Us, Iran And the Future of JCPOA

Analytic Brief, n.12, April 2021

One of the declared foreign policy goals of Joseph Biden's administration is to revive The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that deals with the Iranian nuclear issue. This implies not only reaching the narrow goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but also achieving partial normalization of relations between the U.S. and Iran and reducing tensions in the Middle East. It seems, however, that this path will be quite difficult. The obstacles include: unacceptability for the Iranian side of certain requirements put forward by Washington; the U.S. desire to weaken Iran militarily and politically; the intention of the Iranian leadership to stop or significantly reduce the American military presence in the region; confrontation between Iran and Israel.

Prospects of negotiations

President Biden announced his intention to return to the JCPOA and normalize relations with Iran back in November 2020 in an interview with The New York Times. He, however, made clear that such return and removal of sanctions are dependent on certain conditions:

• inclusion of Iran's missile program into the agenda of negotiations;

• inclusion of the issue of Iranian proxy groups in the Middle East;

• expansion of the circle of participants in the negotiation process to include Saudi Arabia, other Arabian monarchies and Israel.

A number of Biden key aids are in favor of reviving diplomacy with Iran. Jake Sullivan, who led the U.S. delegation to the negotiations with the Iranians on the JCPOA in 2013-2015, is now the President's National Security Adviser. Sullivan has a reputation of someone who favors détente in U.S.- Iranian relations.

An even greater Iranian sympathizer is the new U.S. Presidential Special Representative for Iran, Robert Malley, who also participated in the 2013-2015 talks. Robert Malley is the son of Simon Malley, an Egyptian journalist of Jewish origins, who was a staunch supporter of Arab nationalism, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1954-1970) and the Algerian National Liberation Front. Nasser made Malley the representative of the Egyptian daily newspaper Al Gomhuria in New York City. In 1969, he moved to France where he founded the magazine Afrique Asie. Malley was known for his sympathies for national liberation movements and for his criticism of the French foreign policy in Africa and elsewhere. In 1980 he was expelled from France, but later was able to return.

His son Robert Malley (whose mother is American) served at the National Security Council under Barack Obama from February 2014 until January 2017. In 2015, the Obama administration appointed Robert Malley as its key expert on the Middle East, leading the Middle East desk of the National Security Council. Robert Malley is known to be critical of Israel. In January 2021, a group of U.S. senators from both the Republican and Democratic parties sent Biden a letter asking him to rescind Mulley's appointment.

Incidentally, in addition to Mallеy, a number of new U.S. administration officials are of Middle Eastern and Arab origin. They include Ambassador-at-Large, Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr (of Lebanese origin), the Deputy Director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs Reema Dodin (of Palestinian origin), White House Vaccinations Coordinator Bechara Choukair (of Lebanese origin), and National Security Council Intelligence Director Maher Bitar (of Palestinian origin).

The Biden administration has announced that it intends to re-establish contact with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, reopen the PLO office in Washington and resume aid to UNRWA (the UN agency that deals with Palestinian refugees around the world). William Burns, a former career diplomat and US ambassador to Moscow, is also a proponent of a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear problem.

Qatari mediation

The first step in testing the Iranian side’s willingness to negotiate was Qatari mediation. On February 15, 2021, Qatar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al-Thani visited Tehran and declared the readiness of his country to help to resolve the Iranian nuclear deal situation. The visit was preceded by meetings of the Qatari diplomatic chief with Jake Sullivan and Robert Malley. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), stated that Qatar's geographic location could serve the Iran-U.S. talks. Qatar is indeed very well suited to the role of mediator. For one thing, Qatar is a strategic partner of the United States in the region. The emirate hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, El Oudeid, which houses the US Central Command (Centcom) forward headquarters. In 2017, when the Arab Quartet, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, announced a blockade of Qatar and planned a military invasion of the state, the Qatari lobby in Washington was powerful enough to make the Saudis and their allies to abandon their plans. The then U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in particular, turned out to be an advocate of Qatar's interests.

At the same time, Qatar, unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has traditionally maintained good relations with Iran. The two countries jointly exploit the large natural gas field Northern Dome. In 2017, as the blockade of Qatar began, the Iranians opened air and sea channels to the emirate for food and other essential supplies.

Biden sent Iran several other signals: the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz was withdrawn from the Persian Gulf and a $36.5 billion arms purchase by the UAE and Saudi Arabia was frozen. Washington announced the end of its support for the Saudi military operation in Yemen.

Deterioration of U.S.-Saudi relations

The development of U.S.-Saudi relations requires special consideration. In addition to freezing an important arms deal, a sensitive blow to the Saudi leadership was the publication, in early February 2021, of a U.S. National Intelligence Service (NIS) report confirming the personal involvement of Crown Prince and de facto ruler of the KSA, Mohammed bin Salman, in the October 2018 murder of prominent Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi Consulate General in Istanbul. The initial plan of the Saudi secret services was apparently not to kill him, but to kidnap and smuggle to the KSA. However, Khashoggi couldn't support the large dose of the injected drug and died. His body was dismembered and its parts could not be located until this day. The NIS report contained a lot of photos, videos and recorded conversations to prove that the action against Khashoggi was carried out on the orders of Muhammad bin Salman. However, despite the existing strong evidence, Muhammad bin Salman has not been targeted by U.S. sanctions. Seventy-six Saudi officers and officials involved in one way or another in the kidnapping and murder were sanctioned, but not Muhammad bin Salman.

As for the war in Yemen, it was not human rights abuses that prompted the U.S. administration to withdraw its support, but the realization that Saudi Arabia had lost the war. The main indicator of this is the ongoing rocket and drone attacks by the Houthi rebels on the Saudi oil infrastructure. In September 2019, the Ansar Allah movement carried out a drone attack on important Saudi fuel and energy facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia had to shut down its Abqaiq oil processing plant after the attack, leading to a 5% decline of global output overnight.

On March 9, 2021, the largest Saudi terminal in Ras Tanur was bombed. This giant complex, owned by Saudi Aramco, is capable of exporting 6.5 million barrels of oil per day, accounting for 7% of world demand. It was a combined attack, carried out by eight missiles and 14 drones. One of the results of the attack was a price increase to $70 per barrel of Brent crude oil. These attacks made clear that Ansar Allah's military capabilities, thanks to assistance from Iran and access to its missile technology, have increased significantly since 2015.

Another indicator of the Saudis' military defeat in Yemen is the imminent takeover of the city of Marib by the Houthi rebels. Most of the Marib province is already under the control of the Ansar Allah movement. The province was until recently the last stronghold of the Arab coalition (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) in northern Yemen. It has important oil and gas deposits. The Marib-Ra's Isa oil pipeline, the main pipeline in Yemen, starts in Marib.

By capturing Marib, the Houthis secured their eastern flank and eliminated the danger of an attack against the capital, Sanaa. They also secured control of regional oil producing facilities. As a result, the battle for Yemen was effectively lost by Saudi Arabia, just as it had previously lost a proxy war with Iran in Syria.

The pressure exerted by Biden administration on Saudi Arabia is aimed at changing the political leadership in the country. The current de facto ruler of the kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seems too independent and unreliable. He started a war in Yemen without consulting the US and is trying to pursue a multi-vector policy, building relations with Russia and China. Chances are, the Americans will try to replace him as the future king with another member of the Al Saud family, Prince Mohammed ben Nayef bin Abdelaziz Al Saoud.

Until 2015, Muhammad bin Nayef was considered the second candidate for the throne after Prince Muqrin bin Abdel Aziz (who renounced his rights to the throne). However, King Salman's son Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince in 2015. From 2012-2017, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef served as Minister of Interior. He was almost officially considered the "CIA man" in Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Nayef worked extensively with the United States, conducting several counterterrorism programs. In 2015, he relinquished his status as Crown Prince, and two years later, in 2017, was stripped of all posts and placed under house arrest. It is possible that the US will now try to play his card.

Distrustful Iranians

Technical talks of the Joint Commission meeting of the remaining participants of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – Iran, China, Russia, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom – was held in Vienna in early April 2021. American negotiators were present in Vienna, but did not participate in direct discussions, as Iran refused to meet them directly. Tehran is trying to obtain guarantees to secure a negotiation process. The conditions for such a process would be: 1) lifting sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran and other major banks and unfreezing Iranian capital abroad and 2) removing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the list of terrorist organizations. Both of these would cause considerable opposition from the Republican Party and much of U.S. Congress.

There are other issues. : the President of Iran Hassan Rouhani declared on February 3, 2021 at the Cabinet meeting that his country will not allow "to change any point of the text of JCPOA and will not allow any party to take part in the negotiations except the six states (US, Russia, UK, France, Germany and China).” A Hezbollah source close to the Iranian leadership told the London-based newspaper Rai al-Yaoum that the main trend in the Iranian government and senior clergy is tightening demands on the United States. At the same time, the source noted that Iran fears that even if a favorable agreement is reached with the Biden administration, there is no guarantee that Republicans will not come to power in four years and sanctions will not be re-imposed. Therefore, Iran's goal is to enrich uranium to the threshold of approaching nuclear weapons, so that Iranian diplomacy “will have something to threaten and bargain with in negotiations.”

Mojtaba Dhul-Nour, head of the National Security Committee and Foreign Policy Committee of the Iranian Parliament, said that “the Majlis decision to enrich uranium to 20%, which was approved in December, was made too late. You have to talk to the Americans from the position of force, no matter who is in power in Washington, Republicans or Democrats. They understand only the language of force.”

Iranian-Israeli confrontation

It should be noted that despite the anti-Israeli rhetoric, the leadership of the Islamic Republic in the early years of its intervention in the Syrian conflict avoided any hostile actions against Israel. Moreover, Tehran's emissaries explicitly forbade Hezbollah to attack Israeli territory. However, since 2016, the Israeli military has regularly bombed and shelled Iranian proxy groups in Syria, killing cadre IRGC officers. The bombing of a training camp deep inside Syrian territory, in Hama province in late January 2021, is but one example.

The level of hostile rhetoric on both sides has been rising sharply. On March 3, 2021, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz declared that Israel would attack Iranian nuclear facilities alone even if the United States did not agree to this. He was echoed by the Israeli Chief of Staff, General Aviv Kochavi, who again threatened to attack the nuclear facilities and also advised the residents of Gaza and South Lebanon to leave their homes because the Israeli Air Force would soon bomb Hamas and Hezbollah missile depots. In response, Abu Fadel Shaqraji, spokesman for the Iranian General Staff, said that “if Israel bombs the Iranian nuclear facilities, we and our allies will flatten Tel Aviv and the Israeli planes will not find a place to land in their homeland when they return after the aggression.” One can of course write off this rhetoric as psychological warfare (Israel has never before warned of strikes), but such statements prepare public opinion in both countries for the possibility and admissibility of a large-scale military conflict.

Another dangerous indicator is the outbreak of a "sea war" between the two states. In early March, Tehran accused Israel of intending to sink the Iranian cargo ship Shahr-e-Kord in the Mediterranean Sea. The Israelis in turn accused the Iranian side of attacking an Israeli tanker in the Gulf of Oman.

In addition, Iranian nuclear program had been the target of sabotage and assassination campaign attributed to Israel. At least four Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated since 2010, the latest being Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who died in a bomb attack on November 27, 2020. Iran blamed these attacks on Israeli operatives.

The Natanz nuclear plant was hit by explosions blamed on Israel at least twice – in July 2020 and in April 2021. On April 11 2021, a large explosion had completely destroyed the independent internal power system that supplied the centrifuges inside the underground facility. One day before the site was hit, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated new centrifuges at the Natanz site in a ceremony that was broadcast live on television. Three days later Iran announced that it would greatly increase the quality of enrichment - from 20% to 60% purity. Enriching to either level is prohibited under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal. The deal lets Iran produce enriched uranium at 3.67%.

Some conclusions

Both the U.S. administration and Tehran would like to end the conflict and return to the nuclear deal and settle relations. The main motive of the United States is to avoid open hostilities with Iran while confronting Russia and China. Besides, Biden considers himself the successor of Obama, and the JCPOA was the main diplomatic achievement of Obama presidency. On 16 April 2020, following the Iran’s announcement of shifting uranium enrichment to 60%, US President Joe Biden, said the move was not "at all helpful" and was contrary to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Nevertheless, "we are … pleased that Iran has continued to agree to engage … in direct discussions with us and with our partners on how we move forward."

Iran, for its part, is forced to return to negotiations by the difficult economic situation and the impossibility of fixing it under the existing regime of sanctions. At the same time, both sides see a new treaty differently. The Iranians do not want to include clauses that limit their missile arsenal or their influence in the region. Moreover, a large part of the Iranian elite is convinced that the conditions for ending the U.S. military presence in the Middle East are now ripe.

The U.S., in turn, cannot but listen to the concerns of its strategic partners, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Recent accusations leveled against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in connection to the Khashoggi murder do not imply an intention to dismantle the U.S.-Saudi alliance, but a desire to replace bin Salman at the helm of the kingdom with a more compliant politician. As for Israel, Washington will never abandon its most important ally in the Middle East. Therefore, the words of the new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken about the priority of Israel's security for the United States and the statements of Jake Sullivan and Robert Malley about the intention to settle the conflict with Iran indicate a rather difficult path to any long-lasting compromise.

Copyright by ICSE, 2021