Conflict Alerts # 327, 11 February 2021
In the news
On 7 February, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran made a statement on the removal of sanctions as a precondition for Iran to return to its nuclear commitments. The Washington Post referring to the State TV quoted: “If (the U.S.) wants Iran to return to its commitments, it must lift all sanctions in practice, then we will do verification … then we will return to our commitments.” The report also quoted the Ayatollah saying “This is the definitive and irreversible policy of the Islamic Republic, and all of the country’s officials are unanimous on this, and no one will deviate from it.”
On the same day, when Joe Biden was asked in an interview whether the US would remove sanctions first in order to get Iran back to the negotiating table, he responded negatively saying that Iran should stop enriching Uranium first.
On 10 February, the Wall Street Journal, referring to an IAEA report that it had access to, reported that “Iran has produced a material that is banned under the 2015 nuclear accords and could be used to form the core of a nuclear weapon.” According to the WSJ, the “material produced was a small amount of natural uranium metal.”
Issues at large
First, the new US administration and an old issue in the Middle East. Curbing Iran’s nuclear capability to produce nuclear weapons has been one of the primary goals of the American administrations under different Presidents during the last few decades. Until the Obama administration, sanctions were used as a primary tool to prevent Iran from pursuing the nuclear weapon option. Under Obama, the US tried to approach Iran with a negotiation strategy, thereby halting the sanctions approach. Along with a few other countries, the US in July 2015 signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); besides the US, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany are a party to the agreement. In 2018, Trump announced unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA without any consultation with other members, and reimposed sanctions on Iran, as a part of his new maximum pressure strategy.
Second, the policy options for the new US administration. Biden earlier did underline the need for the US to return to the JCPOA. He was a part of the Obama administration, that negotiated the JCPOA with Iran. However for Biden, so much had happened between July 2015 (when the Iran nuclear agreement was signed) and January 2021 (when Biden became the President). In a statement last week, Biden announced the “US is back” and “diplomacy is back” strategy and outlined his intentions on Yemen and Saudi Arabia; however, he was silent on Iran. This underlines the huge differences within the US policymaking institutions on Iran – from the Congress to State Department. Biden will have to build consensus within the US on Iran, before reaching out to Iran.
Third, Iran’s maximum pressure strategy. Ironically, it is Iran and not the US, that has been pursuing a maximum pressure strategy since Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018. A series of statements in the recent months and actions have announced Iran’s intentions to go ahead with its threats to take the nuclear weapon road. Trump administration’s regional approach (from the Middle East peace plan to assassinations) also had a target-Iran, as an underlying strategy. In return, Iran has been pursuing the nuclear weapon option, to pressurize the US and the others to get back to the JCPOA.
Sanctions have not worked in the past. And it would not in the future. Biden will have to build consensus within the US and return to the JCPOA. Iran will have to stop the nuclear weapon route as a strategy and fulfil its JCPOA commitments. Any other option is fraught with danger and regional instability.