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The Biden’s administration efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear-programme agreement scrapped by Trump are mired in stalement

After months of stalemate, the US and Iran held another round of indirect talks in Doha, Qatar on Tuesday to revive the 2015 deal on the latter’s nuclear programme. The Iranian foreign ministry said the discussions would focus on lifting the American sanctions that the Donald Trump administration had reimposed since 2018, when it unilaterally withdrew from the agreement. The meeting, which didn't lead to any reported breakthrough, came after continued attempts by the European Union to save the multilateral agreement.

The Biden administration has so far held several rounds of indirect negotiations with Iran in Vienna, but no concrete progress has been made. The recent removal of monitoring cameras at Iran’s nuclear facilities has sparked speculation the country plans to resume the enrichment process needed to develop weapons-grade uranium. The Iranians say they won't hold direct negotiations with the US unless they are sure a "good agreement" is on the table. But what exactly are the sticking points between the two countries? 

Why did the US sign the nuclear deal in the first place?

The US and Iran had been locked in a decades-long standoff over the latter's nuclear programme, which Washington suspected was aimed at developing weapons. The 2015 agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was meant to put those fears to rest by severely curbing Iran's enrichment activities and providing for international inspections in return for the lifting of sanctions. US president Barack Obama saw the JCPOA as a way to end Iran's nuclear ambitions without resorting to military force and also as a first step towards normalising relations with Tehran. 

What did Trump do?

In May 2018, Trump pulled out of the JCPOA and began reimposing the sanctions on Iran that had been lifted under the agreement. Trump said the deal was "defective at its core" because it did not address Iran's ballistic missile programme or its role in regional conflicts. He also accused Iran of violating the "spirit" of the deal, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is responsible for monitoring Iran's nuclear activities, said Iran was complying. In addition, the Trump administration escalated tensions with Iran by imposing more sanctions, designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation, and carrying out a drone strike that killed a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani. 

What does Biden want?

The Biden administration has said it is willing to return to the JCPOA if Iran resumes compliance with its commitments. But it has also suggested that the agreement could be expanded to address other issues, such as Iran's ballistic missile programme and its role in regional conflicts. (Iran has ruled out any renegotiation of the JCPOA.) In response to a barrage of missiles launched from Iran into the Erbil area in Iraqi Kurdistan in March, the Biden administration imposed new sanctions against Iran's ballistic missile programme, as well as individuals and entities involved in it. 

President Biden is scheduled for a Middle East trip in July, where he is expected to visit Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both countries are staunch opponents of Iran's nuclear programme and will be closely watching the talks in Doha. With the unprecedented rise in gas prices in the US, it seems unlikely that President Biden will be able to make any progress on talks with Iran without the support of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Some have speculated that Biden's main priority in the region is to secure enough oil supplies to lower gas prices before the 2022 midterm elections. While rejoining the JCPOA could ultimately increase oil supplies by allowing Iran to sell its oil on the international market, it could also complicate already delicate relations with Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s de facto leader, destabilising the world's oil market even further.

What does Iran want?

Iran has said it will only return to full compliance with the JCPOA if the US lifts all the sanctions it has reimposed since 2018. Iranian officials have also said they want the Biden administration to formally recognise Iran's "right" to enrichment, something not explicitly mentioned in the JCPOA. Furthermore, Iran says the US must provide guarantees that future administrations will not be able to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement, as Trump did. That requires a change in US law, which is unlikely given the Democrats do not have a 60-seat majority in the Senate, which is needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. Most Republican lawmakers are vehemently opposed to the JCPOA.

What are the consequences if the talks fail?

If the US and Iran cannot reach an agreement, Iran will likely resume its enrichment activities and increase its stockpile of enriched uranium. This could eventually lead to Iran having enough material for a nuclear weapon. In April, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Iran was "weeks" away from being able to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb. Iran has denied it wants to develop nuclear weapons, saying its programme is for peaceful purposes.

If it undertakes enrichment on an industrial scale, experts have provided several scenarios in which this could increase the risk of nuclear proliferation and conflict in the Middle East. One possibility is that Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional rival, could feel compelled to develop its own nuclear weapons programme. Another is that Israel, which has a secret nuclear arsenal, could carry out a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. This could lead to a wider conflict in the region. Iran has said it would respond "decisively" to any attack on its nuclear facilities.

The failure of talks could also lead to more US sanctions on Iran, further damaging its economy. This could increase public discontent with the Iranian government and lead to more protests against the regime. The Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign did not bring about regime change in Iran, but it did cause considerable economic hardship.

But there is at least one prominent scholar who argues that allowing Iran to have a nuclear weapon would actually make the Middle East more stable. In a 2012 article for Foreign Affairs, Kenneth N Waltz, one of the founders of the neorealist school of international relations, argued that a nuclear-armed Iran is "most likely to restore stability to the Middle East". 

"Israel's regional nuclear monopoly, which has proved remarkably durable for the past four decades, has long fueled instability in the Middle East," Waltz wrote. "In no other region of the world does a lone, unchecked nuclear state exist. It is Israel's nuclear arsenal, not Iran's desire for one, that has contributed most to the current crisis. Power, after all, begs to be balanced."

But others fear that a nuclear-powered Iran would embolden the country's hardliners and lead to more aggressive behaviour in the region. This could include more support for groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, which are considered terrorist organisations by the US and its allies. 

"If Iran used its nuclear weapons, transferred them to a third party, invaded its neighbours, or increased its support for terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, the United States would be compelled to respond," argued three Middle East scholars in another Foreign Affairs article. "This argument reflects the public position of many senior US and European officials, as well as a number of prominent academics and defence intellectuals."

Written By: Olivium staff.


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