Does Iran Actually Want to Rejoin the Nuclear Deal?
The United States, Iran, and other world powers are in the midst of negotiations over reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The talks have not yet reached a resolution, illustrating the complexity of the issues involved and the interference of domestic politics, especially Iran’s recent presidential election. Yet many policymakers and observers in the West believe that, at the end of the day, Iran remains interested in securing a deal. This has led to a sense of optimism among many that, eventually, the deal will be revived.
We agree that a revival of the deal is likely this year. Yet it is important to probe this argument further and consider how it could be wrong. This is not purely an interesting thought experiment. U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that they are not sure whether Iran has decided to return to compliance with the deal. And that decision is of crucial importance for anyone concerned with nuclear nonproliferation or U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Questioning the Consensus
The broad consensus that Iran wants a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is based on some very real evidence. Iran says it wants a deal, is engaging in negotiations to reach a deal, and has already demonstrated its willingness to compromise when it signed the initial deal in 2015. Iran would also benefit from a deal, both economically and through the ability to grow its nuclear program over the long term with little risk of international opprobrium.
Since it began violating the terms of the deal in May 2019 — following the U.S. withdrawal a year earlier — Tehran has insisted that it will return to compliance when Washington does the same. Shortly after Joe Biden’s election, President Hassan Rouhani reiterated that Iran will return to compliance once the United States does so. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, parliament speaker Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, and incoming President Ebrahim Raisi have stated that Iran seeks sanctions relief without delay — a sign of consensus at the highest levels that Iran is willing to restore constraints on its nuclear activities in pursuit of economic gains.
Moreover, the six rounds of negotiations between April and June of this year provide a degree of confirmation that Iran is willing to turn its words into actions. The United States and Iran have made progress in talks and appear to agree on the outlines of a return to a deal. Significant challenges remain, but with sufficient political will, the remaining issues are probably surmountable.
But before we accept this consensus too easily, we would do well to examine the assumptions on which it is based. Specifically, how sure are we on four key points: that Iran will walk back its maximalist negotiating demands, that the election of a hard-line president won’t spoil the deal, that Tehran needs economic relief, and that both sides will avoid crossing each other’s red lines?
Assumption 1: Iran is willing to walk back from its key negotiating demands. Hovering over expectations of a deal is the often unstated, but necessary, belief that Iran has decided or will decide to back away from those of its demands that go beyond the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran has varied in how it has talked about these maximalist demands in public, but several stand out as less flexible than others. These include the demand that the United States remove all sanctions imposed since 2017, including those allowed under the deal, that the United States compensate Iran for President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, and that the United States provide assurances that a similar approach won’t be taken in the future.
Is this a good assumption? Iranian diplomats have long stated that they simply want the original deal. Given that they know these demands are in excess of that, it would make sense that these demands aren’t real red lines and are instead intended to satisfy short-term tactical or political needs. In addition, a common sense reading of Iran’s supposed “red lines” during the talks that led to the original deal indicates that several were dropped in the final agreement, suggesting we should take its current demands with a grain of salt.
It is possible, however, that Western observers have lost sight of the degree to which events since 2015 may have convinced Iran that key elements of the deal no longer work in its favor. This includes not only Trump’s maximum pressure campaign and attempts to use provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to further that effort, but also Tehran’s inability to realize the expected economic benefits even when the deal was “working” during the Obama years. In this light, Iran’s demands to safeguard against similar circumstances before reentering may be nonnegotiable because Tehran believes that the deal is worth little without them.
Whatever the motive for establishing these positions, Iran would also need to come up with a narrative to walk them back without losing face. Given the lack of wiggle room in some of these demands, that will not be an easy task.
Assumption 2: The new, more conservative Iranian president won’t spoil the prospects of a renewed deal. The supreme leader has the final say on all major issues, including nuclear policy. Therefore — according to this assumption — if he has decided that returning to the nuclear deal is in Iran’s interests, the recent election of hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi won’t change that.
Indeed, Raisi toed the government line on the nuclear deal during his campaign and after his election. In the June 12 presidential debate, he said, “We will be committed to the JCPOA as an agreement that was approved by the supreme leader.” One theory holds that Khamenei will authorize a deal in the lame-duck period before Raisi takes over in early August, meaning Rouhani would make all the nuclear concessions and Raisi would reap the economic reward. That timing may be too tight, but even if the talks extend into Raisi’s presidency, the assumption is that he will probably not derail them.
Nevertheless, while it is safe to say that presidents alone can’t overturn Iranian policy, they do have the ability to shape nuclear talks. The negotiating teams under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Rouhani were vastly different in their approach, level of expertise, and understanding of the United States. The former was led by Saeed Jalili, a relatively unknown hard-liner and novice at nuclear diplomacy. The latter was led by seasoned diplomats Javad Zarif and Abbas Araqchi. The ability of former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz to bond with his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi over their backgrounds as physicists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was not inconsequential to the success of nuclear talks in 2015. The bottom line is that negotiating teams matter.
Indeed, given that differences between the United States and Iran in Vienna appear to have narrowed to a handful of contentious issues, all that would be needed to gum up talks would be a slightly more hard-line or more resistant Iranian policy. The Raisi government may take this tack, and be less flexible. And while the supreme leader makes the final decisions, he is persuadable. Iranian decision-making operates by an informal system of consensus building. Developments can empower certain political factions over others and give some arguments greater weight in this process. The incoming government may still believe that a deal is in Iran’s interests, but it may have a different conception of its urgency or importance. Moreover, the biggest advocates of the deal within the system will no longer be in power. That may matter more than we think.
Assumption 3: For Iran, the risks of continuing indefinitely without economic relief outweigh the downsides of entering into the deal. The economic benefits of returning to the nuclear deal are significant for Iran — the ability to freely and legally sell oil, more easily access some $100 billion in frozen foreign exchange reserves, engage with the international banking system, and potentially attract investment from abroad. The alternative to sanctions relief is likely a continued period of low growth, high inflation, currency volatility, and eroding standards of living, a toxic combination that could yield further popular unrest.
Yet we have little insights into what senior Iranian officials themselves think of Iran’s economic trajectory and potential risks. What if Tehran decides this is a price worth paying to retain its nuclear program and its mantra of resistance to the West? The supreme leader has long dismissed the need for integration with the international community and has advocated prioritizing “neutralizing” sanctions over lifting them. He could conclude that tying Iran back into the global financial system would only make it more vulnerable to future sanctions if, for example, a Republican wins the presidency in 2024. Indeed, this view is consistent with Iran’s insistence on safeguards against future sanctions snapback.
Khamenei could also be convinced that the economy is more stable than it appears and that the United States would obstruct sanctions relief, as he accused it of doing in 2016, thereby limiting the impact. Khamenei may also believe that the Biden administration would be reluctant to impose “maximum pressure” once again if talks fall apart and conclude that if Tehran survived Trump’s sanctions, it can survive Biden’s. He is also probably confident in the ability of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Basij militia to contain any unrest that might occur.
Assumption 4: Neither the United States nor Iran will take actions that make it impossible to revitalize the nuclear deal — and each side knows what those actions are. Obviously, reaching a deal requires that Iran and the United States do not deliberately sabotage it. But what if they do so unintentionally?
So far talks have been subjected to, and survived, a variety of disturbances. These include a major act of sabotage against Iran’s main enrichment facility, drone strikes and rocket attacks by Iranian-backed militias against U.S. facilities in Iraq, U.S. retaliation against those militias, and additional U.S. sanctions against Iran. Then there are the growing International Atomic Energy Agency concerns about undeclared nuclear material, and a slew of other provocative Iranian steps, including enriching uranium to 60 percent, producing uranium metal, and holding critical agency monitoring abilities hostage.
To date, this has not disrupted either Washington or Tehran’s willingness to maintain dialogue. But this is far from guaranteed in the future. U.S. personnel could be killed in a strike by an Iranian proxy group, putting pressure on the United States to respond. The agreement that allows International Atomic Energy Agency cameras to operate remains in limbo, as of this writing. Iran may decide to end it altogether, making any future verification efforts much harder, and potentially prompting a rethink by the United States about Iran’s seriousness. Iran’s expanded use of advanced centrifuges, intended in part to gain negotiating leverage, could eventually make restoring the one-year breakout timeline difficult, perhaps leading the United States to request new technical adjustments that Iran is unwilling to make. And the U.S. Congress could still act in ways that make the revival of the deal harder. In sum, there is ample room for error.
What to Expect If We’re All Wrong
What signposts could we expect to see over the coming months if in fact Iran wasn’t interested in rejoining the deal?
For one, if Iran doesn’t use Rouhani’s lame-duck period between now and early August to finalize or at least make real progress on a deal, that would call into question the theory that the supreme leader wanted to allow Raisi to avoid responsibility for the deal while gaining credit for its benefits.
Another important signpost will be how Raisi approaches the negotiations. Does he allow the talks to continue on the current trajectory, led by veteran diplomat Abbas Araqchi? Or does he try to take more control of the talks by appointing his own, possibly more hard-line, official to oversee them? If Raisi or potential members of his administration begin publicly staking out a harder line on reentry, that could be a bad signal for reviving the deal. Even if the incoming president and officials simply become more vocal about Iran’s stated negotiating positions, that would suggest they aren’t necessarily looking for negotiating flexibility or hoping to cut a quick deal with the United States. It could also reflect the type of advice that Khamenei will likely receive from the new president.
And of course, Iran’s failure to extend the technical arrangement with the International Atomic Energy Agency that allows for the agency’s cameras to continue to operate is a bad sign even if it does not directly collapse the talks.
If Iran wants a deal, why has it not agreed to one yet? Domestic politics, as well as negotiating strategy, help explain the delay. Khamenei may have been concerned that a deal before the election would lead to a surge in support for moderate or reformist candidates that would upset carefully laid plans to elevate Raisi to the presidency. As noted above, he also may see advantages in letting Raisi get credit for the economic relief that would accompany reentry.
Iran has also been reticent to move too quickly, lest it appear overeager or desperate. For example, the talks between the United States and Iran to date have been indirect at Iran’s request. This has added significant delay, but Tehran appears to have judged that a more tortured and drawn-out negotiating process is a small price to pay in order to signal continued frustration with Washington’s withdrawal from the deal and to demonstrate that the deal is not a “revolving door.” And if Iran’s more hard-line negotiating demands help nudge the United States further toward its position, for example, by removing more sanctions, then all the better for Tehran.
On balance we believe the structural and political factors mean that a deal is still likely. But while each side may profess a desire to return to the nuclear deal, there is still significant uncertainty and room for error. The longer this drags on without resolution, the greater the risk that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as we know it will no longer be salvageable.
Eric Brewer (@BrewerEricM) is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Henry Rome (@hrome2) is a senior analyst on Iran, Israel, and global macro issues at Eurasia Group. The authors would like to thank Michael Singh, Raz Zimmt, and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful feedback on a draft of this article.
Image: Iran’s Supreme Leader