The United States pulled out of the Iran 2015 nuclear deal two years after former president Donald Trump, a Republican, rose to power in 2016. Trump failed to secure a second term in office and the Democrats who had promised a return to the pact on the campaign trail won the 2020 election. The administration of Joe Biden did not rush to rejoin the pact. Indirect talks for the revival of the troubled deal began in Vienna back in April but six rounds of discussions bore no concrete results.
The Vienna talks resumed in November a few months after a new government was formed in Iran. The seventh round saw Iran’s new negotiating team presenting two draft proposals for striking a deal on the restoration of the JCPOA agreed upon by other parties involved.
Now the ground appears to be paved for hammering out the terms of an agreement and finalizing drafts. A deal seems to be possible if the US shows necessary political willpower. Otherwise, the eighth round could come to an end without a result and we may witness new international and regional conditions.
Now the question is: What options does the US possibly have at the talks?
The first option could be a US return to its obligations under the JCPOA by removing sanctions imposed after the 2018 withdrawal and providing guarantees that no pullout would reoccur as Iran demands.
The US has so far refused to lift the sanctions by categorizing them into different types and evaded the issue of guarantees as it stresses that the JCPOA is a political deal and not a legal one.
If the US accommodates Iran’s demands in these key areas, the 2015 nuclear deal would be resuscitated and the obligations under the JCPOA would be lived up to again. This would help the US partially repair the damage inflicted to its image by Trump’s withdrawal from the deal both at home and overseas.
It could also bring down crude oil prices, ease regional tensions fueled by instability, open up opportunities for more regional cooperation between Iran and its Persian Gulf Arab neighbors, and improve regional stability.
Israel may not welcome this process as it would find it a hindrance to its destabilizing and crisis-mongering policies.
The second option could be a collapse of the Vienna talks and the continuation of the US “maximum pressure” campaign.
Since the sanctions did not work in the past and failed to produce favorable results, the US should not expect them to work in the future. The continuation of the failed campaign would significantly undermine Democrats inside the US and diminish Washington’s influence internationally and regionally.
On one hand, it could foster mistrust in the Middle East and set off an arms race. On the other hand, this may stoke disputes between the US and its rivals China and Russia and as a result drastically reduce the impact of the sanctions.
Israel would obviously seize such a situation and use it as a leverage inside the US.
The third option could be an interim agreement. An interim deal under which no new sanctions are imposed and in return Iran rolls back its nuclear steps is definitely a nonstarter.
Rationally, Iran will not agree to a deal that keeps the sanctions in place and at the same time requires it to give up the capacity acquired through “the remedial measures” Tehran took in response to the US withdrawal and its “maximum pressure” campaign.
It is also unlikely that the US lifts its sanctions under an interim agreement and would prefer the issue to be addressed within a final deal.
Out of the options, only the first one appears to be a real possibility for the US. Washington has a history of resorting to a possible alternative if it finds any. For sure, if the US had any alternative in the case of the JCPOA, it would have opted for that.
As a matter of fact, the Biden administration’s delay to enter talks during its first few months into office was to weigh up a second option which turned out to be unproductive.
For the time being, a return to the JCPOA by meeting Iran’s demands is the sole option before the US gets rid of the self-made crisis.
Knowing this, Iran remains vigilant enough not to take any measure that could disrupt the status quo. The US also inevitably has to accept the reality and fulfill Iran's reasonable and understandable demands. The US is the party that has to pay the price for its mistake, not the Iranian nation.
*Mojtaba Koohsari is a political analyst based in Isfahan.