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Ahead of the US-Iran Negotiations: An Attempt to Revive JCPOA - Ali Berk Bilir

Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Iran has been repeatedly targeted by US-led sanctions. Sanctions imposed by the US in 1979, 1987, and 2005 aimed to damage Iran's economy and its stance in world politics, especially in the Middle East. Yet, Iran is rich in terms of natural resources. It has the second-biggest natural gas reserves and its fourth-biggest oil reserves in the World. Iran's riches allow it to lessen the damage caused by the sanction to some extent, but sanctions still hurt the economy in Iran and its citizens. United States's objection to Iran's nuclear program was/is a prominent reason for sanctions.

Although the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) relieved some of the pain caused by the sanctions in 2015, President Trump's criticism of the agreement led to his eventual withdrawal from the agreement in 2018. The US embraced Trump's "maximum pressure" approach and put sanctions on Iran once again. Although other signatories criticized the decision of withdrawal, its repercussions for Iran were real and visible. However, Joe Biden promised to revive the JCPOA during his campaign, which has not been realized yet. The negotiation table broke off time and time again for 1.5 years, and Iran now has a "hardline" incumbent President. Regardless, the talks began once again on November 29.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi stated in his UN speech that he remains open to negotiations on the nuclear accord if sanctions are to be lifted. Biden also gave his remarks to support negotiations but also stated that “the US is committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” Yet, Raisi and Foreign Ministry officials said that they would adopt a "smart engagement" approach. They also suggested that the US should be more "realistic" in order to reach an agreement. It has been known that Raisi and his team were not satisfied with earlier negotiations. Therefore, it would make sense to see a tougher Iranian stance in November 29 talks. Regardless of Iran's more tough stance, the Biden administration did not seem impressed by them. US officials believe that the “seventh round would pick off where the sixth round left off.” They also warned Iran that they should seize the opportunity to solve this issue diplomatically. However, Iran passed a law in December 2020 mandated to produce 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent every year. The then-president Rouhani even criticized this law, stating that it would narrow the space for diplomacy, which it did eventually. Regardless, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, stated that Iran would comply with the US if sanctions could be lifted. Furthermore, the law itself says that the required actions can be suspended if "certain sanctions relief envisioned by the nuclear deal is granted," wrote Kevin Davenport from Arms Control Association. Coming to November 29, both the US and Iran aims to accomplish their goals. For Iran, this would be lifting the sanctions, while for the US, it would be reviving the JCPOA and do not allow Iran to enhance its nuclear capabilities that, or even worse, build a nuclear missile.

President Trump's sanction to Iran caused a recession in Iran's economy, increased inflation, limited foreign investment, and, overall, created unrest inside the country. In May 2021, then oil minister Bijan Zanganeh said that “investments in Iran’s energy sector would have been double of what it was last year.” In a report written by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, it is stated that Iran's GDP enjoyed %12.5 growth in 2016 and %3.7 in 2017. However, after the US withdrawal, it saw negative growth of %5.4 in 2018 and %7.6 in 2019. Although GDP grew %1.7 in 2020, the economic condition in Iran is nowhere close to well. President Trump's sanctions aimed to bring Iran oil export's to zero. In 2019, Iran's oil exports fell by 90%, which pushed Iran to sell its oil in a "grey market." In September 2021, new Iranian oil minister Javad Owji said that Iran is determined to increase its oil sanctions and criticized the US for using oil as a political tool. Despite the shock in oil prices caused by the US withdrawal, the oil market is slow to react to a prospect of a deal. Even so that, Goldman Sachs' head of energy, Damien Courvalin, stated that a possible deal would mean higher prices, not lower as it would lift the uncertainty over the market. Ahead of earlier talks where Iran had a moderate government, the experts did not expect much to change, so did the oil market, which remained more-or-less, not affected by the negotiations.

In the upcoming talk, chances for a revival of JCPOA are indeed possible but likely to be delayed to further dates. Although the Iranian economy is suffering under the US sanctions, they are now more cautious with their dealing with the US after President Trump's withdrawal. I believe trusting the US should be hard to explain in domestic politics, even harder for Raisi given his hardline approach to the US. Furthermore, the Iranian side wants all sanctions to be lifted in order to reach an agreement; however, the Biden administration would not be likely to accept that request. Besides, Biden himself faces increasing trouble at home. His "build back better" plan was blocked by Democrat senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. The Biden Administration's handling of Afgan evacuations, rising inflation, and overall bad performance on the economy was also criticized heavily. On top of that, the Democrats suffered defeat on November 2 off-year elections. Therefore, while that much troubled and given Republican Party momentum ahead of 2022 midterms, Biden would less eager to give compromise to Iran.


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