by Jalil Bayat
Iran’s recent decision to leave the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) stage by stage can only mean one of two things. It is either a strategic mistake or a stepping stone for new talks with all the signatories to the deal, including the United States.
Following the Trump administration’s abrogation of the JCPOA, Iran temporarily suspended some of its obligations on May 8 because the remaining signatories had not fulfilled their economic promises. It has given the signatories 60 days to compensate for the U.S. exit from the deal. Otherwise, it will suspend its other commitments step by step until it leaves the JCPOA completely as Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi has clearly stated.
As expected, the other signatories did not respond positively to Iran’s move. The EU rejected any deadlines and asked for Iran’s total commitment to the deal. China and Russia, which Iran considers friendly countries, also reacted coldly. Vladimir Putin stated that Russia has done all it could to save the deal.
The United States, however, continued its pressure on Iran—including media and psychological warfare—by deploying an aircraft carrier and bombers to the region. The situation is even more complicated now with attacks on a number of oil tankers in Fujairah Port and the evacuation of non-essential U.S. personnel from the embassy and consulate in Iraq out of fear of attacks by proxy forces connected to Iran. Many media outlets have reported that war is on the horizon. Be that as it may, the Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has rejected both war and negotiations with the United States as a double poison.
Why Iran’s Step-by-Step Withdrawal?
Donald Trump’s actions have reduced the JCPOA to a financially unviable deal for Iran. But this was not just an economic agreement. First, its political and security aspects were much more important for Iran. Second, Iran’s withdrawal from the deal will only increase economic and security pressures on the country rather than put it on a better footing.
Iranian leaders have explicitly stated time and again that they are not seeking nuclear weapons. This has also been reflected in Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa banning the production and use of nuclear weapons. As such, Iran’s exit from the JCPOA can be deemed a strategic mistake. The only other reason for such a decision would be to lay the groundwork for negotiations.
Although Iran’s leaders reject any negotiations with the United States, especially with the Trump administration, recent developments show that this may be a two-step policy where the second step leads to negotiations with the Trump administration.
The harsh, unprecedented sanctions that the Trump administration has imposed on Iran have created chaos inside the country. Although the Obama administration also initially imposed severe sanctions on Iran, there are two major differences with the current sanctions. First, Obama weakened Iran, but still left breathing room for the country. Trump, however, is wants to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero and is pursuing a death plan for Iran. Second, Obama’s foreign policy and security team had a rationale that prevented a military conflict (accidental or not) between the United States and Iran. The Trump administration is actually attempting to precipitate such a conflict.
Public discontent is rising inside Iran and so is the possibility of a military confrontation from the outside. On the other hand, the JCPOA is becoming economically dysfunctional. The EU in particular and the international community in general continue to remain placid towards Trump’s actions. That, therefore, has pushed Iran to pursue its new policy.
In the first step of this new policy, Iran is aiming for a firmer reaction from the EU and other JCPOA signatories vis-a-vis U.S. measures by threatening to exit the JCPOA and restart its nuclear program more forcefully than before (perhaps enriching over the 20 percent level) to meet its energy demands. If this happens and Iran benefits economically from the JCPOA, then this strategy is likely to stop at this stage.
If this fails and conditions continue to unfold as they have over the past year, Iran will take its second step. At this point, Iran will leave the JCPOA (and even the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), speed up its enrichment program, and concurrently announce its readiness to conduct negotiations with all parties (including the United States). Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hinted at this possibility when he said: “We are ready to sit at the negotiating table for a better implementation of the JCPOA.”
At this stage, although Iran’s declared policy may be to negotiate with all parties (and not just with the United States), in practice it will conduct discussions with the Trump administration and address his priorities. As such, Iran would sacrifice the JCPOA for the new discussions. In other words, Iran has now reached the conclusion that it will have to bring down one structure (the JCPOA) to erect another in order to prevail under these difficult conditions and preserve its prestige on the international scene while keeping its options open for future talks. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s visit to New York and offer to exchange prisoners was an overture to start these talks, but the United States showed little interest.
The Trump team criticized the Obama approach for reviving Iran with the JCPOA deal when it was already cornered. The United States is fully aware of Iran’s present predicament. It remains to be seen what decision Trump will take. Will he accept the proposal of talks with the 2020 elections looming even if it means concluding a deal similar to the JCPOA? Or will he wait and ratchet up pressure until Iran either accepts all his demands or chooses to witness grim days ahead.
Jalil Bayat is a PhD candidate of international relations at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran.