No progress

Though talks between Iran and the US in Doha regarding Tehran’s nuclear program yielded no progress, analysts say that negotiations will likely continue as Iran tries to maximize economic benefits from a potential agreement.

Robert Malley, Biden administration special envoy for Iran, waits to testify about the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill May 25, 2022, in Washington, DC. Photo: Brendan Smialowski, AFP

Last week, the US and Iran held indirect talks in the Qatari capital of Doha regarding Iran’s nuclear program, but to no avail. The resumption of negotiations, which lasted two days, saw Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani and US Iran special envoy Rob Malley attempt to break the months-long deadlock that has been in place since March.

The resurrection of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has been one of US President Joe Biden’s main priorities regarding the Middle East as he tries to draw down the US’s presence in the region and “pivot to Asia.”

Unfortunately for Biden, withdrawing from the Middle East has not been an easy feat, with shake-ups throughout the region and political pressure in Washington challenging his administration’s ambitions.

Though these most recent talks in Doha essentially yielded no results, analysts say that negotiations will likely continue, as neither Biden nor Iran’s leadership desire to pull the plug on coming to an agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

A history of unfriendliness

The US and Iran’s relationship has been defined by geopolitical conflict and tension since the establishment of the Islamic Republic following Iran’s 1979 revolution. Though the US and Iran were close allies during the Shah’s tenure as Iran’s authoritarian leader, the Islamic Revolution put Iran on a new trajectory that clashed with US interests in the Middle East.

Iran began efforts to “export the revolution,” forming the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in order to spread Iranian influence throughout the Middle East and counter the US and its allies. Since 1979, Iran has directly intervened in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, supporting proxy forces that challenge US-aligned nations such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Though Iran’s nuclear ambitions began under the Shah, the Islamic Republic expanded Iran’s efforts to establish a strong nuclear program that, in the eyes of its adversaries, is an existential threat to regional and international security.

However, after 35 years of hostile relations, a certain detente was reached in 2015, when the US, under then-President Barack Obama, signed the JCPOA. 

For the deal’s supporters, the US had finally curbed Iran’s nuclear program and created the conditions for a more stable Middle East. For the deal’s detractors, it took pressure off of one of the region’s most malicious actors and gave Iran a free pass to expand its regional activities.

With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the US’s posture toward Iran, and the region more broadly, shifted greatly, with the US walking away from the nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposing sanctions.

The Trump administration preferred a campaign of “maximum pressure,” which was supported by the US’s allies in the region, namely Israel and the Gulf states.

With Joe Biden’s election in 2020, the US’s posture again changed, with the Biden administration seeing a nuclear deal as an effective means to exit the region, something the US public has been supportive of in recent years.

Though a revived nuclear deal has been on the table since then, one has not come to fruition for a variety of reasons. Pressure from US allies, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the IRGC’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), and the removal of sanctions have all complicated negotiations, but both sides seem to desire a deal nonetheless.

What to expect moving forward

Regardless of whether the most recent talks in Doha bore fruit or not, negotiations have not broken down, and the US and Iranian leadership still believe that a deal is possible.

Alex Vatanka, the founding Director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute, told NOW that negotiations likely remain on track, and that Iran is trying to get as many concessions as possible from the US.

“The Iranian side is trying to still push through the best possible deal they can get,” Vatanka said.

Iran is most concerned about lifting sanctions in the most effective way possible in order to put the Iranian economy back on its feet after years of harsh sanctions by the Trump administration that crippled the Iranian economy, and led to outrage within the Iranian public.

“Their economy requires them to get maximum economic benefits from a deal in the shortest time frame possible,” Vatanka noted.

Additionally, now that gas prices have skyrocketed due to the war in Ukraine, Iran has an increased incentive in getting its oil onto the global market.

“With the price of oil being what it is and the market being hungry for oil, literally, Iran is losing billions of dollars every week in lost export revenue, so that’s something they’ll want to fix, which means that that’s what I think they’re focused on,” Vatanka explained.

Iran’s leadership wants to secure as many reassurances as it can get and avoid renewed sanctions if another hawkish president like Trump decides to again scrap a renewed agreement.

The Iranians believe that the Americans need a deal for political reasons more than the Iranians need a deal for economic reasons, and, whenever that dynamic congeals or manifests itself, you know the outcome of that negotiation is going to be heavily slanted in Iran’s favor, if it produces a deal at all.

Of course, Iran knows that no US president can make promises that will last forever. As Vatanaka pointed out, Roe v. Wade, which many considered to be set in stone, was recently overturned by the US’s Supreme Court, showing that no US policy is untouchable.

Behnam Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told NOW that Iran’s leadership is playing hardball because it believes that Biden politically needs a deal and does not have any other option.

“The government of the Islamic Republic continues to act like it believes Washington doesn’t have a plan B on Iran in store,” Taleblu said.

“The Iranians believe that the Americans need a deal for political reasons more than the Iranians need a deal for economic reasons, and, whenever that dynamic congeals or manifests itself, you know the outcome of that negotiation is going to be heavily slanted in Iran’s favor, if it produces a deal at all,” he added.

Taleblu explained that the Biden administration’s strategy has somewhat shifted to an approach of pursuing negotiations while also putting pressure on Iran via sanctions.

“If plan A has been to resurrect the deal and plan B is supposed to be this pressure track, the Biden administration seems to be opting for plan C, which is sporadic sanctions enforcement and continuing to remain interested in JCPOA talks, all with the hopes of forestalling Iranian escalation and having to get a cap on the program,” he told NOW.

Though talks will likely continue, Biden may also see it necessary to continue pressuring Iran to make more serious concessions in return for economic relief.

The IRGC as an FTO

One of the main points of contention since the renewal of negotiations has been the IRGC’s designation as an FTO, which places added sanctions on the paramilitary organization and increases anxiety among foreign investors.

The designation was put in place in the last days of Trump’s tenure in the White House, and many viewed the move as a monkey wrench to stymie future negotiations.

“I don’t think the US is going to drop the [FTO designation]… This was something the Trump administration did deliberately to prevent the revival of the 2015 deal, and the fact that they put the IRGC on the list of terrorism last minute before Trump left the white house was quite telling. It was obviously an attempt to prevent future agreements,” Vatanka told NOW.

He went on to point out that, politically speaking, Biden is likely facing too much pressure in Washington against removing the FTO designation, and doing so could make his administration look weak on terrorism.

“The Iranian side now accepts the fact that Biden politically in Washington, given the opposition that he faces, cannot do anything like that… The charge against the Biden team was that it was soft on terrorism,” Vatanka said.

Given the foreign policy mishaps that have occurred during Biden’s leadership, namely the haphazard US withdrawal from Afghanistan that led to the Taliban’s return to power, Biden cannot afford to look weak on foreign policy.

Both Vatanka and Taleblu stressed that, overall, the FTO designation itself is not the main issue. Rather, sanctions and the possibility of foreign companies breaking those sanctions is paramount. If foreign investors work with the Iranian government and it turns out that their investments are benefiting the IRGC, they could face serious penalties.

Indeed, Taleblu pointed out that it comes down to the US’s position towards foreign investors and if it will be willing to crack down on capital that is indirectly making its way into the coffers of the IRGC.

Iran’s regional adventures and conflict with Israel

What has not been on the negotiating table is Iran’s military interventions across the Middle East. Though the US may not be as fazed by Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, the US’s allies see these groups as major threats to regional security.

Indeed, the main reason given to why the IRGC was designated as an FTO is because of its direct support for these militias.

If there’s any understanding, it appears to be that by doubling down and only focusing on the nuclear issue, that the US may be perhaps willing to turn a blind eye to [Iran’s military] adventures… The perception may be that the Iranians think they have a freer hand.

Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have been unhappy with the Biden administration’s position toward these groups in its negotiations with Iran and want to see these regional adventures restrained.

“I don’t sense that they’re on the table, and that’s a problem for the Gulf states. The Saudis, the Emiratis, the Israelis certainly make it loudly known that they’re upset,” Vatanka explained.

Some in Washington believe that in seeking a nuclear agreement, the Biden administration may be willing to ignore Iran’s military expansion in the region, much to the ire of the US’s allies.

“If there’s any understanding, it appears to be that by doubling down and only focusing on the nuclear issue, that the US may be perhaps willing to turn a blind eye to [Iran’s military] adventures… The perception may be that the Iranians think they have a freer hand,” Taleblu told NOW.

Biden is likely worried that pulling in regional issues would kill the nuclear negotiations, as Iran views its IRGC deployments as a separate issue.

Vatanka noted that a nuclear agreement could possibly be the first step in further dialogue to cool regional tensions and make it more difficult for a more hardline future administration to pull out of the deal, but he did make it clear that the ball is in Iran’s court.

In addition to the concerns raised by US allies, Israel has been quite active militarily in preventing Iran from making progress with its nuclear program and countering Iranian-aligned forces on its border.

“The Israelis are now saying gloves are off, we’re going to go after Iran,” Vatanka explained.

Taleblu pointed out that Israel likely seeks to create fear in Tehran and deter the Islamic Republic from threatening its interests.

In recent years, Israel has ramped up its covert attacks in Iran and its overt attacks in Syria. In Taleblu’s eyes, Israel is following an attrition strategy to degrade Iran’s nuclear program and regional ambitions, but not fully decapitate them.

Iran and the US both want a deal, the question continues to be, however, will both parties be willing or politically able to make the necessary concessions to actually come to an agreement.

Though the most recent talks in Doha failed to make progress, neither side has thrown in the towel as of yet.

David Isaly is a journalist and researcher with @NOW_leb. He tweets @DEyesalli.