2021 Roundup: A JCPOA revival in 2022?
2021 was a heavy diplomatic year for Iran, with the Vienna talks headlining papers around the world. Exactly what happened in this year's talks? And will we witness a JCPOA revival in 2022?
1979 was a difficult year for the United States. Growing inflation, diplomatic crises, the cold war with the Soviet Union, the Iranian revolution and the storming of the US embassy in Tehran, and a resounding defeat in the Vietnam war four years prior had all laid their weight on US domestic sentiment. The US, which had long been accustomed to its own rhetoric of US exceptionalism, the championing of liberty, of them being defenders of the “free world”, against a plethora of enemies were now discouraged.
Call it a moment of self-doubt for the US. Indeed, it was short-lived, as Ronald Reagan was able to win the presidential race not so long after with a sweeping discourse on optimism, which reasserted the very same principles that made America the Superman of the world in the eyes of its people. It restored their faith in the US empire.
Fast-forward to Trump and Biden’s US, and you can see clear signs of self-doubt and inner struggle bubbling yet again. A highly polarized populace, dwindling approval ratings for elected presidents, low confidence in Congress, low public trust in government in general, with the population even having low trust in itself as a people (which runs parallel to its trust in Congress).
Amid all these challenges, the US will do as it has always done: find an enemy to take the flak and blame the world’s woes and problems on them. As far as the US is concerned, its main national security threat is China, while the US continues to push in two other directions at the same time: NATO’s expansions eastward toward Russia’s borders and Iran’s growing influence in West Asia.
Though Iran is now classified as a “lesser threat” by the US, back in 2002 it was one of the three countries cited in George W. Bush’s infamous "Axis of Evil" speech, and in mid-2019 many felt the world was teetering toward war when Iran owned a US drone spying on its territory. Even moreso, Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 and began his campaign of “maximum pressure” in the hopes of subduing Iran, ramping up sanctions thinking that Iran would acquiesce to US pressures.
Decision-makers in Iran were largely in agreement that there would be no talks with Trump as long as he chose to continue exerting pressure. Besides, his winning the 2020 elections wasn’t a sure thing, and that bridge can be crossed when they get to it. No matter how you look at things, Biden would find talks with Iran to be more favorable than pursuing Trump’s policies.
China was the US’ main threat, the second being Russia. A deal with Iran would placate the West Asian country for now, allowing the US and its proxies to reposition themselves. The US isn’t about to leave the region completely for Iran to fill the vacuum, contrary to what many may think, as evidenced by it building its second-largest embassy in West Asia in the small country of Lebanon, at a staggering cost of $1.2 billion.
So what happened in 2021? Why no deal?
The year first began with the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill, clearly showcasing the divides currently plaguing US society, which seems to be heading toward further instances of polarization and extremism. Wanting to score points early on, Biden began making overtures toward Iran, which was then under the reformist-leaning President Rouhani.
Internal debates arose in Iran on whether it would serve Iranian interests to hold indirect talks with the US given the considerable damage it has caused Iran after merely one change in administrations. A few months afterward, Iran’s Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, detailed the red lines to be held by Iran’s negotiating team in Vienna, which mainly rested on Iran refusing a step-by-step implementation of the deal, only accepting instead a full return to the deal by the US. Moreover, it would also demand that all sanctions imposed by the US be lifted and that guarantees be given to Iran that no Trump-like withdrawal would again take place. If all this takes place and Iran verifies the implementation of the deal, only then would it halt its remedial procedure.
The idea behind this rationale was plain and simple: Iran was wronged, and was entitled to look upon the West with an eye of suspicion. The West will have to give guarantees to make sure Iran is not wronged again.
What exactly happened during the negotiations is not very well known, as to a large extent they’re shrouded in secrecy: For the most part, Iran has not leaked much to the press on the goings-on of the talks, while the US has leaked little. But from the little that is known, Iran’s President Rouhani had been conveying the feeling that much was accomplished during the talks, while Iran’s Press TV reported on numerous occasions that the main points of discussion were related to sanctions removal, with the Biden being unwilling to remove all Trump-era sanctions against Iran.
Furthermore, the US was also unwilling to give the Iranian nuclear team any guarantees. When they were asked whether they can give guarantees until the end of the current US administration, the answer was still a no. It was clear for Iran that the US was looking for a JCPOA they could pop in and out of at will, and this wasn’t going to work.
Considering the circumstances, and the changing political climate in Iran vis-à-vis the elections, the then head of Iran’s delegation, Abbas Araqchi, announced that the Vienna talks will await the formation of the new administration, prompting a five-month hiatus in the talks, extending until November 29th.
We're in a transition period as a democratic transfer of power is underway in our capital. #Vienna_talks must thus obviously await our new administration. This is what every democracy demands. 1/2— Seyed Abbas Araghchi (@araghchi) July 17, 2021
The US knew very well that the political climate in Iran was not reformist-friendly. It would have been in its best interests to secure a deal with the same team that worked on the JCPOA in 2015 with it, and would also be in need of the domestic win that a revival of the deal would bring them. However, on the domestic level, Biden was too worried that removing Trump-era sanctions would make him look weak against Iran, especially not with him planning a withdrawal from Afghanistan (which ended very badly) and from Iraq.
The US wants to go back to the deal with Iran so it can focus on China, it just doesn't want to look weak doing it, and there is almost nothing it can do to prevent that. Trump's sanctions on Iran were meant to give the US a bargaining chip against it. Today, that bargaining chip has become a liability.
Attacks on nuclear facilities, IAEA complicity
The attack on Iran's uranium enrichment facility in Natanz took place as all sides were restarting the talks, on April 11, 2021. The attack, Iran insists, was perpetrated by the Israelis; something "Israel" has alluded to more than once, falling just short of claiming responsibility for it.
Though no one was killed in the attack, several thousand centrifuges were destroyed. However, Iran's response was to instead put its newer centrifuges to work, announcing that it will begin to enrich uranium at 60%, in a clear play on the West's concerns. The difference between the West and Israelis on Iran in this regard is clear: for the Israelis, a nuclear threshold Iran is something they will not tolerate under a deal, with international acceptance. While for the US, Iran is not a nuclear threshold state to the extent that it has not sought to develop its nuclear weapons program.
Their assessments in fact reveal that the program had been long since disbanded in 2003. The Israelis on the other hand claim that Iran has continued the program in secret, while US intelligence claim that this is not the case. If "Israel" is to pursue military action against Iran, this action would be at odds with US intelligence assessments.
Furthermore, there is the matter of leaks within the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). There had long been reports of the IAEA cooperating with foreign intelligence, but the Natanz attack also revealed that IAEA inspectors were cooperating with Israeli intelligence, something Iran has so far not commented on in public on an official, but revealed by many officials, including ex-IDF General and current Chairman of the Israeli Space Agency Isaac Ben-Israel, who said in an interview with Bloomberg on December 7:
It’s not a matter of a bombing here or there; one or two operations. We can do that. We know a lot about certain facilities, mostly because of previous international inspections. And we have the capability to destroy those.
Even without U.S.-supplied 30,000-ton bunker busters?
Yes, we can do it on our own. We have various means. It’s mostly a question of cost effectiveness. But if we destroy a nuclear facility, Iran can rebuild and activate it within a year or two. And, of course, without inspections there are new bases we know less about. The fact is, Israel can no longer destroy the Iranian nuclear project.
After the restart
After Iran's elections took place in June, Iran's new president, Ebrahim Raisi, took power early in August. His foreign policy would be centered on cooperation with regional countries in order to better Iran's economy.
As for the JCPOA, the most significant thing to happen during the seventh round was the production of two draft proposals: one on Iran's nuclear compliance, and another on sanctions removal. Despite offering no answers or proposals themselves, the West still continued to be pessimistic about Iran's approach to the talks.
Beyond this, what can be said about the Vienna Talks is only speculation, but it seems the talks are so far moving positively and seriously, as evidenced by their working in the holiday season (even for diplomats), which suggests that some progress is being made, but like the Iranian team has said time and time again, nothing has been agreed upon until everything is agreed upon.
As far as the Israelis are concerned, 2022 will not be the year they will strike Iran, nor does anything presently indicate that there will be anything close to a war with Iran within the next year. If anything the US has more flashpoints than it can handle today in Asia, it needs a calm West Asia in order to be able to reconfigure its presence and alliances against China and Russia, as it's overextended as it is.
Even technically speaking, the Israelis still lack the capability to launch an attack that would paralyze or severely damage Iran's nuclear program, and such an attack by "Israel" is at least 2 years away. Until then, it will continue to pursue aggressive diplomacy against Iran on the one hand, coupled with clandestine operations against Iranian nuclear scientists and facilities.
"Israel" will greatly invest in two aspects of its military over the next few years: cyber warfare, and an overhaul of its air force.
Will we witness a deal in 2022? It's definitely possible, though highly unlikely. But that doesn't necessarily spell doom, as it may just mean that the deal has gone comatose. It'll remain in the hospital bed, barely hanging on, and only alive as long as none of the parties have decided to call it dead.