Bad News About Iran and Nuclear Deal

Yves here. My reading of the tea leaves was that there would be no Iran deal, so I’m not surprised. But this is still a bad outcome.

By Barkley Rosser, Professor of Economics at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Originally published at EconoSpeak

In yesterday’s Washington Post it was reported that there will be no further negotiations between the US and Iran (and other parties) in Vienna over the US and Iran rejoining the JCPOA nuclear agreement that Iran had been adhering to when Donald Trump withdrew the US from it in 2018, then reimposing economic sanctions on Iran, with Iran then starting to violate the agreement in various ways starting a year later. President Biden had promised to rejoin the agreement as part of his campaign, but negotiations on doing so had bogged down.

It was completely unsurprising that the moderate Iranian President Rouhani would be succeeded by a hardliner, Raisi, who is due to take office next month. Nevertheless, there had been reports that Supreme Leader Khamenei in Iran was supporting completing the negotiations with the team of Rouhani prior to Raisi taking office as a way of getting the deal done and off the desk as it were so Raisi would not have to deal with it. But apparently he has changed his mind, and if in fact there is to be a successful negotiation and a resumption of both nations rejoining the agreement, it will be done by a team assembled by Raisi after he takes office. I consider this to be bad news as it may indicate no deal will be able to be made.

The report suggested that most of the practical issues had been resolved by negotiations that have happened so far. These involve the timing of how both sides undo their respective actions that pulled them out of the agreement practically. For the US this would be the matter of ending the various economic sanctions while for Iran this would be undoing their advanced uranium enrichment programs they have been engaging in that are beyond the agreement’s limits. These were non-trivial matters to agree to, but reportedly the deal on them was cut. Maybe the best that can be hoped for is that when negotiations resume, at least this agreement is in place to work from.

So, what remains to hold things up? Unfortunately on both sides it seems to be matters being demanded by hardliners who basically do not want the agreement to be resumed, unrealistic demands. From the Iran side it is a demand that somehow the US never leave the deal again. Well, maybe this is something the Biden people ought to be willing to grant. But the problem is that it is not something that can really be promised in a credible way given that if Trump or somebody like him gets elected president in 2024 or later, there is simply no way that person can be kept from leaving the deal again as Trump did. Biden can make promises, but there is no guarantee they can be kept. I am not sure what the Iran side wants beyond some promise that cannot be kept necessarily.

On the US side it is a demand that Iran agree to followup talks on such matters that the Trump administration had wanted, and the US had tried to get but could not in the original negotiations back in 2015 for the deal. These include limits on Iranian missile programs and influence on various militias in other nations, such as Iraq and Syria. These might be nice to have, but Iran refused to accept them in 2015, and it has been clear all along that Khamenei is not going to accept them now. Maybe Khamenei could agree to such negotiations and then once both parties rejoin the agreement lets them start but just lets them bog down and go nowhere. But for now he does not seem to be willing to do that, and if he was, he would have let the current negotiating team make such a deal.

So we seem to be looking at a situation where hardliners on both sides are blocking a final agreement by making what are clearly unrealistic demands. This is not a good sign at all for a favorable resolution of this at all. This should have been a no brainer for the Biden administration, and they simply should have rejoined the deal upfront, especially once they got agreement from Iran to rejoin it too without all these extra demands. This is a failure with Biden letting Trump get the better of him in the end.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    It’s going to be really hard to revive this deal. In former times, hostages would be exchanged to ensure such treaties would be fulfilled so I suppose that the US could send Trump to Tehran. Any funny business and the Iranians would ship him right back again. But the problems remain. When the treaty was first signed and sanctions raised on Iran, Obama immediately put on a whole new batch of sanctions on Iran. Will they do the same again? Is the Senate needed to confirm this revised treaty? Iran demands that after signing this new treaty that the US gives guarantees that they will not renege a second time which the author of this article finds unrealistic. That sounds reasonable to me. That is why negotiations with North Korea are such a hash – because the US reneged after signing a treaty with them.

    But US demands are unreasonable. Putting limits on Iranian missile programs means ‘make yourselves vulnerable to attack – by us!’ and putting limits on influence on various militias in other nations, such as Iraq and Syria, really amounts to ‘let the jihadists win’. And those militias for Iran amount to defence in depth and they would be nuts to abandon them. From the Iranian side, I am sure that in these negotiations that they are asking their US counterparts how can they have any trust in them when they have already reneged on the treaty and strong-armed other countries to do the same. And another factor is that if Iran scales back their nuclear program to what it was when the treaty in force, that it would takes months to do so. And for the US, if they renege a second time, they can literally put back all those illegal sanctions and more literally overnight. So the lesson here is that actions have consequences. Who knew?

    1. Michael Hudson

      That is precisely the point: The U.S. can (and no doubt would) simply keep applying NEW sanctions, using whatever excuse it chose to manufacture. There’s no doubt that as Israel steps up its bombing and assassinations, Iran needs missiles to deter such activity. That defense is what the U.S. seeks to prevent.
      The recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization meetings show China and Russia stepping up their support for Iran, alleviating the pressure of U.S. sanctions — and in the process, losing Iran to Europe as its price for remaining in the NATO orbit as it shifts further and further east of the Atlantic.

      1. Edward

        The Biden administration is also continuing the sanctions against Venezuela, pretending Guido is the legitimate head of state.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    I think the last paragraph of this sums it all up very well. The one minimal thing even the most cynical among us might have expected from a Biden presidency is at least a degree of strategic competence when it comes to foreign policy. This failure looks more like ineptness than anything malign – as Rosser says, it is handing a belated victory to Trump which he will no doubt use if he runs again.

    Mistakes like this will be quietly noted in other capitals all over the world, by historic US allies as well as foes.

        1. Edward

          Well– sort of, depending on your definitions. It organizes the U.S. Jewish/Zonist community to lobby on its issue, as well as raises money to influence politicians. Members of Congress fear that the wrath of AIPAC will jeopardize their re-election. However, AIPAC is unquestionably the lobby for a foreign country, and it does represent foreign interference in U.S. domestic politics. Sen. Fulbright ran afoul of AIPAC in the 1960’s when his committee undertook an investigation of foreign influences on U.S. politics. This lobby was able to replace him with Sen. Dale Bumpers.

  3. Jason

    This is a failure with Biden letting Trump get the better of him in the end.

    Israel wins. Again.

    1. philnc

      It really is impossible for two objectively untrustworthy parties to successfully negotiate anything. Maybe if there were a groundswell of public demand in both countries for a deal, but that’s not going to happen.

      The Iranian public continues to be repressed as they have since the 1953 coup irreparably wrecked their democracy and replaced it with successive oligarchies. Sanctions, as they almost always do, only strengthening their rulers: nothing keeps a party in power like a state of war.

      Meanwhile, the US public is still mostly blissfully ignorant of our country’s responsibility for where we are today, and simply don’t seem to care about the unjustified death, destruction and suffering caused in our names.

      Trump was a megaphone for the empire’s inner thoughts. Now that it has been switched off for a time too many people want to believe imperial thinking has gone away. Biden’s celebrated whispers on foreign policy show that our own oligarchy is still committed to its imperial project, and that anything Trump may have said to the contrary was “mere puffery” — to use a favorite phrase from consumer fraud law.

      So any positive influence that public opinion in favor of peace might have has been effectively neutralized, leaving the world with yet another vector for its destruction. It’s insanity really. It’s also the height of incompetence. Total war between any two minor nuclear powers, Israel and Iran or Pakistan and India, could release enough fallout to trigger a nuclear winter wiping out billions of people and maybe even all life on Earth (the math is uncertain, but that doesn’t mean it should be glibly dismissed). _That_ would be a bad day on Wall Street.

      So sure, let’s give up on this deal. After all, what do we have to lose?

      History will note that humanity was often brutishly selfish and insensitive, but what killed us was the fact that we were morons.

      1. JTMcPhee

        Interesting claim that the government of Iran is “objectively untrustworthy.” Would be interested in your basis for that claim.

        As to the US Empire/corpokleptocracy as “not agreement-capable,” no argument from me.

  4. John

    Rejoin has never meant impose new conditions, make demands not in the original. If Biden was sincere, he did not act it and his ‘foreign policy’ team is rife with American Exceptionalists, fervent supporters of the Israeli view of the world, and no one that I could name who actually thought rejoin meant pick up where you left off.

  5. David

    There are two interpretations I can think of if this story is true, one relatively pessimistic, the other less so.
    The pessimistic interpretation is that both sides have already given up, but neither wants to be the one to walk away from the table. Each is making impossible demands in the hope that the other will be the one to break off the talks. The Iranians know perfectly well that no government in any country can bind its successor. The US must know that the Iranians cannot give in to new demands. So a game of bluff is going on to see who will crack first. If this interpretation is correct, then it’s worrying because the Iranians might simply decide that they now have nothing to lose by ramping up their nuclear programme, to give themselves a break-out capability if they need it. They may judge that they are well on the way to controlling Iraq, and they have the most powerful military force in a disintegrating Lebanon, so maybe the time for giving way has passed.

    A more optimistic interpretation is that both sides want to present a renewal of the agreement as a victory after near-disaster, and the overcoming of huge obstacles. The way to do this is to deliberately erect obstacles, which you eventually trade away in return for obstacles the other side has posed. In that way, neither side can be accused of giving way too easily. We’ll have to see, though I tend to agree that if this is the game, then the Biden people aren’t playing it very well.

  6. jrkrideau

    This seems to reinforce the idea that the USA is “not agreement capable” to use the Russian term.

    I had hoped that even with that band of totally incompetent ‘foreign policy’ advisers the USA would have been capable of rejoining an already successful international agreement.

    I suppose the US behaviour at the China–US meeting in Alaska should have warned me.

  7. timbers

    What assurances does Iran have that the U.S. would not break this agreement, too, like they have the prior? Much of the world knows America is non-agreement capable.

    The hardliners are correct to prevent any agreement that infringes on Iran’s sovereignty and her right to defend herself.

    IMO this is good news, not bad. Iran needs nukes to protect herself from American and Israeli aggression and made a huge error in deciding to be no-nuke, and an additional error in wasting time reversing course to get them. The people of Iran are suffering right now, because her past leaders did not acquires nukes capable of making it clear an Israeli/American attack upon her was out of all possible consideration because it would be meet with devastating counter reply. Just like nukes prevent us from bombing Russia, so Iran needs them in a world with those with nukes who are determined to destroy her.

    There is a world Iran can live in peace. That world is a world were America and Israel are disarmed. And that would be good for climate change, too.

    But that’s not the world we live. Iran must have nukes for her own self defense.

    1. John Farnham

      ” Iran must have nukes for her own self defense.”
      At the start of the day, the Bush-designated “Axis of Evil” had the temerity to hold international conferences with the objective of getting rid of nuclear weapons of mass destruction. The owners of weapons of mass destruction ( the United Nations Security Council ) promoted them as the ;’real threat.’ This insane proposition continues. There is really nothing Iran can do about being accused of warlike intentions by the greatest wagers of war on the planet. It is not surprising that their point of view is ridiculed and disregarded. There is no positive p.r. in admitting the U.N./U.S./U.K. position is a grand farce.

  8. William Hunter Duncan

    This reminds me of Blinken lecturing Chinese diplomats about morality and human rights, or telling the world that “it would be a grievous mistake for the Cuban regime to interpret what is happening in dozens of towns and cities across the island as the result or product of anything the United States has done.”

    Or the Clintonite wunderkind Jake Sullivan, assured as I recall by the media that he is renowned and a rising star in policy circles, who as National Security Adviser seems a non-entity, missing in action, or perhaps too busy conspiring with big tech as to what Americans are allowed to discuss about Covid etc, or chasing down the insurrectionists?

    And of course while the media treated Trumps removing us from the agreement like it would be the end of the world, I suppose they will just not talk about this, so as to not make Biden look bad or incapable.

  9. schmoe

    I read yesterday that oil will probably be $10/barrel lower if the Iran deal goes through, and I thought MS several years ago estimated that Iran’s oil removal raised the price ~ $5- $7/barrel.

    Assume $7. The US imports 4M barrels/day, so that is $28M/day, and ~$10b/year, and assume four years without the nuclear deal, this will have cost the US $40b. Thank you Donald, Bibi, and Joe.

  10. David Mills

    The JCPOA provides for Iran to reduce its commitments in the event of non-compliance by the other parties. So, Iran is not in violation of the agreement. Iran, by way of the additional protocols, has the most surveilled nuclear program on earth. If Iran does not benefit from abiding these voluntary constraints it is free to end them.

    People are policy. Antony Blinken feels for Israel’s security because of his “mother”. By putting non-nuclear related topics on the table, the US has sought to scupper the deal. Iran is well within its rights to ask for the JCPOA to be ratified as a treaty, given US malfeasance and political cycle. So it looks like a dead letter.

    Finally, by abrogating the JCPOA the US has undermined the reformists in Tehran. Leaving them vulnerable to the “I told you so” of the Conservatives. Remember, neither group is monolithic. But failure leads closer to Iran withdrawing from the NPT.

  11. Tom Pfotzer

    I have a different take on the tea leaves. It looks to me as though the U.S. may be actually following through on the pivot to Asia.

    There’s a lot to do in Asia if one’s convinced that using the military stick is necessary. It’s going to take a lot of resources.

    Iran is (mostly) important because Israel makes it important here in the U.S. The other reason Iran’s important here is they’re uppity and don’t do as they’re told.

    Iran is nowhere near as “important” to other nations. The U.S., G. Britain and Israel are doing all the heavy lifting on this one, and it’s heavy lifting. Geography counts.

    If Iran continues its policy of resisting the baiting by Israel and the U.S., it’s probably won the hand. The U.S. saying “no” and walking away is actually relatively easy. Making a deal, and working through it would have been rather tough (for us).

    I read the other day that the U.S. had – for just a few hours – landed a military plane in Taiwan. Another major “One China” red-line crossed.

    To me, this is the more significant event, because it’s another big escalation in the “use Taiwan as the Asian Israel” strategy. And what a great strategy that turned out to be.

    Boondoggle V2.0.

  12. newcatty

    This is a question for readers: Is it possible that the PTB in U.S. foreign policy are actually not “incompetent “, “inept “, ” stupid “, “unreasonable “, or “incapable “? IIRC, these characteristics of the PTB are often sited as the reasons, or rationalizations, for U. S. foreign policies that , in many people’s eyes, are irrational, immoral, murderous, hegemonic, extending our wars that are our”racket”. Imo, it is with frustration and a deep sadness of our collective psyches that we call out the players as such types of people. Are they that? Or do they know what they are doing?

  13. drumlin woodchuckles

    A President Sanders would have sought from his end to bring the US back into a status quo ante state of compliance with the JCPOA deal as-was. And then maybe Iran would have done the same, who knows?

    But we didn’t get a President Sanders. We got a President Biden. Thank you Obama. And thank you Jimmie-poo Clyburne.

  14. Sibiryak

    No deal is possible in the immediate future, no matter who is in charge. Based on recent activity, it would not be a stretch to say that US and Iran are in low intensity war.

    On the US side, the expectations have changed since the original deal was signed by Obama. The US military-security establishment finds Iran’s activities in the Middle East unacceptable and would not go to a deal unless it puts extra restrictions on Iran.

    On the Iran side, there has been a significant loss of trust and souring of relations. Most likely they would also require major concessions before any realistic chance of a deal, beyond just talk.

    When the redlines of the two sides don’t cross, no deal is possible. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until the situation changes one way or another.

  15. The Rev Kev

    The Biden admin still doing bad faith negotiations with the Iranians. So the US has decided to temporarily waive sanctions on Iranian oil funds abroad which sounds good as it is after all their money. But, and you knew that there was going to be a but, only on condition that those freed funds never end up back in Tehran. They can be used to pay bills to accounts owing to Japan and South Korea, who just happen to be great US allies, but they cannot go back to the people whose money it is-

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