Robert Malley, who served on Obama’s negotiating team for nuclear deal with Iran, has been appointed by the Biden administration as the special envoy for Iran. Malley’s appointment is being widely interpreted as signalling the new administration’s willingness to engage with Tehran notwithstanding the immediate and fundamental disagreement over who will first begin to comply with a deal that lies in tatters after Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018 and a year later when Iran stopped complying in a step-by-step manner.
Malley, who until his new appointment was the CEO and President of the International Crisis Group, a Washington-based think-tank, has been critical of the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy. Instead, he has supported a mutually acceptable diplomatic settlement and de-escalation of tensions with Iran. Most recently, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, in March 2020, Malley had argued for a two-phased humanitarian de-escalation: one in which Washington will facilitate the transfer of medicine and medical equipment to Iran in exchange for the release of American nationals detained by Iran; and second, where the US will not block Iran’s request for IMF loans in exchange for Tehran freezing its nuclear escalation and reigning in its allied groups in Iraq, and preventing further attacks on the US facilities. While more than 200 foreign policy experts and progressive groups including the influential National Iranian American Council came out in support of his nomination, some pro-Israel groups and Republican lawmakers have accused Malley of sympathising with the Iranian government and promoting enmity towards Israel. Malley has also been critical of the Trump administration’s support for Israel’s annexation of territories in the West Bank as it makes a two-state solution unviable if not impossible.
Over the last year, Iran decided in a step-by-step strategy to move away from its commitments originally enshrined in the JCPOA. Hence their commitments still when the treaty itself was dead. A new legislation ‘The Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions Act,’ passed by the Iranian parliament within days after the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, authorised the government to start enriching uranium at 20 percent purity, install advanced centrifuges and requires the government to suspend compliance with the Additional Protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, after three months from the ratification of the legislation and if the parties to the deal fail to uphold obligations under the deal. Moreover, Tehran insists that its breaches of the JCPOA are essentially ‘remedial actions’ duly notified to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and fully in conformity with paragraph 36 of the JCPOA, which allows Iran to “cease performing its commitments” should another signatory stop performing its own. Therefore, the Iranian position is that the onus of salvaging the nuclear agreement lies on the United States (US), which must “unconditionally remove, with full effect, all sanctions imposed, reimposed, or relabled since Trump took office.” On the scheduling issue of who will comply first, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has argued that this issue was one of the longest issues and it is impossible to renegotiate. The idea that the two sides had to carry out their respective obligations in a way that is “simultaneous and parallel” had been one of the principles agreed by Kerry and Zarif in the framework deal reached in Lausanne after eighteen months of intensive bargaining and eight-day period near continuous talks in 2015. In other words, the Iranian position is that it is only by lifting sanctions that Washington can revive the agreement. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, a votary of ‘economy of resistance’ that make the Iranian economy resistant to sanctions, has argued that Iran has ‘no urgency’ for the US to return to the deal and will not renegotiate the multilateral agreement that the US has exited from. In October last year, in a commencement speech to military graduates, Khamenei rejected European signatories’ call for a broader negotiation with Iran that would include Iran’s missile program and regional influence.
A major criticism of the JCPOA among a section of the Western and regional policymakers and scholars was that it did not address Tehran’s regional activities and security concerns of Washington’s regional allies, and the agreement with Iran would destabilise the region by legitimising Iran’s status as a regional power. However, following the nuclear agreement which removed the threat of military confrontation with the US, Tehran had revived its calls for regional security dialogue with its neighbours. Among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman had also expressed willingness for such a dialogue. But Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) instead sought to balance Iran by bringing in Israel, as visible in the accelerated trend of the US-backed Arab ‘normalisation’ of ties with Tel Aviv. Iran which has traditionally maintained that it will discuss regional security issues only with the regional countries has categorically dismissed French President Emanuel Macron’s argument that talks on a new agreement with Iran should include countries in the region including Saudi Arabia. However, Foreign Minister Zarif has intensified his calls for confidence-building measures and security dialogue with Arab neighbours in the Persian Gulf. Qatar, which has close ties with Tehran and had previously mediated between Iran and the US, has supported dialogue between Iran and its neighbours. Even as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE have restored relations with Doha by ending the blockade, they expressed the view that the rapprochement with Qatar meant that the GCC would be better able to combat the “threat posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme.” While Anthony Blinken, the new US Secretary of State, tried to assuage fears among the US allies in the region by promising to consult Gulf states and Israel “on take-off, not the landing of” new negotiations with Iran, even so it would not be easy to reconcile with Netanyahu’s alarmist position calling Washington’s re-entering of the JCPOA a mistake. However, Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s former rival and Defence Minister in the unity government, has displayed a more favourable attitude towards the Biden administration and asserted that he will not allow Netanyahu to bypass him on any talks with Washington on crafting a policy towards Iran.
Notwithstanding the Biden administration’s willingness to return to the JCPOA, the road ahead is going to be long and tough. The Rouhani administration had negotiated the 2015 nuclear agreement with popular support as well as political backing from the Supreme Leader. Thus, Iran was able to make compromises and accept intensive monitoring and scrutiny of its nuclear programme. This time around, an Iran bruised and wounded by Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign and with public outrage at a high on account of assassinations of its leaders may not be able to muster the same ‘heroic flexibility’ that helped clinch a deal.
*Dr. Deepika Saraswat, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
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