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Reviving the Iran nuclear deal requires tackling these three issues

But winding back Iran’s nuclear program and Trump-era sanctions won’t be easy

- March 18, 2021

Iran and the United States each say they want to revive the 2015 nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — but are waiting for the other to make the next move. Since President Biden’s inauguration, diplomats and analysts have focused on the details of how to get the two sides to sit down together to chart a path forward. But there has been comparatively little discussion about the issues they would need to resolve in negotiations.

Contrary to what Iranian officials have suggested, it’s not possible to turn the JCPOA back on with the flip of a switch. The United States and Iran face complex negotiations over how to unwind Iran’s nuclear progress and U.S. economic sanctions, as well as the sequence in which it all happens. Though some issues may prove easier to resolve than others, at least three key areas stand out.

Getting Iran’s nuclear program back in a box

Rolling back Iran’s nuclear program — which has moved far beyond the JCPOA limits — is technically doable and comparably more straightforward than implementing sanctions relief. Iran made these same adjustments to implement the JCPOA in 2015 and 2016, and the deal itself spells out the criteria. But the United States will want to create a plan for how Iran will dial back its program and, most importantly, international inspectors would need to monitor Iran’s actions every step of the way.

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If negotiations between Iran and the United States about reentry drag out for months, things could get complicated. In February, Iran announced a decision to curtail international inspector access to its program. If too much time passes between now and reentry, inspectors might have to play catch-up when they regain access and could have additional questions for Iran.

Iran has also expanded its testing of advanced centrifuge models — which enrich uranium more efficiently than Iran’s earlier designs — in violation of the JCPOA. This matters because as Iran gains confidence in these machines and deploys them in larger numbers, that could shorten the amount of time it would need to produce material for a bomb. A near-term return to the JCPOA’s restrictions might limit the consequences, but the knowledge Iran gains over an extended negotiating period might be harder to erase.

Peeling back the sanctions layers

Iran’s primary incentive for rolling back its nuclear program is to receive relief from U.S. sanctions, which have crippled its economy over the past three years. But the path forward on sanctions is more complex than with the nuclear program, because there is not a clear playbook.

Iran’s public position is straightforward: The U.S. must remove all sanctions imposed under Donald Trump. But simply returning to the status quo ante isn’t feasible for Washington. In addition to JCPOA-related sanctions, the Trump administration imposed other restrictions unrelated to the nuclear deal — such as against Iranian hackers, Iranians suspected of human rights abuses and those involved in its ballistic missile program or election interference. It would be politically difficult, not to mention contrary to U.S. national security interests, to wipe the slate clean from the past four years.

Could the United States lift JCPOA-related sanctions and leave everything else in place, such as sanctions related to terrorism and human rights? It’s not so simple. The Trump administration layered new sanctions on top of existing ones, ensuring that some supposedly JCPOA-related sanctions now also are imposed under legal authorities pertaining to other issues, like terrorism. This was, in part, an intentional effort to make diplomacy with Iran more difficult.

Iran’s central bank and national oil and tanker companies are subject to these “poison pill” restrictions. Republicans and some Democrats will object to removing “terrorism” sanctions against entities the United States has linked to terrorist groups, making this part of the unwinding especially sensitive. Yet Iran won’t receive full sanctions relief without removal of these and other measures.

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Building on the deal?

The JCPOA remains a highly divisive topic in Washington, but many Republicans and Democrats appear in consensus on one area: The JCPOA alone is insufficient to address the longer-term challenges posed by Iran, such as its ballistic missile program and destabilizing regional behavior. Many supporters and critics of the deal also agree that the United States should try to extend the duration of the restrictions it imposed on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Biden administration has said the United States should not, and perhaps cannot, address all of these issues at once in a comprehensive effort. Instead the administration considers JCPOA reentry as providing “a platform” for discussion of these other issues. Before reentering the deal, however, the United States may insist that Iran commit to holding such “follow-on” talks.

Iran would come to any subsequent talks with its own demands. Tehran has called on the United States to offer compensation for the damage caused by U.S. sanctions, and it wants assurances that a future U.S. president cannot wantonly impose all the sanctions once again. While it may be open to some level of regional dialogue, Tehran would insist that Washington’s support for its Middle Eastern partners be on the table as well.

The United States and Iran wouldn’t need to resolve all these issues in the context of JCPOA reentry — an undefined “future deal” may be a convenient place to park issues that are too tough to tackle as part of a JCPOA return. But the two sides would probably try to hash out a statement or communique explaining the outlook for future talks.

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The path forward

If and when the United States and Iran get to the negotiating table, they’ll probably have several options about how to try to resolve these issues and others. They could commit to tackling the above three issues altogether, at once. But that could make for longer talks — along with more progress within Iran’s nuclear program and the likelihood of deeper economic pain from U.S. sanctions.

Alternatively, the two sides could take a more piecemeal approach, reaching a smaller agreement early in the process to slightly roll back sanctions and the nuclear program. Public comments by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in March suggest Iran might be open to that. But the downside of this approach is that it could be even more politically difficult to sell in Tehran and Washington, which could prolong eventual JCPOA reentry.

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Eric Brewer (@BrewerEricM) is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Henry Rome (@hrome2) is a senior analyst on Iran, Israel and global macro issues at Eurasia Group.