Good news does not always arrive in obvious forms. Six years ago, the Iran nuclear deal was a diplomatic triumph earned by a long and painful process. This weekend saw a much more modest but equally necessary victory. Though Iran has reduced the International Atomic Energy Agency’s access for ensuring compliance with the deal, a three-month agreement reached on Sunday will allow continued monitoring. As the director general of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, observed, it “salvages the situation for now”. The fear has been that though Tehran’s non-compliance has been carefully calibrated to date, its next steps might be irreversible.
After four years of havoc wrought by the Trump administration, which abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and did its best – or worst – to kill the deal, this is welcome news. It indicates new political will and flexibility on the part of Iran as well as the US. There is now a real prospect of informal talks, brokered by the EU. Tehran appears reassured that the Biden administration does not plan to leverage Donald Trump’s sanctions to gain more concessions, as it had suspected. So there is more time on the clock – but not much. The supreme leader’s speech on Monday, saying that Iran could enrich uranium up to 60% if needed is a reassurance to hardliners internally as well as a reminder to the US. A short-term fix must pave the way for a longer-term solution. On the US side, the Biden administration’s rhetoric and appointments, alongside its coordination with the “E3” – Germany, France and the UK – indicate an eagerness to make progress. Both governments face formidable domestic opposition. Joe Biden has a huge agenda and limited political capital. In Iran, the short term IAEA deal was bitterly attacked in parliament. Elections in June are likely to see hardliners more hostile to the US prosper, though a more unified political establishment might in some ways simplify matters. In moving before President Hassan Rouhani leaves office in August, the two sides will be dealing with familiar faces and the US can draw on his attachment to the deal. The longer diplomacy takes, the more progress Iran will make on its nuclear programme.
Credit is due to the E3 for shoring up the JCPOA against the odds, despite intense pressure from the Trump administration and its inability to find an effective economic mechanism for support. That commitment has paid off. But much more still needs to be done to save the deal. The US does not want to look like it is going easy on Tehran. But it could quietly end its obstruction of Iran’s $5bn (£3.5bn) IMF request for Covid relief, or give the nod to the release of frozen funds in other countries under arrangements ensuring they are used for humanitarian purposes.
The ultimate obstacle is the credibility deficit left by Mr Trump. Iran is all too aware that a new administration may not only discard but trample on its existing commitments. That means that a “more for more” process to go beyond the deal and resolve outstanding issues regarding missiles and regional relations will be ultimately be more necessary than ever. The Trump years have shown that a narrow deal like the JCPOA cannot be stable in the current environment. But there can be no progress without a return to it.