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US must now move quickly to reseal the Iran nuclear deal

In an important breakthrough, indirect negotiations are to begin between the US and Iran to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. It will be recalled that former president Donald Trump had pulled the US out of the accord in 2018 as part of his so-called maximum pressure campaign to compel Iran to agree to new terms and conditions. This of course was totally unacceptable to Iran which saw the US manoeuvre as completely illegal – and rightly so. After all, Iran had abided by all the stipulations of the deal and subjected itself to the most stringent nuclear inspections in history. But Trump, in order to help his Middle Eastern friends Israel and Saudi Arabia, unilaterally withdrew from the accord and reimposed sanctions on Iran.

Which was patently unfair and particularly harsh for Iran in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, the crippling economic sanctions meant that Iran couldn’t fully use its own resources to boost its fight against Covid. In that sense, the sanctions hit ordinary Iranian people and denied them access to badly needed medical resources and essentials. This was a huge injustice and it was hoped that the Biden administration would quickly reverse the Trump-era approach. After all, Biden himself had criticised the Trump decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal before he became president and had indicated his desire to bring the US back to the accord as a presidential candidate.

But a strange sort of situation prevailed in the early weeks of the Biden administration when Washington seemed to be in no hurry to return to the deal. In fact, Team Biden strangely indicated that Iran would have to return to compliance first – Tehran had rescinded some of its commitments as a response to the Trump measures as per the provisions of the deal itself. Biden himself hinted at this in an interview. But this was bizarre as it was the US that had broken its commitments to the deal in 2018, not Iran. So asking Tehran to return to full compliance first as a pre-condition for Washington to return to the accord was ridiculous.

Thankfully, better sense appears to be prevailing although some tricky negotiations lie ahead. The US wants a choreographed, step-by-step process that will eventually lead to mutual compliance. It also wants to negotiate with Iran to extend the time limitations in the deal and simultaneously constrain Tehran’s missile programme. But the Iranians have made it clear that they want a one-shot lifting of all US sanctions. Plus, there is the issue of the upcoming presidential elections in Iran in June, which means that the two sides don’t have much time to settle the matter before the Iranian polls complicate things.

But as I have written before, I continue to believe that the Biden administration wants to create a balance in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And the US returning to the nuclear deal and lifting all sanctions on Iran is crucial to that aim. In case people have forgotten, Iran has long been a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory and is entitled to a civilian nuclear programme. And the 2015 nuclear deal put all Iranian nuclear facilities under 24×7 watch. What more can Iran do to allay US suspicions? The truth is that Saudi Arabia and the Israeli right-wing don’t want sanctions on Iran lifted as they fear this will provide a huge economic boost to Tehran and speed up its modernisation. And that will directly put pressure on the Saudi royal family which is trying to implement delicate socio-economic reforms in the kingdom without losing control. Meanwhile, the Israeli right-wing presents Iran as an existential threat because this helps retain its own political relevance. For, treating Iran as a pariah is the perfect way to ensure hawks remain in charge in Tehran, which the Israeli right-wing can present as a problem.

But continued unfair sanctions on Iran will only create instability in the Middle East. Iran enjoys significant strategic depth in the region and trying to curb it in this fashion will only fuel negative forces. Therefore, the US must quickly return to the nuclear deal, work out a modus vivendi with Iran and encourage dialogue between Tehran and Riyadh to dial down regional tensions. Biden has an opportunity to shine as a statesman here. He must not let this moment slip.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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