With negotiations stalled, chances to revive the 2015 agreement are vanishing.
During the last months of former Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s term in office, there were hopes for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal for which Rouhani had gambled his political career. Although the Iranian Parliament jumped in to prevent the administration from striking a “loose deal,” the move was seen as political leverage to limit Rouhani’s more moderate administration.
In June 2021, the hardliner candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, won the vote and there was a hiatus in negotiations between Iran and the member parties to the Iran nuclear deal due to the transition of power and the formation of Iran’s new team of negotiators. There were hot debates as to whether the EU could communicate with Iran’s new administration. However, a major fact many international political analysts and media neglected is that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s policy in the international arena does not depend on who Iran’s president is. The country’s key policies are defined and strictly supervised by the Supreme Leader who has absolute control over the three branches of power in Iran, namely the judiciary, legislative and executive, as well as the armed forces and the media. This is in addition to the fact that the president of Iran is limited in their authority on matters relating to the economy, which are largely determined by domestic political influence. Regardless of who holds office for the four-year presidency in Iran, the country’s major policies must be assessed based on realities on the ground.
In 2003, the then head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said the country was “embarking on a long-term plan to construct nuclear power plants with a total capacity of 6,000 megawatts within two decades.” It was a bold pledge. By 2020, nuclear power generation supplied merely 1.6% of the country’s electricity demand. The remaining 98.4% was generated using fossil fuels. The question many Iranians ask themselves is whether or not it was worth it to tolerate years of economic pressure, two-digit inflation rates, low purchasing power, dramatic market instability, and denial of high-quality cars and other goods simply in return for peaceful nuclear energy. What Iran’s nuclear ambition has brought so far has nothing to do with social welfare and economic growth. The huge price Iran has paid for the prospect of nuclear energy has only been an attempt to bolster its power for international political bargaining.
As president Raisi said in his election campaign, his administration’s chief foreign policy orientation towards sanctions and the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal is a policy known as the “Resistance Economy,” something that’s been the principal political ideology in Iran since 2010. The doctrine assumes that sanctions will never be lifted because of Washington’s “distrustful approach.” The idea is that the national economy must be run based on domestic potential— together with critical support from Iran’s major allies Russia and China.
Today, Raisi’s administration is putting enormous emphasis on enhancing ties with its neighbors in parallel with its efforts to finalize or extend long-term strategic cooperation plans with Beijing and Moscow. Last year, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization accepted Iran as an acceding member state. One of the administration’s priorities is to realize full membership. Although it will take a fair amount of time for this to happen, when it does, it will be the first time Iran has been fully accepted into a major regional bloc since its 1979 revolution. This reveals that if the currently stalled Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the JCPOA, ultimately fails, Iran has prepared a Plan B.
Since the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal in 2018, Iran has repeatedly pointed to two key issues that must be negotiated in order for the deal to revive. First, Iran wants the necessary guarantees to be able to enjoy the full economic benefits of the revival, including access to the international banking network and the global market. The other major demand presented by Iran is the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of Iran’s armed forces, from the list of sanctions. The latter seems only presented as a bargaining tool for leverage as the foremost issue for the country is its lack of access to as much as $30 billion of oil revenues frozen in countries such as South Korea, India, Japan, and China. Iran is well aware that United States negotiators are not constitutionally able to grant such guarantees absent Congressional agreement, which is in doubt.
But, what if?
Iran currently owns between 100 and 150 million barrels of crude oil mainly deposited on tankers in international waters. If the sanctions are lifted following a successful revival of the nuclear deal, the sudden injection of these reserves would likely reduce global prices. Iran would also go on to produce and sell at least one million barrels per day, consequently increasing global supply dramatically, and increasing stability in the oil market. This would arguably also be to the benefit of Saudi Arabia. With the revival of the nuclear deal, political relations between Tehran and Riyadh would improve. Attacks by Yemeni Houthis (directly supported by Iran) on Saudi Arabia’s refineries would cease, and crude production could then resume at maximum capacity.
During the past decades, many developing countries have sought to obtain nuclear technology—either for peaceful or hostile purposes. There is no evidence Iran’s nuclear program is hostile, even if its aims have little to do with improving the domestic situation. However, dropping sanctions on Iran may have major benefits in lessening regional tensions, and mitigating the global energy crisis. A major reason the international community has singled-out Iran’s nuclear energy program is because of its overt hostility towards Israel. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s core foreign policy mission is fighting what it calls the “fake and apartheid regime of Israel.” As this policy imperative is unlikely to be altered, foreign opposition to Iran’s nuclear goals will persist.
EHSAN ARJMAND is a freelance journalist based in Tehran. He’s worked for Iran's state-controlled media as well as private outlets for the past 16 years. He is also a documentary filmmaker and producer.