The talks in Vienna to revive the nuclear agreement with Iran, referred to as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), entered “the last stage” at the end of February. Participants then confidently said that only some “small sticking points” remained to be resolved. However, a U.S. official cautioned that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” and that the remaining issues were “extremely difficult”.
The effects of the war
The war in Ukraine commenced on February 24. Despite efforts to place a firewall between the Ukraine war and the Vienna talks, the conflict bled into the conference room: on March 3, the Russian ambassador at the Vienna talks demanded U.S. guarantees that the sanctions imposed on Russia due to the Ukraine conflict would not affect its role under the JCPOA. The Russian diplomat was referring to the JCPOA provisions under which Iran was required to export its excess enriched uranium to Russia, while Russia would help Iran to downgrade its Fordow enrichment plant into an isotope manufacturing centre to be utilised for medicinal purposes.
Western commentators said that the Russians were deliberately trying to delay the finalisation of the agreement to thwart the U.S.: the latter, it was said, was anxious to relax sanctions on Iranian oil exports so that millions of barrels of oil would enter the market and bring down the soaring oil prices, thus moderating the impact of the U.S.’s own sanctions on Russian oil exports.
In public, the U.S. took a tough stand, asserting on March 13 that it would not provide exemptions to Ukraine-related sanctions just to save the Iran deal. But this was all bravado. A day later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Russia had received written guarantees from the U.S. affirming that Russia’s role in the implementation of the JCPOA would not be affected.
With the dialogue back on track, U.S. officials said on March 16 that only “a handful of issues” were left and an agreement was within reach. Iran said an agreement was “closer than ever”, but insisted its “red lines” should be accommodated. However, no agreement has materialised so far. While Iran has been insisting on the removal of all sanctions imposed during the Donald Trump administration, the deal-breaker at present is just one — the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO), a tag placed on it by the Trump administration in August 2019.
The principal reason why this has remained unresolved so far lies in U.S. domestic politics. The Vienna talks are taking place when the U.S. is deeply polarised at home, with the Republicans and some Democrats, backed by their cohorts in the Israel lobby and the media, spouting venom on Iran and opposing any concessions to achieve a deal. U.S. President Joe Biden has low approval ratings at home: he is being held responsible for the failure of his domestic agenda due to opposition from within his own party, as also the U.S.’s ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. Hence, it is almost impossible for the president to remove the FTO tag from the IRGC, even though this is largely a symbolic issue since there are several other U.S. sanctions on the organisation.
Outlook for the region
There is no indication as yet that the JCPOA will be finalised. U.S. negotiator Rob Malley said recently that an agreement is neither imminent nor inevitable. U.S. anxiety to get Iranian oil into the market is tempered by the challenges Mr. Biden faces at home — if the opposition gets its way, the November elections could make him a lame duck President and possibly even pave the way for a Republican President in 2024.
However, the JCPOA carries much less significance for Iran now than it did in 2015. In this period, Iran has mastered the nuclear enrichment cycle and is capable of defending its technological achievements. Again, its resilient population has survived the worst nightmares of economic privation. Now, prospects of national rejuvenation are already apparent: in December 2021, Iran sold about 1.2 million barrels/day (mpd) of oil, as against 0.4 mpd in 2020.
The International Monetary Fund projects that Iran will have a GDP growth of 2% in 2022, following an average 3% growth over the previous two years. This will place Iran within 95% of where its economy was when Mr. Trump induced a recession in 2018-19, shrinking the economy by 12.4% through sanctions.
Iran’s problems with the U.S. are not based on technical issues pertaining to uranium enrichment; they were political and relate to its domestic order and regional role. However, successive U.S. administrations, under pressure from hostile domestic lobbies, have not had the required domestic support to address these matters successively. Iran has now moved on, with deepening ties with Russia and China, and robust engagements — political, economic, military and logistical — with regional partners. Iran is rebuilding relations with Azerbaijan, is a partner with Turkey in Syria, and has had four rounds of dialogue with Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, the U.S. itself has lost much of its credibility as a security provider in the region, aggravated by signals of disengagement from West Asian affairs from the Biden administration. This has encouraged regional players to pursue multiple diplomatic engagements amongst themselves — the UAE, for instance, is in dialogue with Iran, while building close ties with Israel and Egypt, and economic cooperation with Turkey. Iraq is pursuing a cooperation network with Egypt and Jordan, while Turkey has reached out to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, while retaining close ties with Qatar and Iran.
The spoiler in the region is the ongoing Israel-Iran hostility – Israel under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett remains firmly opposed to the nuclear deal and continues to attack Iranian assets in Syria, Iraq and even Iran itself. But Israel also needs Russia to guarantee the security of its northern border with Syria by controlling Iranian presence and, on occasion, greenlighting its attacks on Iranian targets. Not surprisingly, not one West Asian country, besides Kuwait, has condemned Russia over the Ukraine conflict or imposed sanctions on it.
Ukraine is the arena where the U.S. is seeking to affirm the resilience of the ‘Western’ alliance, but further south, the nations of the Trans-Caucasus and West Asia are already shaping new alignments amongst themselves, in partnership with Russia and China. This will form the basis of a new multipolar order in international affairs.
Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis international University, Pune