2021 will be a crucial year for Iran, particularly when it comes to its nuclear dossier. The file has been one of the main international security priorities since 2002, when previously undisclosed Iranian nuclear activities were revealed, raising concerns about the nature of the Iranian nuclear programme. The announcement of the deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (also branded as JCPOA or Iran deal) in July 2015, after years of on-and-off negotiations, assuaged these concerns and provided a roadmap for the issue to be finally addressed. However, the coming into power of President Trump in 2017 and his decision to withdraw the US from the agreement has led to the JCPOA’s progressive erosion and, consequently, to renewed concerns about the trajectory of the Iranian nuclear programme.
The change of guard in the US administration, with Biden’s team starting its mandate on January 20, could reverse this trend. The incoming Biden administration has criticised Trump’s policy on Iran, claiming that it isolated the US, got Iran much closer to a nuclear bomb, all the while also triggering a dangerous escalation in the region. It also stressed its commitment to have the US re-join the JCPOA, provided that Iran also returns to fully comply with its obligations. Iran, on the other hand, has also claimed that it is ready to talk with the US, once Trump is out, and signalled its readiness to once again implement the deal in full, if all other parties do too.
At a first glance, it all thus appears very easy and straightforward: a clean return to compliance for compliance, bringing back all parties to where they were in 2017, on the path to the implementation of the JCPOA and its provisions by 2025 – the deal’s current Termination Date. In reality, things, however, will be much more complicated, for a number of reasons.
First, trust between the parties will need to be reinstated. After years of negotiations, particularly in the 2013-2015 period, all sides trusted the ability and commitment of the other to implement their end of the obligations, but after four years of tensions, posturing and escalation, it will take time to reprise the eroded trust. Without it, any progress will be minimal, deceptive and short-lived.
Second, there will be calls for immediately addressing all the perceived weaknesses of the deal, ranging from including more issues as part of the negotiations, to involving additional actors, particularly among those in the region. While the Biden administration expressed its desire to address all issues of concern when it comes to Iran, ranging from its regional behaviour to its poor human rights track record, the prevailing sense is, for now, that returning to the deal, as it is, should be the first step, only to be followed by broader talks and the potential inclusion of other actors. The sequencing will be key to the success of the whole process and starting from re-instating the JCPOA, a deal that, until President Trump came in, properly functioned, could provide the much-needed basis for all parties to regain the lost mutual trust, before moving into uncharted and thorny territories.
After a month of hesitation and mixed messaging in the aftermath of the US elections, the E3 (France, Germany and the UK) finally also came out in support of this step-by-step approach. Whether they will manage to resist the calls of countries in the region and opponents of the deal to broaden the scope of the deal remains to be seen, but could ultimately undermine the main priority, which is to ensure Iran’s nuclear programme is for civilian purposes only. The fact that the E3 will be able, for the first time in four years, to rely on a shared transatlantic strategy on Iran, once again playing the bridge-building role between the two sides rather than trying to put up a fight on the measures adopted by the US on Iran will provide some confidence in European capitals that a solution is possible, albeit challenging.
The third reason why a return to full compliance could be more complicated than expected is the fact that it will now be Iran’s turn to be embroiled in its domestic issues. Presidential elections are scheduled for June 2021, and similar to what happened in 2013 and 2017, the nuclear deal is likely to feature as a key issue in the campaign. Similar to the US, the period before the elections is therefore going to get even more turbulent when it comes to Iran’s posturing on the JCPOA, with candidates belonging to various factions making the case for different tactical approaches vis-à-vis the US and the nuclear issue, and with the new President having the power to drive Iran in a different direction when it comes to engagement and dialogue. Should the parties not return to full compliance in a short and speedy manner, talks could therefore become, not impossible, but certainly more challenging already from late Spring.
Therefore, while the JCPOA will certainly be a deal to watch in 2021, the process for reinstating it will be tortuous and not to be taken for granted. The good news is that, against all odds, three years after the deal started to unravel because of Trump’s policy, its shell is still in place, ready to be revived, and still constituting a solid basis for all parties to ultimately move towards de-escalating tensions and finding a concerted and sustainable solution for security in the region.