Amid economic and military standoff, will Iran take up America’s offer to negotiate?
By Jackson Richman, JNS
U.S. President Donald Trump has not been afraid negotiating with some of America’s top enemies, as evidenced with North Korea, even if it has yielded little results so far. This week, Trump’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, reiterated the administration’s willingness to talk to its major current foe, telling Bloomberg TV that he would “happily” go to Iran to do so, a potentially historic move since the two countries cut off ties nearly 40 years ago.
These overtures, however, were met with resounding rejection and even mocked by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was officially blacklisted on Thursday by the United States.
The latest offer of negotiations comes amid an economic and military standoff between the two countries that could potentially escalate into a strike, a skirmish or a full-blown war. Iran, which experts say has been playing a “dangerous game” in the Persian Gulf, has been seeing its economy rapidly decline due to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign since Washington withdrew last May from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
This comes as the remaining parties to the deal met in Vienna on July 28 and committed to salvaging it, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Still, questions remain on the deal’s effectiveness without America’s involvement and its continuing sanctions.
Iran will most likely go back to the strategy it promulgated prior to the 2015 agreement, according to Security Studies Group senior fellow Matthew Brodsky.
“Before Iran considers tactical negotiations regarding its nuclear program, it will seek to widen the divisions between the United States and Europe, and even the divisions within the Trump administration,” he told JNS. “That will include doubling down on the myth of moderate Iranian leaders versus the hardliners, which worked well on Europe and the Obama administration during their negotiations. The so-called moderates will demand concessions to hold the hardliners at bay.”
The “original sin” with the nuclear agreement, said Brodsky, is that “it legitimized and acquiesced in Iran’s full nuclear cycle on its soil.”
“Any new negotiation that tinkers around the edges of the current deal will still contain the original sin, which is like adding new siding on a home that has a rotten framework. It needs to be rebuilt,” he said. “Our European allies will be eager to please both Iran and the Trump administration to get to a compromise that makes the current deal a little stronger.”
IAEA ‘complicit’ in Iran’s subversion of the nuclear deal
Jewish Policy Center senior director Shoshana Bryen told JNS that not only does Iran want sanctions relief, it also does not want to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or anyone else “inspection capability” outside the 2015 agreement, in addition to forfeiting the deal’s sunset clauses.
“In each IAEA report that says Iran is complying with the JCPOA, it puts in a disclaimer saying that Iran is compliant in the places the IAEA has inspected (meaning NOT Fordow or other military places) and that Iran grants the IAEA access to those places it requests (but it doesn’t request the off-limits places because it knows it will be turned down),” she said. “So the IAEA is complicit in Iran’s subversion of the JCPOA.”
Like the situation with North Korea, where Trump has met with the leader Kim Jong-un three times—and yet the country continues to test-fire ballistic missiles, including one on Wednesday—Brodsky thinks that Trump would look for a quick win with Iran.
“The big concern is that President Trump will be eager to reach any kind of deal with Iran that improves the current framework,” he said. “He will be able to sell the accomplishment as a success to his political base, many of whom are not familiar with the details that made just about every part of the current nuclear agreement grossly insufficient.”
“For example,” explained Brodsky, Trump “could sell the extension of the sunset provisions in the JCPOA as a success, but in reality, as we’ve seen, Iran can restart its program in a week because the previous nuclear restrictions are easily reversible.”
The sunset provisions in the 2015 deal include, but are not limited to, lifting the U.N. ban on Iranian arms exports and imports as early as next year; most nuclear sanctions being lifted in 2026; and all restrictions being lifted in 2031.
“At this point, any conversation on fixing the current agreement will be a time-consuming process that will still not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” said Brodsky. “That’s why the nuclear deal should not be renegotiated or repaired. Humpty Dumpty has already fallen, and needs a broom and dustpan, not glue and duct tape.”
Institute for National Security Studies senior research fellow Emily Landau echoed Brodsky’s predictions.
She told JNS that Iran is “punching its way” into negotiations, and that “things are moving in a messy nonlinear” path in that it is “disappointed with the Europeans.”
Despite tough rhetoric in response to Iran violating the nuclear accord, the European Union has sought to provide economic relief to the regime through mechanisms including the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges, or Instex, to evade U.S. economic penalties on Tehran.
Just weeks ago, Iran seized two British-flagged oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani suggested a possible exchange for Great Britain giving back an Iranian oil tanker it captured earlier this month off Gibraltar—an idea that was rejected on July 29 by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
Raab told BBC Radio on Monday that “it would be important” for a British mission to protect ships in the Persian Gulf “to have U.S. support to make it viable.”
Bryen said that at the end of the day, “I think more likely there will be some sort of joint or side-by-side allied convoys to protect shipping in the Gulf, and all the ships will have orders to shoot to avoid capture. The British were considering an ad hoc European organization, but with [new British Prime Minister] Boris Johnson, it could be that the U.K. joins the U.S.”
Germany will not be part of the U.S.-led coalition to protect the Strait of Hormuz, the country’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said on July 31.
‘It’s going to be a hard bargain’
Iran understands that the “only way they’ll get relief is by going to the table,” said Landau, adding that the Obama administration “mistakenly thought” that the more concessions to the regime, the more cooperation.
However, the United States needs to do its part, said Barbara Slavin, who leads the Atlantic Council’s Future Iran Initiative, that includes “freezing new sanctions, and offers to restore limited waivers for Iran to export oil,” the latter of which were revoked in May.
The Trump administration is expected to keep the last legs of the 2015 nuclear deal by extending another round of temporary waivers on Thursday to permit associated countries to conduct civil nuclear projects with the regime, despite pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Iran hawks on Capitol Hill.
“As to whether a ‘better deal’ than the JCPOA is possible, I have my doubts,” elaborated Slavin. “If the U.S. demands more—for example, an extension of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program that sunset—then it will have to offer more in the way of sanctions relief. Is the Trump administration as currently constituted really capable of that? I can hear the screams of ‘appeasement’ coming from the neocons and Iran hawks, not to mention Israelis, Saudis and Emiratis.”
However, Landau said that in the end, that if both sides go to negotiations, neither is likely to be satisfied.
“There’s no win-win,” she said. “It’s going to be a hard bargain” in that nuclear negotiations consists of neither side being satisfied in getting what they’re looking for, as Iran wants to be able to develop a nuclear bomb.