent months make it increasingly unlikely that the deal can be restored to its original purpose – restraining Iran’s nuclear activities and to provide sanctions relief.
For months, talks to revive the agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear developments, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have lurched between minor diplomatic progress to sustained impasses. But the mood has darkened with Iran’s decision to turn off 27 cameras installed to monitor enrichment activity, under the terms of the 2015 agreement. This has led to diminished confidence at the IAEA in Vienna that the international community can bring this process to a successful close.
This discouraging prospect will prompt a range of responses, from those who always found the agreement just a delaying tactic to an inevitable confrontation with Iran, to those who will anguish about what could have been done differently to keep the JCPOA alive. There are three areas that can help us understand how we reached this point: US policy, Iran’s calculations, and the changing geopolitical environment.
Many in the US are already questioning why the Biden administration did not have a better strategy to get the US back in the JCPOA. Unlike the Paris climate accord, where the president simply declared that Trump’s policy was voided, the Biden team seemed to feel compelled to push for a better deal than the original agreement, and to agonize over how sanctions relief would occur. Pressure from both Republicans and Democrats, who were long skeptical of the agreement, led to a prolonged policy formulation, with new coordination with European allies on nuclear and non-nuclear concerns that could be seen as complicating the basic diplomatic task related to the JCPOA. Speculation that the desire to reduce US commitments in the Middle East, and later, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, also moved the Iran problem off the front burner do not ring true, but seem to be part of the narrative outside the US.
In recent testimony, the administration’s lead on the Iran agreement, Rob Malley, also acknowledged, with good reason, that the Trump policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran was so counterproductive that the Biden team had a very steep hill to climb, and the simple hope to flip the switch back to full US participation was not an option.
It is even harder to determine the Iranian side of the story. Do Iran’s leaders want to kill the agreement, or do they think their defiance will simply win them more concessions in negotiations? Given the power concentrated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his deep mistrust of international institutions, Iran may have hoped for concessions on sanctions but would be willing to live with the demise of the JCPOA. Whether that means a race to the finish line of a fully deployable nuclear weapon, or something shy of that, remains to be seen.
Does Iran view the regional environment as favoring its interests? And would such a judgment be a key factor in its behavior on the nuclear file?
One key change in the region is the consolidation of the Arab-Israel relationship, albeit without the Palestinians. The normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan is certainly a net loss for Iran, given that the Iranian threat more than any other factor drove the countries to rethink their relationships. Iran has condemned what it calls the “Arab Zionist NATO” and its security establishment would be wise to take seriously the new security cooperation among its adversaries. But wily Iranians also find a silver lining: In explaining the Abraham Accords, Iranian pundits see a unifying fear of America’s withdrawal from the region. That is Iran’s grand strategy, so if these agreements lead to less American influence because regional states are assuming more responsibility, Iran still wins.
In the cases of Iran’s clients in Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Sanaa, it’s a very messy and mixed picture. Lebanon’s collapse as a viable state and the decline of Hezbollah’s voting power are not good for Iran, but Tehran probably finds use of Lebanese territory as a platform for drones and missiles, as sufficient for their interests. Likewise, Syria’s survival is good enough for Iran, but its relations with Arabs and Kurds are never easy.
Iraq, even before completing government formation, has taken the strange step of legislating any contact with Israel as treasonous, presumably a mostly symbolic effort for power broker Muqtada Al Sadr to not be outflanked by more pro-Iranian Shia factions. It’s a peculiarly counterproductive move, in terms of Iraq’s larger desire to be integrated in the region, to be less reliant on Iran, and to sustain productive security cooperation with western countries.
So the new geopolitics of the region may persuade Tehran that it can live without the JCPOA, working with Russia and China to block any new punitive measures, and taking small victories in its client states. For the rest of the region, and for western powers, a world without the JCPOA is a more dangerous one. Improved cooperation among those states that fear Iran may be a positive development, but not sufficient to achieve regional security.
Ellen Laipson is director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former vice chair of the US’s National Intelligence Council.