Tuesday

13th Apr 2021

Analysis

Why Iran desperately wants a new nuclear deal

  • Iran's president Hassan Rouhani is under pressure to make a new nuclear deal to save his legacy. The people are angry and Iran's regional alliance is faltering (Photo: kamshots)

This week new negotiations started between Iran, the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and the EU.

All actors hope to achieve an agreement that will reinstall the nuclear deal of 2015, then called the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) - but all know negotiations are going to be difficult.

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The JCPOA was signed on 14 July 2015, after 20 months of negotiations between the five members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, led by the EU.

In this nuclear deal, Iran agreed to eliminate most of its already-enriched uranium for 13 years, and only enrich uranium up to 3.67 percent for the next 15 years.

In return the United Nations and the EU would terminate some sanctions, and suspend others, by which Iran would have access to €100bn of frozen assets abroad.

In short, the nuclear deal would make sure Tehran would not make nuclear arms, while the country would gain economically by the end of sanctions and by fresh investments.

After the International Atomic and Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran met the requirements, all sanctions were lifted on 16 January 2016, opening the country for trade and foreign investment.

Trump stops the party, Biden restarts it

Already during the US presidential campaign of 2016, Donald Trump called the JCPOA a "bad deal" and warned he would get out of it.

After being elected, president Trump said several times he would "blow up" the deal, which he officially did on 8 May 2018, when the United States withdrew.

With the election of Joe Biden as the new president, the US said it would restart negotiations in order to reinstall the deal.

In the meantime, Iran had publicly declared that it would breach the limitations on uranium enrichment, but adding that it would not be difficult to reverse the decision.

Both the American and the Iranian positions made it more difficult to go back to the original deal.

According to Iran, it was Washington that blew up the deal, causing havoc to the Iranian economy. Therefore, Iran demanded that the US lift sanctions before Tehran would go back to the negotiating table.

The US on the other hand claimed that Iran had enriched uranium - despite the fact that the deal was still in place with Russia, China, Europe and the UK. Therefore, Iran had to comply with the requirements from the IAEA first.

It became quickly clear that the deadlock would only be solved by mediation by the EU.

That is exactly what the EU is doing this week, going from the room where the US negotiators are to the Iranian room and back, hoping to bring all negotiators on one and the same table one day.

Iran is in a hurry

Compared to 2015, Iran is in a different situation. First of all at home.

At the end of 2019, Iran saw the largest protests since the revolutionary days of 1979. Contrary to 1979, the 2019 protests were almost all about the economy.

The sanctions are strangling Iran's economy completely. There are all sort of shortages, not least of medicine. Tourism has stalled and revenues dried up.

Even though the protests were crushed (and hundreds of people killed), that anger is still there.

This anger was reflected in the 2020 parliamentary elections, where hardliners, opposing the nuclear deal, won a majority of the seats.

On 18 June 2021 there are even more important elections - as Iranians elect a new president, new local councils, new members of parliament in a byelection, and a new Assembly of Experts (a group of clerics that theoretically elects the supreme leader.)

Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, already called for a "young Hezbollahi" president, or a active hardliner.

So, the only way for current president Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to save their moderate legacy of opening up the country is making a new nuclear deal before polling day.

Iran's new regional isolation

On top of the domestic opposition against Rouhani's policy, there has been a sudden, important shift in the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Until a few weeks ago, one could divide the Middle East in two camps. The first camp, under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, consisted of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Israel.

The other camp shares a sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, with Qatar, Turkey, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran as its members.

Both camps were, for example, fighting each other in a proxy war in Libya, where the Saudi camp supported general Khalifa Haftar, and Turkey's camp the government in Tripoli.

The fact that Qatar was a member of the opposite camp was also the reason why Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Egypt and Jordan decided to put a blockade on the country in 2017.

In January 2021, the blockade was lifted. Since then, Al Jazeera, the TV channel of Qatar, changed its course from very critical towards the Saudi camp to sympathetic, or at least neutral.

In March of this year, Turkey too started to change its position. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been harsh towards Egypt's president Abdelfattah Sisi for his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, is now looking for rapprochement.

The reason is that Egypt made an agreement with Cyprus and Greece on drilling for gas in the Mediterranean. Also, war has ended in Libya with a new united government.

As Iran is fighting proxy wars in Yemen and Syria and has its proxy powers in Iraq and Lebanon, it cannot continue this alone.

The negotiation leverage that Iran has built up in wars, in terrorism and in partnerships in the region, is becoming a financial and political burden.

Therefore, Iran needs the nuclear deal, and it needs it fast.

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