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HomeBlogPanel Summary Report: The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal Under the Biden Administration

Panel Summary Report: The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal Under the Biden Administration

By Bailey Cordrey

On December 17, 2020, the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD) hosted a virtual panel discussion entitled ‘The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal Under the Biden Administration.’ The panel was assembled to bring into conversation the perspectives of various experts—from Washington and Vienna to Geneva and Tehran—on the future of nuclear negotiations with Iran under the incoming Biden administration, and assess non-invasive junctures for Canada’s potential contribution to these matters.

We are honoured to have welcomed Ambassador Stephan Klement, EU Head of Delegation to International Organisations and EEAS Special Advisor on Nuclear Implementation of the JCPOA, as our keynote speaker in conversation with Younes Zangiabadi, Executive Vice-President of the IPD. Our forum of foreign policy and sanctions experts also included:

  • Dr. Trita Parsi – Executive Vice-President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Washington, D.C.
  • Dr. Erica Moret – Senior Researcher at the Centre for Global Governance Graduate Institute, Geneva
  • Dr. Hassan Ahmadian – Assistant Professor of Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran
  • Dr. Thomas Juneau – Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa
  • Moderator – Negar Mortazavi, journalist and political analyst covering Iran in English and Persian

In the first session of the event (12:00-12:30), Ambassador Klement delivered an informative introductory address, followed by an informal question and answer period among panel participants. Klement’s appearance in this first half-hour was held under Chatham House Rule and is therefore excluded from our recording and summary. 

The second session (12:30-1:30) convened a discussion about the complexities associated with US-Iran relations and the possibility of the next US administration rejoining the Iran Nuclear Deal. Throughout, Negar Mortazavi lent her moderation skills in posing questions from our research team and the larger audience of attendees. 

After a short round of introductions, Ms. Mortazavi opened the panel by citing President-elect Biden’s on-the-record commitments to pursue rejoining the JCPOA, asking Dr. Parsi how this might come to fruition when his administration comes into office next month. Dr. Parsi speculated that both parties would likely seek a quick return to a compliance-for-compliance agreement before initiating more rigorous negotiations on various amendments to the former agreement. However, Dr. Parsi expects the re-entry process to be time-consuming in the face of opposition from other regional actors such as Israel, the United Arab Emirates and perhaps U.S. Congress, should the Republicans claim additional seats in Georgia as a result of the upcoming run-off elections. The JCPOA has sustained high levels of support from the Democrat Party, evidenced by a letter of support for a swift return to compliance circulated by several influential US House of Representatives Democrats. Should this come to fruition, Dr. Parsi cautioned that challenging rounds of negotiations would follow as both parties seek favourable revisions, but reminded the audience that these issues should be treated as supplementary to the core deal. The early positions taken by Biden’s team on matters of regional importance will be closely watched to predict the ideological preferences of this incoming administration. 

Turning to Dr. Ahmadian, Ms. Mortazavi asked for clarification on Tehran’s perspective—reminding the audience that Iran will elect a new president next year, as President Rouhani’s second term ends and conservatives gain seats in Parliament. She wondered what conditions Iran may seek to add to the deal, such as compensation for financial losses, or a legally binding commitment that extends beyond Biden’s term in office. Dr. Ahmadian offered that a widely-held perception in Tehran is that the U.S. violated the JCPOA, therefore Iran would not be returning to the deal in the same way—it would instead return to full compliance. In practice, official reviews supply that Iran has continued to downgrade its nuclear program in-line with JCPOA standards. On Dr. Parsi’s point—that Tehran will take cues from the new U.S. administration and react accordingly—Dr. Ahmadian was in agreement; but was less optimistic that the U.S. would avoid ‘maximum pressure’ tactics favoured by Trump. As a result of the mistrust that has accumulated over several years, Tehran may favour an incremental re-engagement approach, to seek leverage and balance against potential pressure tactics. 

Should maxim pressure tactics continue to be used, Dr. Ahmadian believes that Iran could be emboldened to push for progress on regional issues and compensation for losses incurred since the U.S. departure from the deal—a resolution that has already reached the International Court of Justice. Iran’s shifting domestic political landscape will also shape forthcoming negotiations, and the JCPOA will be top-of-mind for voters in this year’s federal election. Carrying forward trends seen in regional politics, the Conservative party will likely continue to gain popularity, absent a breakthrough in restoring the nuclear deal—then the chance of electing a more moderate administration would increase. 

Ms. Mortazavi asked Dr. Erica Moret to comment on Europe’s role in moving forward with a new agreement, as the E.U. has been an important actor throughout each phase of the JCPOA, keeping the agreement alive under maximum pressure campaigns from the U.S. Dr. Moret opened her answer in acknowledging the central role played by the E.U.—politically, and in terms of technical support provision. She emphasized the E.U.’s primary role as a diplomatic channel in this current juncture, as the U.S. is likely more receptive to change in the transition to a new government. Dr. Moret also sees an opportunity for European countries to participate in strengthening the Iranian economy through encouraging investment. 

A revival of the JCPOA does not ensure that the Iranian economy will suddenly stabilize after enduring years of punitive sanctions. Sanctions that attempt to harm a country’s economy and population in this way are widely criticized as ineffective across academia. Dr. Moret explains: “When we look at what the Trump administration is doing with maximum pressure campaigns, we can’t expect these tactics to work. Sixty years ago, this naive sanctions approach was coined. What I and my colleagues have found, is that these approaches are entirely ineffective in achieving what they set out to do, and we need to talk about this more publicly.” Further, in the case of Iran, Dr. Moret finds evidence that the simple provision of licenses or exemptions on humanitarian grounds is not effective and instead results in a phenomenon of financial sector de-risking and over-compliance in key sectors of private industry (medical, food, shipping and insurance, for example). This pressure cumulates in a ‘chilling effect’ felt by humanitarian, public health and financial institutions—a global crisis recognized by major multilateral organizations and E.U. countries that work discreetly to alleviate harm where possible. For example, the Iranian Central Bank’s ability to pay for COVID vaccinations was limited by other financial institutions’ reluctance to be involved with a target of U.S. sanctions. Dr. Moret explained that Europe’s extensive experience in facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogues in development practices would be essential to a smooth revival of nuclear negotiations as the new administration assumes office. However, should the aforementioned macroeconomic issues be left unaddressed, the stability of any new agreement will be compromised.

Bringing Canadian perspectives to the fore, Ms. Mortazavi asked Dr. Juneau to comment on potential shifts in Canada’s foreign policy strategy. Trudeau’s Liberal government has not yet realized an election promise to reinstate diplomatic relations with Iran, though pundits expect renewed interest after Biden’s inauguration. Dr. Juneau answered by first offering a brief historical background on contemporary Canada-Iran relations. In 2012, Canada severed diplomatic ties with Iran under the leadership of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In the preceding federal election in 2015, Liberal Party candidate Justin Trudeau committed to re-engagement, but this project was eventually stalled in 2018 due to consular politics, growing divisions within the caucus of the Liberal Party, and a lack of political will. In January 2020, Flight PS 752 was tragically shot from the sky, leaving 176 dead including 55 Canadians. Canada’s lack of an embassy in Iran presented insurmountable challenges for diplomats and relief workers, resulting in massive mismanagement and unnecessary suffering for the families of crash victims. 11 months later, Special Advisor Ralph Goodale released Canada’s first official report on the Flight PS 752 tragedy that surprised many with strong accusations of blame against the Iranian government. Dr. Juneau asserted that Canadians will likely continue to push for transparency, accountability and compensation for the families who lost loved ones in the aviation disaster. He also does not expect the Canadian government to take steps towards re-engagement as long as the PS 752 issue remains contentious. Moving to the question of potential shifts in foreign policy strategy post-Trump, Dr. Juneau expects more ideological alignment between Biden and Trudeau. He predicted that Trudeau would publicly support a revival of the JCPOA after Trump departs from office. Canada will not play a role in renegotiating the deal but has interests in reducing security risks in the Middle East as the Canadian military remains stationed in Iraq. 

Ms. Mortazavi noted that Trudeau has said that this massive loss of life would have been avoided if tensions between the U.S. and Iran were not heightened following the assassination of General Soleimani a few weeks prior. Bringing the focus back to Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, Ms. Mortazavi asked Dr. Parsi to discuss the top issues beyond the scope of the JCPOA that would likely follow negotiations. Dr. Parsi shared that Biden’s team has signalled interest in add-on discussions that would include other regional states, such as Syria and Yemen. Dialogues involving a broader range of Persian Gulf states will need to address the intersecting conflicts levied via domestic policy and actions, such as arms purchases or financing of paramilitary organizations. Dr. Parsi expressed doubt that Persian Gulf states with ties to the U.S. would not be motivated to reach an agreement on these long-standing issues, as long as they can rely on continued American presence (and protection) in the region. For many, continuing to operate under the shield of the U.S. security umbrella is preferable to entering potentially painful compromises with Iran, though Dr. Parsi believes that Biden’s administration will push states towards real engagement. Regardless, earnest dialogue between these actors cannot be expected unless the U.S. moves away from its protective role in the region. Dr. Ahmadian returned to comment on Iran’s perspective of such ‘add-on’ negotiations. Should other states be invited to discussions, he speculated that Iran’s defence capabilities would be scrutinized and therefore doubted that Tehran would willingly enter a negotiation that might endanger its ability to balance against local and international actors operating in the region. If these kinds of negotiations go forward, he imagines that Iran would push for reduced arms control exports to the Persian Gulf and encourage the U.S. and E.U. to consider how they can improve safety and security in the region. 

Posing a question from the audience, Ms. Mortazavi asked the panellists whether the E.U. would continue their mediating and supportive role in JCPOA negotiations after Trump’s departure. Dr. Moret recognized that European governance circles have uncharacteristically hardened their stance, but viewed these shifting temperaments as par for the course. Sanctions regimes fuel conflict among their participants, adding to their ineffectiveness. Dr. Moret again highlighted the importance of wider dialogue in the public arena about why punitive sanctions are used in the first place. Dr. Parsi added that European states may be pursuing these strategies to assert their relevance and shore up a strong position before potential renegotiations begin.

Ms. Mortazavi sought additional context on regional matters from Dr. Juneau, asking how he felt regional issues might play out, in terms of other parties and talking points that may be included. Dr. Juneau was optimistic that a new nuclear deal could be realized at some point in 2021 but unsure that regional agreement on subsidiary issues like ballistic missiles, support for non-state groups and regional security architecture would arrive any time soon. Dr. Ahmadian added that Iran has been very successful in regional deterrence and many of its allies currently hold powerful positions over rivals across the Gulf. Iran, therefore, maintains a powerful negotiating position, as evidenced in talks with E3 states on Yemen and Syria. Attempts to precondition a revival of the JCPOA with compromises on subsidiary issues can not be expected to succeed. 

Addressing earlier commentary on the ineffectiveness of sanctions, Ms. Mortazavi asked Dr. Moret to offer an alternative that is in alignment with humanitarian values, especially as the world continues to struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Reading a question from the audience, Ms. Mortazavi also asked whether the EU should independently pursue their foreign policy interests on behalf of an audience member. Dr. Moret revealed that she is not an absolute opponent of sanctions, however, they must respect the core values that informed their creation as a tool of international relations and be accompanied by rigid measures that target their impact. For example, asset freezes, travel bans or arms can be imposed uncontroversially—when sanctions are broadened in ways that impact people and whole economies, creating sharp declines in access to hard currency, their effectiveness is lost. These scenarios make life hard for vulnerable groups such as women, children, those with disabilities or people on fixed incomes. Bearing this in mind, sanctions should be used very judiciously—in the Iranian case and all others—combined more strategically with diplomacy and a host of other policy tools. Dr. Moret treated the audience question about pursuing a more independent E.U. foreign policy strategy by extension, noting that the Trumpian approach to sanctions has been very problematic for Europeans and most other American allies around the world. She expressed that a critical tipping point has been reached within the international community, and trust must be restored before the E.U. states can be expected to align foreign policy strategies with the U.S. After a round of concluding remarks, the panel discussion closed at 1:30 PM EST. 

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