The Iranian and the U.S. governments have not publicly reduced their demands for an acceptable treaty. Nevertheless, in May, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced that the U.S. “demonstrated our very seriousness of purpose” in returning to the negotiations. “A final deal is within reach, if other parties have the will to do so,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian announced in June, after meeting with E.U. Foreign Policy leader Josep Borrell. Iran continues to reject direct contact with the U.S., so two governments will continue to negotiate indirectly through the European representatives from Britain, France and Germany.
President Biden has a public approval rating by Americans of 33 percent, the lowest level for a president since the 1950s. He has limited support from his own the Democratic Party. The Democrats are likely to lose political control over the Senate, where treaties are adopted, as well as the House of Representatives. The Republicans in the Senate are fully in opposition to the treaty. This means that the Congress has only a marginal reason or willingness to support any JCPOA agreement Biden proposes.
U.S. options to incentivize Iran to meet its requirement for approving the JCPOA are limited. One of the most effective options is constraining the Iranian economy. According to the World Bank, Iran is slowly and gradually recovering from the effects of the job losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, a decade-long stagnation caused by economic sanctions, and fluctuating oil prices. This means that one way of encouraging Iran to agree to a U.S. friendly JCPOA is by weakening its economy.
Both the Americans and Iranians have added political obstacles and issues to the core concerns about nuclear weapons surrounding the JCPOA. The Iranian government added the ending of political and economic sanctions, cancelling the IRGC’s foreign terrorist status, and requiring the U.S. to guarantee it will not again withdraw from the treaty, as it did under President Trump.
In May, sixteen Democratic senators voted with forty-six Republicans for a non-binding measure that opposed an agreement addressed only nuclear weapons. Leading the Senate Democrats was Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who opposed the 2015 agreement. The senators demanded that an agreement “addressing the full range of Iran’s destabilizing activities.” This implicitly includes advocating for Israeli concerns, such as the spread of missiles, acts of terrorism, and retaining sanctions against the IRGC.
The failure to reinstate the JCPOA would demonstrate Trump’s lasting influence in U.S. politics and foreign affairs. Much of the Republican Party’s resistance to JCPOA’s stems from Trump’s continued political control over the party and his opposition to the treaty.
Senator Rand Paul is a rare Republican politician who is willing to engage in treaty negotiations despite the IRGC’s actions. Paul said, “I think it’s important that if we do want negotiations and the only way we’re going to get any behavioral change is through negotiations…actually lessening sanctions is the only way you get it. So even things such as labeling them as a foreign terrorist organization have to be negotiated.”
What Paul is referring to is that the JCPOA is about nuclear arms control and that other issues raised by both Iran and the U.S. should be negotiated separately. On this point, Paul also said this: “We made clear to Iran that if they wanted any concession on something that was unrelated to the JCPOA, like the FTO designation, we needed something reciprocal from them that would address our concerns. Iran has made the decision that it’s not prepared to take the reciprocal step.”
Europe plays a critical role in keeping the negotiations for a new treaty possible. For example, in June, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met with Josep Borrell, the EU Foreign Policy leader. Then, Borrell met with Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran. In this way, these officials preserved discussions and the exchange of ideas over JCPOA and related issues.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, first statement in response to the crisis in Ukraine was “We are against wars and destruction anywhere in the world… unlike Western governments, which turn Afghan weddings into funerals with their bombardments, and brand it war on terror.” Iran abstained from voting on a United Nations resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On 11 July, the U.S. announced that Iran is preparing to supply Russia with hundreds of drone aircraft, including advanced models capable of firing missiles, revealing a secret effort by Iran to provide weapons for Russian’s invasion of Ukraine.
However, Ayatollah Khamenei has approved of his government moving forward with the Vienna talks. It is also in Iran’s interests to distance itself from Russia. Iran’s Petroleum minister, Javad Ouji, for example, stated in February that Iran would have the capacity to export gas to Europe. Although Russia is Iran’s neighbor, it is in Iran’s interests to act impartially and benefit from improved economic and political relations with the West. This includes negotiations in Vienna.