Can the 2015 Iran nuclear deal be saved? – BBC Newsnight

the europeans launched the original nuclear deal so it was fitting today that uk french and german foreign ministers met the new u.s secretary of state virtually in an attempt to revive it we're obviously concerned about uh the risk of further non-compliance by iran with the jcpoa the nuclear uh deal all the more reason to reinvigorate the transatlantic diplomacy which is why i've been here with my french and german colleagues but also speaking to tony blinken in the us and making sure we chart a way forward and look to find a way to re-engage diplomatically in order to restrain iran but also bring it back into compliance with its nuclear obligations there's a big element of deja vu to this familiar issues and faces and the deal signed in 2015 meant also overcoming barriers of distrust and sidelining hardliners on both sides what's more key people who made possible the joint comprehensive plan of action or jcpoa are now running president biden's foreign policy i think uh president biden definitely wants to revive the nuclear deal and it's interesting that two of his most senior officials um jake sullivan who's the national security adviser bill burns the new director of the cia are the two officials who under the obama administration were most directly involved in the original negotiations leading up to the jcpoa agreement in 2015.

So they know a lot about this and they know a lot about talking to iran but the world has changed since 2015. president trump walked away from the nuclear deal and ramped up sanctions against iran for its part the islamic republic has broken out of the agreement and even now is threatening to go further with its nuclear programme in washington there remains strong political opposition in certain circles to the original deal formed in 2015 and that remains and needs to be contended with in tehran obviously an upcoming presidential election of their own in june which constrains the current iranian president from a clean return but also makes the question of whether when and how to return an even more heated political issue in tehran's politics as well in the gulf itself multiple missile attacks by iranian proxies on saudi targets in recent years underline another element of this the unease felt by us allies the gulf states and israel about any new diplomatic opening to iran president biden will have to set aside those worries at least temporarily in order to get the jcpoa running again i think perhaps a two-stage process is more realistic so one has a sort of minimal resumption of the jcpoa reversing the iranian breaches of the deal which is quite possible a reversion of the taking back the sanctions that donald trump imposed perhaps in a phased way and then perhaps separately with a different caste of players to discuss things like iran's regional role if the diplomatic appeal of returning to the nuclear deal suits the west does iran see its value too it exerts more regional power than it used to and its supreme leader doesn't sound too convinced of the value of fresh deals with the us earlier this week a rocket attack on a coalition base in northern iraq killed an american officer these types of incident present a constant danger of flare-ups and escalation and ultimately it may be the desire to contain these that provides the best rationale for fresh diplomacy what i think also was learned from the trump administration is that not having the nuclear deal certainly didn't de-escalate tensions in the region and in fact in many cases escalated it quite severely such that iran's choices and decisions in terms of its foreign policy in the region only presented more and more aggressive a threat to its immediate neighbors so the restart of this process may feel like a familiar story complete with some of the same leading characters but the geopolitics have changed and it'll not be long before we see whether that also reshapes the diplomacy i'm joined now from the us by barbara slavin director of the future iran initiative at the atlantic council think tank and ali is iran project director at the international crisis group he's a former u.n official who helped cement the 2015 nuclear deal barbara if i may start with you the u.s has said this evening this is an opportunity for diplomacy after years because of the new administration what is your reading of that i'm very encouraged frankly by the news that's coming out that the united states would be willing to attend a meeting of the joint commission which implements the uh the nuclear deal this would give the united states an opportunity not only to consult with european allies the russians and the chinese but to sit down and talk directly to the iranians we've seen a lot of shadow boxing i think over the last couple of weeks while the united states does its consultations gets its uh ideas in order and i think now we are ready to begin the diplomacy again so today is a very good day i think ali what's your reading on this because of course you've got to have it on both sides and iran's foreign ministers tweeted this evening that the west must demand an end to trump's legacy of economic terrorism against iran just to paraphrase that do you think that there is that appetite look i think the iranians would see the signals from the us as positive but insufficient insufficient in the sense that what they care about the most is sanctions relief and at this stage it appears that the biden administration is not really considering providing iran with any kind of economic reprieve and you know the primary motivator on the iranian side is not that they have an election coming up or is not that they um have uh you know are in middle of fighting with the covet uh pandemic uh as one of the worst hit countries in the region but it's a matter of principle you know they had a deal with the us and uh and the p5 plus one of the world powers uh that the u.s reneged on and if now they agree to any kind of return to the diplomatic table without any kind of mia culpa or regret from the us's side and if they agree to any additional concessions uh based on the sanctions that trump administration imposed it they are afraid it will teach a very bad lesson to the u.s that basically iran responds to pressure and sanctions and then this would be a slippery slope of unending u.s demands so what is the way back for you do you think having just outlined that position so basically there is a need without any doubt for the us to freeze this process of escalation that we're in because uh the iranians based on the legislation that the iranian parliament passed after their top nuclear scientists was assassinated last year uh will reduce the access of un inspectors to iran's nuclear facilities as of next tuesday and this process of escalation will continue because the iran's nuclear program is now growing by the day so we need to freeze this process and again the only card that the us will play that would get iran's attention is some economic reprieve and then both sides would have to get back to the negotiating table which could very well be the joint commission of the the nuclear deal where all the stakeholders sit at the table and discuss a timetable for mutual return into compliance which i'm hoping would happen uh before the next iranian president comes to office uh in august that is also a key day as you bring up barbara sabin to bring you back into this the biden administration uh seems less close to israel do you think that gives biden more freedom to maneuver yeah i think it does i think that the bide administration is not only shown a certain independence from the israelis but is also noticeably less warm taught towards saudi arabia and the united arab emirates which are the other countries that have been uh ambivalent to say the least about the return to the nuclear agreement so i think uh you know joe biden is showing a lot of independence he's also showing that he can't be pushed around by the iranians with artificial deadlines i mean with all due respect to to ali yes parliament passed legislation but parliament is not in charge the supreme leader of the country is in charge and if he sees signs that the united states is indeed willing to lift the sanctions uh he can pause this move out of the joint comprehensive plan of action one other bit of news tonight the united states has apparently formally withdrawn the trump administration's efforts to quote unquote snap back u.n sanctions on iran this was a failed attempt last year but now the u.s has formally rescinded this there are a number of signals i think that are being sent to iran and hopefully this meeting of the joint commission can happen sooner rather than later and then we can get back to the business of sequencing a mutual return to compliance with the deal ali to give us an insight into robert malley biden's new iran envoy you know him you've worked alongside what what do you think his approach will be look um rob's approach uh would be the biden administration's approach uh not necessarily uh the the approach that we advocated uh at crisis group which was a swift and clean return to the jcpoa i think the problem that the biden administration is now facing is very strong political resistance in congress towards lifting the sanctions just to return to the original agreement but at the same time as i said the iranians would not agree to anything other than return to the original agreement and i think you know i've seen this movie before these seemingly unbridgeable gaps between the two sides could be bridged because at the end of the day both want the same thing both understand that jcpoa is in their interest uh and that without the jcpoa there would be really very difficult to imagine any kind of diplomacy to address other issues of this agreement be it iran's ballistic missile program or its regional activities um so eventually i think there is a way a creative way that they can find uh to synchronize their uh their their actions and uh return to the jcpoa in a coordinated and staggered fashion but the first step is to get to the negotiating table and although i think these signals that barbara mentioned from the u.s are positive but the only thing that gets iran's attention is some kind of economic reprieve barbara do you think that the just thinking about it from the americans point of view how does joe biden do this while not losing face but also trusting that iran will keep their side of the deal with regards to nuclear weapons i don't think joe biden will lose face he has a rather good popularity ratings right now mostly because of his handling of the covid crisis the economic crisis and most americans frankly are fairly disengaged from foreign policy uh he has a lot of leeway congress cannot prevent him from returning to the original deal although it would have to say perhaps on some sort of follow-on agreement so again i don't think this is going to be hard one suggestion that ali and the crisis group has made is that the united states uh signaled that it would have no formal objection to iran obtaining a five billion dollar loan from the international monetary fund for covet relief a signal like that or uh signaling to the south koreans that they can release frozen oil revenues of of iran's in south korean banks these would be concrete steps that the u.s could take so again i'm i you know it's taken a little while a lot of people are impatient but joe biden has only been president for for not even a month and i think we're going to get there just a word on the people of iran uh and you mentioned there the the impact of covert but also the impact of the economic sanctions terrible absolutely terrible i was just directing that if also barbara's your view welcome as well but ali to you what would you say on that as well look the iranian people are stuck between a government in iran that doesn't really uh care about them enough or mismanages the economy or uh has not been able to really tackle the pandemic in in an appropriate way and a an uncaring united states during the trump administration uh so it i think it is fundamentally important for the biden administration to demonstrate uh that it is adopting a very different approach from the maximum pressure policy that trump pursued and the signals that it has sent today are positive but again as i said they're insufficient the reality is that the biggest victims of maximum pressure have been the iranian people it hasn't really weakened the iranian regime or the leadership the price has been paid by the iranians and they would welcome a return to normalcy

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