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Iran – nuclear deal in the balance

The first foreign policy test for Biden looks sets to be the nuclear deal with Iran, which the United States reneged on in 2018. JANE GREEN assesses the prospects of an agreement

THE return to compliance with the deal struck by Western powers with Iran in 2015 was always going to be a key priority for the incoming US administration.  

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran nuclear deal, was seen as a key achievement of the Obama administration when Joe Biden was vice-president, so was unlikely to be far from the new president’s thinking having secured the top job.

Biden also needs to address the embarrassment of the US having reneged on an international agreement, when Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018, causing consternation among European allies and in the wider region.  

The US withdrawal, accompanied by a tightening of sanctions against the Islamic Republic, gave hard-line conservatives in Iran licence to resume its uranium enrichment programme, thereby also Iran stepping outside of the terms of the deal.

With the new presidency US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, in a recent BBC interview stated that the US and its European partners were, ”once again on the same page” in relation to Iran.

Although keen to see the deal reinstated Biden has not approached the issue without conditions, wanting to discuss with Iran some “deeply problematic” regional issues before consideration of the question of lifting sanctions can begin.

Those issues centre around Iran’s adventurist foreign policy which has included support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.  

Iranian influence over the Shi’ite-dominated government in Iraq may be waning but has been a strong factor in the regional power balance.  

Biden also has to weigh the fact that Israel, the US strategic partner and its eyes and ears in the region, continues to portray Iran as an existential threat.  

The threat of an Israeli air strike against Iran has escalated in recent years with a series of high-profile assassinations of Iranians, widely believed to have been the work of the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad.  

Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that he is opposed to the US returning to the nuclear deal.

The EU has offered to broker talks between the US and Iran in order to revive the deal but the Iranian position remains that the US must act first and lift sanctions.

The EU and US see the regime’s hardliners in Iran’s parliament as having upped the ante by setting a deadline by which the Islamic Republic will withdraw from the additional protocol, the legal framework that governs the IAEA inspection regime. Iran’s action could be as early as next week.

The Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, has attempted to play down the significance of withdrawing from the additional protocol, saying it was voluntarily accepted by Iran and gave the IAEA exceptional access beyond what is normal. 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that it was propaganda to suggest Iran was putting pressure on the US, arguing that Tehran was only asking it to comply with the law. 

In what has been seen as a clear message to Biden, he said: “Surrendering to law is not a fault. Do not shy away. What is bad is surrendering to force.”

While there has not been any formal direct contact between Iran and the US, Blinken has been in touch with Qatar’s foreign minister, before the latter travelled to Iran this week as a mediator. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is believed to have spoken to Rouhani urging him not to cut back on the inspections.  

The European Council president Charles Michel has also spoken to Rouhani and stressed that “the need to preserve a space for diplomacy, underpinned by positive steps, was crucial at this stage.”

With its own presidential elections due in June, there is every chance that the hardliners in Iran’s parliament, and any emerging candidates, will see taking a hard line with the United States as a vote-winner.

However, the real losers in the current face-off are as ever, the Iranian people, caught between a corrupt theocratic government on one side and the possibility of ongoing international sanctions or military intervention on the other.  

The US and EU have not suggested that they will raise the question of Iran’s human rights record and compliance with ILO conventions as part of any negotiation.   

However, a settlement which offers some stability in the short term, with sanctions relief allowing some life to be breathed into the gasping Iranian economy, may at least give the Iranian working people some recovery time.   

In the longer term it may even embolden an already restless population to push for greater democratic concessions despite the threat of brutal repression by the regime.  

The people of Iran will continue to need the support of trade union and peace activists across Britain and the rest of the world if they are to achieve their goal of a democratic Iran.

Jane Green is co-ordinator of Codir, the Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (codir.net).

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