Can Iran nuclear deal be salvaged?

President Joe Biden's pledge to rebuild the Iran nuclear deal is already deteriorating into a deadlock—a testament to the effectiveness of the Trump-era intrigues that sabotaged the agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On Feb. 7, Biden and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei each traded "You Go First" statements. Biden was asked on Face the Nation, "Will the US lift sanctions first in order to get Iran back to the negotiating table?" He replied, "No." He was then asked, "They have to stop enriching uranium first?" Biden nodded. On that same day, Khamenei told military commanders and staff: "If they want Iran to return to its JCPOA commitments, the US should remove all sanctions in action. After they have done this, we will check if the sanctions have truly been removed. Once this is done, we will resume our JCPOA commitments." (EA Worldview)

A week later, Tehran's Foreign Ministry stated that President Hassan Rouhani's government is obliged by law to halt implementation the Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agreement, a 1997 provision giving UN inspectors greater access to Iran's nuclear facilities, if US sanctions on Iran's oil and banking sectors are not lifted by Feb. 21. The law was passed rapidly after top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated near Tehran in late November in a sophisticated attack that Iran (plausibly) blames on Israel. (Reuters, Al Jazeera)

The assassination of Fakhrizadeh and the covert campaign of sabotage at Iran's nuclear facilities appear to have been part of an orchestrated effort to pre-emptively undermine any attempt to salvage the JCPOA after of the US presidential transition. The now-threatened nuclear deal was reached under the Obama administration in 2015, and abrogated by President Trump in July 2018. US sanctions were re-imposed immediately upon Washington's withdrawal from the pact. It was only subsequent to this, more than a year later, that Iran began exceeding limits placed on its production of nuclear materials under the deal. So there is indeed a case that the US, having abrogated the pact first, should now be the party to "blink" in the stand-off, and lift the sanctions as a good-faith measure. 

'E3,' World Court could be instrumental
The so-called E3 European powers—the UK, France and Germany—remain parties to the JCPOA, and are urging Iran to come back into compliance. (RFE/RL) Last August, the UN Security Council declined to take action on a US request to re-impose ("snap back") multilateral sanctions on Iran. The US cited terms of Security Council Resolution 2231, which formally established the JCPOA, with signatories including the US, E3 powers, Russia and China as well as Iran. Tehran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded to the US request by calling it "lawless bullying" that left Washington "isolated again." (Jurist)

But Iran could soon find itself isolated—at least by all the Western powers—if it does not return to the fold. The IAEA estimates that the Islamic Republic now has more than 10 times the amount of enriched uranium permitted under the JCPOA. (BBC News)

The matter is also being contested before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). On Feb. 3, the ICJ ruled that it has jurisdiction to hear a case brought by Iran challenging the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, rejecting a move by Washington to contest the court's authority in the matter. The lawsuit contends that the US violated the Treaty of Amity signed by Washington and Tehran in 1955. (Jurist, Al Jazeera)

Between ayatollahs and neocons
This could prove to be the most intractable diplomatic hangover from the Trump era. In a symbolic tit-for-tat move, Iran's Foreign Ministry announced last month that the country has placed sanctions on Donald Trump and a number of former officials from his administration. (Jurist) Earlier in January, Iraq issued an arrest warrant for Trump over the drone strike that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad a year before.

Biden is, of course, caught between doves and hawks on the Iran question, and will be unable to escape criticism no matter what he does. Pundit Fareed Zakaria on CNN just assailed him for insisting that Iran come back into compliance first, saying "diplomats could easily find a method for the two countries to rejoin simultaneously" and accusing him of using the demand to "avoid confronting the issue" in appeasement of the Republicans.

The hawks, meanwhile, are aghast at Biden's choice of perceived dove Robert Malley as his envoy to Iran. "The appointment of Rob Malley may be a clear indication that the Biden administration is prioritizing a return to the JCPOA over a policy of deploying American power to get a more compressive and permanent agreement," said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a neoconservative think-tank with a particular obsession on destabilizing Iran. "Malley is not a believer in American power," he added. (NYT)

Regime repression continues
While the JCPOA was not conditioned on human rights improvements in Iran, it should be noted that internal repression is again mounting in the Islamic Republic—with ethnic minorities particularly targetted. Last month saw fresh outbursts of in the ongoing wave of popular protest, this time in the Kurdish and Azeri northwest of the country. In Sanandaj, capital of Kurdistan province, market vendors held a rally in front of the offices of the provincial governorate to oppose stringent new regulations. (Iran News Update)

On Jan. 30, Iranian authorities hanged political activist Javid Dehghan—in defiance of calls from the United Nations to halt the execution. Dehghan, accused of leading militant group Jaish al-Adl, was convicted of shooting two Revolutionary Guards officials five years ago in Sistan-Baluchistan province, another restive area in the southeast. The UN Human Rights Office found that Dehghan and other accused Baluchi militants had been sentenced on the basis of "torture-tainted confessions." Dehghan's execution was one of 28 since December that targeted the Baluchi ethnic minority.  (Jurist)

The Syria factor
Finally, the ongoing struggle for control of Syria is likely to remain a source of trouble between Washington and Tehran even if the JCPOA can be rebuilt. Iran's military forces in Syria, backing up the Bashar Assad regime, have been repeatedly targetted by Israeli air-strikes. After the presidential transition in Washington, there were reports that US forces, which had been pulled across the border to Iraqi territory by Trump, were being sent back in to Syria. The war in Syria has effectively been on hold since the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year. A renewed conflagration now seems imminent, although it is still uncertain how the lines will be drawn. As we noted upon Trump's withdrawal from the JCPOA, among opponents of the deal were supporters of the Syrian Revolution, who feared that the lifting of sanctions would give Iran a freer hand to pursue its war in Syria. So a resurgence of the Syrian war would aid the effort of hawks and neocons  to deal a coup de grace to the JCPOA.