Iran nuclear issue: The obstacle is on the U.S. side

Early January 2023 saw U.S. media intensify condemnation of Iran for suspending talks in the Austrian capital, Vienna, aimed at reviving the 2015 multilateral deal on its nuclear program. On the very first day of 2023, The National Interest, a leading mainstream U.S. media outlet, carried an article titled In 2023, Washington Can’t Neglect Iran, which called for even tougher measures to prevent Iran from using its nuclear program to produce weapons.

It is a pity that international efforts to address the Iran nuclear issue have stalled, but it is not fair to blame the failure solely on Iran. Actually, the U.S. should also be held responsible for the current stalemate, as much of the fault lies in its domestic politics.

Progresses and setbacks

There are very strong anti-Iran forces in the U.S., consisting mainly of three elements. The first is the political liberalists, who disregard cultural diversity in the world, worship American exceptionalism, and oppose the political systems of any other non-Western countries. Iran, particularly for its Islamic system, has been the target of their criticism and opposition for more than four decades. They are the mainstream in U.S. domestic politics and determinant in U.S. foreign policy.

The second is those affected by the trauma of the Iran hostage crisis from 1979 through 1981. During the Islamic Revolution, some Iranians captured American diplomats as hostages to prevent the U.S. from meddling in their uprising to overthrow the U.S.-backed Shah regime. Albeit more than 40 years ago, those directly involved, their families and witnesses have held onto the bitter memories and remained a significant part of U.S. anti-Iran politics.

The third comes from pro-Israel political lobbyists, who strongly oppose Iran as they believe it poses a major security threat to Israel. In their opinion, Iran possessing nuclear weapons would neutralize Israel’s strategic deterrence against it.

Though different in standing, these three elements share hostility toward Iran. Their final objective is to overthrow Iran’s Islamic system.

The year 2015 had already seen a soft landing for the Iranian nuclear crisis as, with the EU facilitating negotiations, Iran came to an agreement with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) plus Germany, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran nuclear deal. But unfortunately, former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran, which led to Tehran suspending its implementation of some of the commitments under the nuclear deal.

That is the story of the suspension of the JCPOA from 2018 to 2020. It was the U.S. that had withdrawn from the nuclear deal as a result of the change of administrations in the White House. Trump reneged on the commitments made by his predecessor Barack Obama.

The irresponsible moves on the U.S. side had not only frustrated Iran but also other JCPOA signatories, and so it was rebuilding multilateral confidence in the U.S., rather than in Iran, that was critical in coming to a resolution.

Upon taking office in early 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden had demonstrated his interests in rejoining the JCPOA and relevant parties therefore kicked off the negotiations again in Vienna in April 2021, with the indirect participation of the United States.

Due to the previous lessons, Iran proposed that the U.S. side could not withdraw again after a deal had been reached. But the U.S. negotiators replied that the Biden administration could not provide a guarantee on behalf of future administrations. The rationale is certainly strange as it is naturally and legally assumed that an international commitment by predecessors should be honored by successors. So long as a new government can overthrow decisions made by previous ones arbitrarily and unjustifiably, how can international agreements ever be upheld?

Though Iran reduced its requests as to guarantee its benefits in a sustainable manner, the U.S. didn’t offer a positive reply. That is the story of Vienna negotiation. Iran’s position, judging by U.S. previous poor behaviors, was legitimate, and was also regarded as reasonable by Josep Borrel, EU High Representative of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. That is the main reason behind the stalled Vienna talks.

Other obstacles

The nuclear issue is also damaged by America’s bipartisan divide, which means one party will always challenge the decisions made by the other party. Even when JCPOA was reached in 2015 and authorized by the UN Security Council, it was not fully implemented by the U.S. The U.S. had actually never removed the sanctions on Iran’s financial sectors as it was opposed by the Republicans in the Congress, even though Obama was serious about the deal. That’s why Iran had been complaining that the removal of sanctions never came to pass.

The negative impact of U.S. domestic politics on the Vienna talks has also been obvious since they started in April 2021. The Biden administration stopped short before a critical point in October 2022, which constituted the reason for the suspension of—if not breakaway from—the negotiations. The underlying reasons are nothing else but the coming U.S. mid-term elections. The Biden administration was worried that reaching a deal with Iran would be criticized by the Republicans as making concessions to Iran, which would undermine the Democrats’ election results.

In addition, Iran’s internal affairs have also affected Washington’s decision-making. Since mid-September 2022, Iran saw domestic turmoil triggered by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish girl Mahsa Amini in police custody after she was arrested for wearing her hijab incorrectly in public. The Biden administration was under domestic pressure not to negotiate with the Iranian Government that a lot of Americans deem has “poor human rights records,” and it might have expected that domestic turmoil would lead to regime change and, finally, the collapse of Iran’s political system.

All in all, it is the U.S. that should be responsible for the suspension or disruption of the implementation of JCPOA and negotiations to revitalize the deal. Though the U.S. always has a bigger voice particularly in blaming Iran as it has the most advanced media, facts speak louder.

The year 2023 is critical for multilateral efforts to address the Iranian nuclear issue. Kamal Kharazi, former Iranian Foreign Minister, had declared several times in 2022 that Iran had become a country on the nuclear threshold as it already had a sufficient stockpile of uranium of 60-percent purity, close to the level of a bomb. It will be a pity if Iran would cross the threshold. But if it turns true, the U.S. side should take the blame.

It is time that the U.S. makes reasonable judgment about Iran’s domestic politics by separating the nuclear issue from the latter’s internal affairs, and takes the opportunity of low domestic pressure during the post-midterm elections period to remove related sanctions on Iran so as to deliver a soft landing of a potential nuclear crisis, though Iran is always expected to refrain from acting aggressively on the issue.