Parties to Iran nuclear deal say they’re preparing for possible US return to accord

From left, Head of Mission of People's Republic of China to the European Union Hailong Wu, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarifat, an unidentified Russian official, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. (U.S. State Department/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Remaining parties to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal said on December 21 that they are preparing for a possible return of the United States to the accord.

President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office on January 20, has said he will try to rejoin the deal, which was struck when he was vice president.

In a joint statement following a virtual foreign ministers’ meeting on the ailing nuclear deal, Germany, France, and the U.K., along with accord signatories China, Russia, and Iran, said they were ready to “positively address” a U.S. return to the nuclear accord.

“Ministers acknowledged the prospect of a return of the U.S. to the JCPOA and underlined their readiness to positively address this in a joint effort,” they said in a statement, referring to the formal name of the accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action.

“Ministers reiterated their deep regret towards the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement,” they added.

The three European powers, known as the E3, have struggled to keep the JCPOA on life support since President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018 and imposed punishing sanctions on Iran under a so-called “maximum pressure” campaign.

In response, Iran has gradually breached parts of the agreement restricting the amount of enriched uranium it can stockpile and the purity to which the uranium is enriched. Iran says it can come back into compliance with the deal once the United States and the E3 fulfill their end of the agreement by providing Tehran economic relief promised under the accord.

Biden has suggested he will reenter the JCPOA if Iran complies with the agreement, leaving other issues of concern, such as Iran’s ballistic missiles and support for regional proxies, to “follow-on” agreements.

Iran says its missile program and regional policies are off the table and that Washington and the E3 must first comply with the nuclear agreement.

“Renegotiation is out of question,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter after the ministers’ meeting, reiterating that Iran will not agree to a new deal.

“Iran will rapidly reverse remedial measures in response to U.S. unlawful withdrawal — and blatant E3 breaches –when US/E3 perform their duties. The Iranian people MUST feel the effects of sanctions lifting,” he said.

EU foreign ministers appear to be coalescing around the idea that the first priority should be to save what’s left of the nuclear accord, before adding more complicated and contentious issues.

“We are standing at a crossroads today,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters in Berlin, adding that the deal’s fate will be determined in the coming weeks and months.

“To make possible a rapprochement under Biden, there must be no more tactical maneuvers of the kind we have seen plenty of in recent times. They would do nothing but further undermine the agreement,” he added.

“The opportunity that is now being offered — this last window of opportunity — must not be squandered,” Maas said. “We made that very clear today to Iran in particular.”

Complicating the situation is the assassination in November of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near Tehran. Iran has blamed Israel and, indirectly, the United States, raising the possibility that Iran or one of its regional proxies will retaliate.

In response to the killing, hard-liners in Iran’s parliament passed a bill calling for the further expansion to Iran’s nuclear program and an end to inspections of nuclear facilities by the UN watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Iran’s Foreign Ministry said it opposes the bill and President Hassan Rohani’s moderate government has suggested he will not sign it into law. IAEA inspections are considered one of the key features keeping the nuclear deal alive.

All sides are also running up against the timeline of June elections in Iran, in which Rohani will not be running because of term limits. Analysts say a possible hard-liner victory in those elections would complicate saving the JCPOA, which is opposed by Rohani’s domestic critics.