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Can the Iran nuclear deal be saved?

Federica Mogherini (L), EU foreign and security policy chief, and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) attend a meeting with foreign affairs officials from Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia to discuss the JCPOA at the UN headquarters in New York Sept. 25, 2019 | PA Images

4 min read

The election of Joe Biden offers a glimmer of hope for the Iran nuclear deal, but the road to diplomacy will still be long and fraught

For many policy makers in Washington and Tehran, Joe Biden’s election will come with a sigh of relief. The President-elect has promised to dampen tensions with the Islamic Republic by re-joining the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).  

While signatories like the UK, France and Germany have sought to keep the deal alive, the task of bringing Iran and America back to the negotiating table will be fraught with numerous difficulties.

Firstly, Iran is undoubtedly a far different country in economic and sociopolitical terms since the deal was first negotiated in 2015.

Sporadic but violent street protests have rocked the nation since late 2018. For the first time since the Islamic Republic’s foundation in 1979, a broad coalition of the population, from conservatives to liberals, urban and rural, have flooded the streets calling for the establishment of a secular democratic state. A minority of protestors have even called for the restoration of the Pahlavi monarchy, under the late Shah’s son.

Although Iran’s state apparatus has effectively supressed these protest movements on numerous occasions, the demands and grievances that fuelled them remain unabated. Rampant corruption, a crippled economy, severe human rights abuses and a general disillusionment with the theocratic system continue to plague Iran.

In the backdrop of this precarious environment, hardliners have exploited the weaknesses of President Hassan Rouhani by tightening their grip over key institutions. While a Biden presidency has been met with cautious optimism in Tehran, it is unlikely to shift Iran’s overall policy in the short term. Iran’s most powerful actor, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has committed to retaining an aggressive stance towards America.

Importantly, unlike ‘pragmatists’ like President Rouhani who have advocated deeper economic and political ties with the West, hardliners have sought to downplay the importance of a nuclear deal through building a ‘resistance economy’ – a doctrine that attempts to water down the impacts of sanctions by creating a stronger focus on domestic industries, often run by the shadowy Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Complicating matters further, President Rouhani has been dealt a major blow in the 2020 parliamentary elections, which saw traditional hardliners make significant gains. With Rouhani’s tenure as President concluding in May 2021, the chances of another pragmatic president being elected are limited. It is almost certain that the Supreme Leader will field hardliner candidates who share his ambivalence towards a renegotiated nuclear settlement, further mudding the waters.

However, even with these institutional and geopolitical pressures the Biden administration has already indicated its interest in working with European powers to create a joint approach to negotiations. A first step touted would be allowing access to humanitarian goods and services currently blacklisted under sanctions, thereby offering Iran an incentive to begin a détente with the US.

It is unlikely that a Biden Administration will quickly begin the process of renegotiating the JCOPA. Combatting Covid-19 and rebuilding America’s economy will be his top-priorities. This longer-term approach may well inadvertently provide greater opportunities to leverage the Islamic Republic.

If the current sanctions persist over the next few years, then economic and social malaise would likely see Iran brought back to the negotiating table. This provides a chance for a newly negotiated agreement to become a reality.

For a Iran Deal 2.0, the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US – the UN Security Council's five permanent members; plus Germany) could take a radically altered approach to negotiating with Iran. While the 2015 JCPOA focused solely on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, a new deal could be more holistic. For example, on the issue of ballistics and imports of new armaments, the UK and US could push for a more robust mechanism that curtails Iran’s military capabilities.

America and its European counterparts could go a step further, by pushing for an agreement that refers to Iran’s human rights record. A joint effort to promote the rights of systematically persecuted communities like the Baháʼís and enshrining greater protection for women rights would help fulfil some of the grievances espoused by the Iranian populace.

For the UK, a newly negotiated JCOPA could be the first major multilateral agreement that takes place following Brexit. Such a deal could provide a powerful new opportunity for the UK to truly demonstrate that the Global Britain strategy is underpinned by multilateralism and human rights, even in an age of populism and unilateralism.


Nabil Rastani is Dods senior political consultant for defence and international trade

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