Tricky path to reviving Iran nuclear deal
With Iran set to hold presidential elections in June, one that could well see a hardline conservative replace pragmatist current President Hassan Rouhani, there has been growing urgency to revive the nuclear deal that major powers, including the United States under the Obama administration, signed with the Islamic nation. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action traded billions of dollars worth of sanctions relief for Teheran agreeing to roll back much of its nuclear programme. But former president Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal in 2018, driven by his dislike of Mr Barack Obama's foreign policy, and by a need to shore up an anti-Iran coalition that included allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.
It is heartening, therefore, that the US and Iran have agreed to participate in talks starting in Vienna today that will try to revive the deal. Although both sides will not hold direct talks - they will be in the Austrian capital but not in the same room - the development underscores US President Joe Biden's inclination to return to the deal. The meeting will attempt to draw up negotiating lists - sanctions the US could lift and nuclear obligations Iran should meet. Clearly, there has been movement backstage for the two to reach this point. It is a welcome step, and must be followed by a workable agreement that can stand with the new Iranian leader, whoever he may be.
The 2015 deal was not a perfect agreement, but it was the best that was possible, given the circumstances under which it was negotiated with Iran by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany and the European Union. It was clear the deal would need careful monitoring. Iran had pursued a secret nuclear weapons programme even though it was a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which has been in force since 1970. So-called snap-back provisions that would have restored sanctions were meant to guard against such moves. Last April, with no evidence that Iran was in default, Mr Trump snapped back sanctions anyway, to protests from his Security Council peers.
Iran desperately needs the US sanctions to be lifted, with the pandemic crushing its economy. Its oil revenue frozen abroad could be as much as US$30 billion (S$40.4 billion). Teheran rejected an initial offer to release US$1 billion if it would freeze the production of 20 per cent enriched uranium, a lethal first step towards weaponisation. Instead, it demands all of its money first and rejects a step-by-step return to the nuclear deal. The US, meanwhile, has downplayed expectations for Vienna even as it is aware that an Iran deal would bolster peace efforts in the Middle East that were advanced with recent accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. This is in the nature of such negotiations. The critical thing is that the US and Iran are back at the table.