Iran File

The Iran File is an analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.

Iran File: Iran Prepares for Nuclear Talks with Joe Biden’s Administration

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Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei signaled his readiness for talks with the incoming Biden administration and laid out his initial negotiating position. Khamenei *focused on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in his first speech of 2021, wherein he emphasized the need to lift sanctions and rejected possible talks on Iran’s missile development and regional activities. Since the January 8 speech, Khamenei’s official website has published a series of interviews with senior Iranian regime officials, further clarifying his policies. These individuals comprise much of Khamenei’s inner circle and will heavily influence internal regime deliberations vis-à-vis the JCPOA. Their remarks reflect how they will engage and pressure the US to reach their preferred political and economic terms.[1]

The interviewees consist of principlists and moderates, several of whom are potential presidential candidates such as Parliament Speaker *Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, former Parliament Speaker *Ali Larijani, and Foreign Affairs Minister *Mohammad Javad Zarif. Principlists—often called hardliners in the West—generally oppose engagement with the US and the JCPOA. The advisers’ unanimity indicates that Khamenei has clearly articulated to them his desire to negotiate with the US, likely regardless of whether a principlist or moderate wins Iran’s 2021 presidential election.

The regime officials rejected portions of the incoming Biden team’s expressed approach to Iran and the nuclear deal. They supported “compliance for compliance” (both sides rejoining the JCPOA and fulfilling their commitments) but disagreed on sequencing. The Iranian leaders emphasized that the US must lift sanctions on Iran before it can rejoin the nuclear deal. They *added that a compliance for compliance approach would harm the regime unless economic relief comes first, specifying that Iran must be able to export oil, implement contracts with international firms, and normalize its banking ties abroad before it brings its nuclear activity back to compliance with the deal. Each official *rejected potential talks on Iran’s missile arsenal and regional activities. These statements contradict President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to rejoin the JCPOA “if Iran returns to strict compliance” and then pursue follow-on negotiations related to ballistic missiles and destabilizing behavior abroad. The advisers also stated that a step-by-step approach is not in Iran’s interest, indicating opposition to a “less for less” agreement, which would involve Iran scaling back some nuclear activities in exchange for partial economic relief.

The regime officials made three demands in excess of what the JCPOA provides Iran. The advisers stated that sanctions relief must extend to nonnuclear designations imposed by the Trump administration related to human rights and terrorism, such as those on Iran’s Central Bank and Oil Ministry. They stated that the US must provide reparations for sanctions’ economic impact. Supreme Leader International Affairs Adviser *Ali Akbar Velayati called for removing the JCPOA’s “snapback” provision, the UN mechanism enabling any signatory to unilaterally reimpose international sanctions on Iran.

These three demands would require a renegotiation of the JCPOA and likely a new UN Security Council resolution adopting the revised agreement. The JCPOA explicitly does not bar nonnuclear sanctions or provide for any sort of reparations in the event of a breach by either side. And the snapback provision, which the Trump administration attempted to trigger, is core to the deal’s enforcement mechanisms. If the regime holds firm to any of these three demands, it is effectively rejecting even a phased compliance for compliance approach and requiring a new deal that benefits Iran even more than the last one did.

Recent Iranian breaches of the JCPOA are meant to increase the regime’s leverage in negotiations. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) began enriching uranium up to 20 percent on January 4 and *threatened to increase enrichment further to 40 or 60 percent. The AEOI is also installing advanced centrifuges and stockpiling low-enriched uranium (LEU). One parliamentarian *stated that the regime will expel UN inspectors if the US does not lift sanctions by February 21. Ghalibaf explained that this nuclear escalation grants the Rouhani administration leverage to achieve favorable terms during negotiations.

The most recent announcement of Iran’s intent to field the capability to make uranium metal, a key step in weapons production, has seriously alarmed European parties to the agreement. The regime has likely taken these steps as part of its own pressure campaign on the incoming Biden administration to obtain the concessions in excess of the JCPOA noted above.

American policymakers must consider these statements collectively as the regime’s starting negotiating position. It is unclear on which, if any, of these matters Tehran will concede during potential talks. The officials did not explicitly reject the possibility of extending the JCPOA’s “sunset” provisions, the clauses that temporarily restrict components of Iran’s nuclear program, such as the number of centrifuges it can operate and amount of LEU it can stockpile, but neither has it suggested openly that it would extend them. Its outright rejection of negotiations on its missile program is unsurprising but nevertheless should be a red flag for the incoming US team.

Both Iran and the Biden administration are willing to negotiate, but each seeks to modify the terms of the agreement (or conclude a subsequent agreement) more favorable to its side than was the JCPOA itself. The most obvious resolution would be a recommitment to the JCPOA without modification. Such an outcome would generally favor Iran since it is now almost six years into the term of that agreement, and restrictions and room for sanctions begin to fall away rapidly in the coming years. The Iranians might accept such an outcome. It remains to be seen if the Biden team will do so.

[1] The interviewees were Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Chief Ali Akbar Salehi, Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, Strategic Foreign Relations Council Chairman Kamal Kharrazi, Supreme Leader International Affairs Adviser Ali Akbar Velayati, and Supreme Leader Representative to the Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili. Supreme Leader Khamenei’s website has not yet published the interview with AEOI Chief Salehi during the time of this writing.

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Jan '21