US President Donald Trump shows the document reinstating sanctions against Iran. Photo:  AFP / Saul Loeb
Then-US president Donald Trump shows the document reinstating sanctions against Iran after pulling out of the JCPOA in 2018, a move applauded by Israel at the time. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

There’s no sign of a breakthrough in restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal repudiated by US president Donald Trump in 2018.

The agreement, which restricted many of Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities, has been slowly undermined by the US withdrawal and Iran’s creeping violations of its provisions. Seven rounds of talks in Vienna under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have not been able to overcome the disagreements among the parties.

It’s important to remember that the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was never a standalone treaty to prevent Iran from all atomic activity. It was an effort led by France, the UK and Germany and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, China and Russia), to bring Iran back into compliance with its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Iran never withdrew from that treaty and said it sought to abide by its provisions, which allow peaceful use of nuclear technology and verifiable evidence that such activity is not being directed to a weapons program.

The 2015 agreement put Iran in the penalty box, requiring the government to stop or scale back specific activities on various timelines. The deal envisaged the gradual phase-out of the agreement, when Iran returned to the stage of a normal NPT signatory state.

The diplomatic process was to provide Iran with financial relief from many of the crippling sanctions imposed on it by the international community and in particular by the US. But Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and the reciprocal defiance from Tehran in ramping up uranium enrichment beyond levels set by the deal complicated efforts by the Joe Biden administration to return to the agreement.

A US State Department official summed up the state of play at the conclusion of the latest round of talks in Vienna last week: “It was better than it might have been, it was worse than it should have been.” This Dickensian formulation underscored the frustration of the US side that Iran chose to end the talks despite some modest progress on IAEA access to sites and on the text for future negotiations.

It’s hard to escape the impression that the talks are at a serious stalemate. Iran seeks assurances that all US-imposed sanctions after 2018 should be lifted first. The US, however, insists on Iran committing to full compliance with the agreement before putting the sanctions-relief process into motion.  

One criticism of the JCPOA process in the past was the lack of a formal role for the regional powers most directly affected by Iran’s destabilizing activities, namely Israel and Gulf Arab states.

Even before the normalization of relations between Israel and several Arab countries toward the end of the Trump administration, America’s Gulf allies separately pressed Washington to pursue tough policies toward Iran. The intensity with which they conveyed those views to Capitol Hill was a formidable factor in policy deliberations and US diplomacy.

But given the impasse between Washington and Tehran, coupled with a growing disappointment in America’s leadership in friendly capitals in the Middle East, those powers are shifting their own positions. A series of reports coming out of Israel suggest that key national-security figures now say their campaign to erode US support for the JCPOA may not have been a wise move.

Some of these security experts now realize that the JCPOA, for all its limitations, was still a constraint on Iran’s activities. And there’s no military solution: Israel’s intelligence apparatus has slowed down Iran’s nuclear program through clandestine operations against infrastructure and assassinations of scientists, but these controversial moves have not led to any durable reduction in the threat.

The Israelis may have also realized that their close ties to Trump were based on a false premise. They interpreted his tough talk on Iran as a pledge to use force if necessary to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. In fact, Trump’s rhetoric of shared solidarity on the Iranian threat was to encourage the regional states to manage the problem, since he was deeply opposed to new military adventures.

And now Israel’s security establishment is being more open about the daunting challenges of using military force without US participation. In Washington last week, Israeli officials pressed hard for assurances that the US has not ruled out force to deal with Iran.  

On the Arab side, there’s a newfound interest in diplomacy with Iran, aided by Iraq’s key role as a bridge. One should not expect any outbreak of trust across Persian Gulf, but recognition that the Arab states can do more to prevent conflict is a welcome development. It may be based more on a realization that the US either cannot or will not make the Iran problem go away.  

Whether or not the Vienna process succeeds, there’s a new tone of pragmatism among Iran’s neighbors that won’t solve the nuclear issue, but could improve the security environment in the area. 

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Ellen Laipson

Ellen Laipson is director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former vice-chairwoman of the US National Intelligence Council.