Despite Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s clear refusal to return to the terms of the nuclear agreement without the US first reengaging, Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif has put forward a strategy that can be called a simultaneous or “step-by-step” policy. He described a compromise solution represented in the simultaneous return to the agreement by the Iranian and American sides in exchange for concessions, under the auspices of a European mediator.
The American response came in the form of implicit rejection. The United States cannot talk about a return to the nuclear agreement before making sure Iran returns to its obligations, especially with regard to uranium enrichment rates (3.5%), and ensuring that the quantities of enriched uranium produced during the period of violating the agreement are disposed of. Iran must also agree to inspection of its nuclear facilities to ensure the ceiling of production capabilities of centrifuges is adhered to. That is a complex process and is expected to take no less than a year. Thus, any premature American declaration of willingness to return to the nuclear agreement would be a political victory for the mullahs without any compensation for the American side.
The political mood of the mullahs hardened in response to harsh insults from former president Trump. However, logic demands that they must show negotiation flexibility. That includes agreeing to the framework of negotiations, which everyone believes should include regional countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and declaring a cessation of violating the agreement. That would help create a favorable atmosphere and give the American administration an opportunity to make a difficult decision regarding a return to the agreement. The crisis has exhausted many American efforts, and has become so complicated that it is difficult to say that a return is the key to restoring regional security and stability.
The reality is that the mullahs are not able to read the signals of the new US administration. They continue to deal with President Biden as an extension of former president Barack Obama. They were surprised by the statements of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during which he confirmed his administration’s keenness to consult with its allies before embarking on any steps on the issue. He also talked about canceling the old agreement and renegotiating new terms that include the Iranian missile program, the Islamic Republic’s regional role and its sponsorship of militias.
We are facing an American vision that changed with the change of president. However, the mullahs engaged in wishful thinking and believed a radical transformation would happen, and that the US would return to Obama’s approach.
In fact, Blinken’s statements indicate a firmer American position than that of the Trump administration, as Trump did not talk, for example, about Iran being weeks away from acquiring a nuclear weapon. This statement in itself is very important, as the new secretary of state was not obliged to say this at the start of a new administration. It seems he wanted to signal European allies about their responsibilities, play a major role in pressuring the mullahs and deal early with any Russian or Chinese support for the Iranian side. And perhaps, Blinken also wanted to increase the pressure by giving a “green light” to Israel – if it wanted – to launch a surprise military strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities.
It is clear that the mullahs do not want to appear as if they are retreating. But President Biden, on the other hand, cannot reengage unilaterally. He needs to make decisions that restore the prestige of the United States globally, and thus the situation remains secret, awaiting an effective breakthrough by one of the parties, and this is unlikely, at least in light of the current situation.
The author is UAE political analyst and former Federal National Council candidate.