Biden’s Political Choice to Revive the Iran Nuclear Deal

One obstacle to reviving the JCPOA is the unwillingness of the United States to remove the IRGC from the terrorist designation list due to pressure from domestic interests and regional allies and partners. Another issue is the limited political capital and low approval ratings of President Biden and the Democrats heading into the 2022 midterm elections.

A failure to fix the JCPOA would certainly be a gift to Iran hawks and hardliners in the Republican Party. Some Democrats are also hawkish on Iran and others are being cautious ahead of the midterms, with all the issues a polarized United States is facing.

If the JCPOA cannot be restored, some pundits and policymakers have proposed an interim agreement that suspends some of the sanctions to increase the supply of Iranian oil and gas on the market. The goal of such an agreement would be to alleviate rising global inflation and elevated petroleum prices amid the prolonged pandemic, supply chain disruptions, and the protracted war in Ukraine.   

Since Europe imports oil and gas directly from Russia, it would presumably be more inclined to play a constructive role in salvaging the agreement. However, the Europeans are influenced by US decision-making and will not risk being subjected to secondary sanctions, as evidenced by the US-European draft resolution to the IAEA that criticizes Iran for uranium traces at undeclared sites.

Some regional allies and partners are likely lobbying the United States to contain Iran militarily and economically. In a zero-sum fashion, these states presumably fear that, if the sanctions against Iran were lifted, it would become more powerful, with its revolutionary and religious ideology, regional partners and proxies, military and technological capabilities, natural resources, human capital, and economic potential. Even as they expand relations with Russia and China, these states also fear the possibility of detente between Iran and United States, the world’s largest military and economic power.  

Some scholars and analysts have speculated that Israel has allegedly conducted attacks against Iran to disrupt the negotiations surrounding the JCPOA and diminish the prospects of reviving it. Others have observed that the attacks have targeted individuals and facilities that are purportedly responsible for developing Iran’s military capabilities during its low-intensity conflict with Israel, even if they only seem to suffer a temporary setback.    

Trump put the IRGC, a branch of the Iranian military, on the FTO list to make a JCPOA revival difficult. However, experts and certain current and former officials, including Javier Solana and Carl Bildt, or Republican Senator Rand Paul, believe such a designation is largely symbolic. It is argued that if Iran insists that the IRGC be removed from the FTO list as a precondition to reviving the JCPOA then such a designation is probably more than symbolic.

The IRGC is a vast and multifaceted organization with entities in the military, government, economy, media, and culture. For the IRGC, the sanctions have likely created a mixed outcome. On the one hand, they have not only failed to constrain the IRGC’s military capabilities and regional activities, but also validated its anti-Western narrative and limited its exposure to foreign competition inside Iran. On the other hand, they have likely imposed reputational and transaction costs and other adverse effects on some of its entities at home and abroad.            

Within the framework of the Vienna talks, the Ukraine conflict may have initially given Iran greater leverage due to the urgency of the United States and Europe to increase oil output and find alternative suppliers to reduce petroleum prices and further pressure and isolate Russia. Nevertheless, as the midterm elections approach, the Biden administration appears more amenable to relying on regional allies and partners, despite recent tensions over human rights and other issues, to further these objectives rather than doing so through detente and rapprochement with Iran.   

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