Nearly two years after US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions on Teheran as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign against an “arch enemy”, there is hope that a credible path to repairing the damage done to stability in the region is on the horizon.
President-elect Joe Biden in an interview published in The New York Times on Wednesday iterated that Washington would re-join the agreement, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), provided Iran returns to “strict compliance”. The 2015 nuclear deal gave Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.
Iran would also have to address its “malign” regional activities through proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen in the talks that would have to include its Arab neighbours. So, is this the first step in the coming to fruition of what Biden had promised during his campaign ~ offering Iran a “credible path back to diplomacy”? Iran’s government, under pressure from an increasingly aspirational population to get the economy going, is expected to engage with the Biden Administration provided face-savers are in place given it also has to deal with the theocracy’s conservative clergy which has already been warning against yielding to what it characterises as the “illusion of change by the Great Satan”.
Of crucial significance, therefore, will be the role of France, Germany and the UK.
The E3, as they are known, have been urged by Europe’s leading diplomats to move quickly and set out a roadmap for Iran and the incoming Biden Administration to get back into compliance with the JCPA. In a statement issued earlier this week, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt and former Nato secretary general Javier Solana among others have warned that unless the three countries coordinate a joint public statement setting out what both sides must do to end the impasse, there is a real risk that Biden will be sworn in as US President come January facing escalating tensions with Iran.
There is certainly apprehension in world capitals that the momentum towards potential reconciliation risks being disrupted by those determined to ensure that the US and Iran cannot get back to the negotiating table.
The assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last week, allegedly by Mossad, is a case in point. The timeline is tight. The remaining signatories to the JCPA ~ France, Germany, UK, Russia, Iran and China ~ will meet in Vienna on 16 December to discuss how to keep the deal alive so signalling intent before that date is vital. India has a limited role to play but it is in its economic-strategic interest to ensure both its allies, USA and Iran, are not daggers drawn.
A seat at the global high table is still a far cry for New Delhi despite the hyperbole routinely dished out by the political establishment for the domestic audience. But perhaps it can leverage its closeness to Tel Aviv and Teheran to help smoothen the path.