What comes next for the Iran nuclear deal? Joe Biden made it clear during his campaign that he wanted to reverse his predecessor’s maximum-pressure campaign on Iran and start talks about reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 nuclear containment deal between Iran, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany and the European Union. More than two months into the Biden presidency, Iran and the other parties are still waiting. Biden has acted more slowly than many expected—especially those eagerly watching his moves from inside Iran.
He might be buying time while he thinks through his options. Some U.S. officials have suggested the Biden administration may want to remake, or at least update, the Iran deal rather than simply revive the 2015 version. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has pledged to “lengthen and strengthen” the deal. At Wendy Sherman’s confirmation hearing to be deputy secretary of State in early March, she also hinted at the need for a reworked deal. “The facts on the ground have changed, the geopolitics of the region have changed, and the way forward must similarly change,” she told lawmakers.
But Iranian leaders say they already have a deal they want: the existing deal, and it’s up to the United States to rejoin it. Iran has still been allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct inspections, a term of the 2015 deal. Iranian officials have hinted at one first move the United States could make if it were truly interested in breaking the impasse: access to funds frozen in South Korean banks by U.S. sanctions. Iranian officials say those funds, if released, would be used only for humanitarian goods, and it would jump-start the longer process of unfreezing U.S.-Iranian relations.
It’s a delicate dance of waiting for the other party to make a move, and trying to guess what, exactly, your foe—and, at the same time, partner—is thinking. Time is also running out. With the Iranian presidential election coming in June, there is only a short time left for Tehran and Washington to start the diplomatic process and revive the deal before the administration, and the political calculus, changes in Iran. And recent attacks between the U.S. and Iran-backed forces in Syria and Iraq raise the question of how long the two countries can go until rising tensions preclude the possibility of a diplomatic deal.
One central player in these discussions is Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, who brokered the deal in 2015. Zarif, who speaks fluent English and went to graduate school in Colorado, is seen as one of Iran’s leading moderates, along with President Hassan Rouhani. Often clashing with hard-liners in Iran, Zarif staked his career on the agreement—and faced a backlash when President Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018. Zarif announced his resignation in 2019, but Rouhani rejected it, and Zarif continued in the role. Now Zarif is caught between a United States that seems to want to reshape the deal, and an Iran that is increasingly opposed to anything but restarting the original deal. It’s a difficult position even for Zarif, who is used to walking a tightrope as the favored moderate interlocutor in a country where hard-liners are thought to have most of the power.
We spoke with Zarif on Skype to hear more about what his administration is making of Biden so far, how domestic Iranian politics is affecting the possibility of a revived deal, where they’ll budge—and where they definitely won’t.
Negar Mortazavi: Iran and the U.S. both claim the same goal of going back to full compliance with the nuclear deal. But two months into the Biden administration, we still see a diplomatic impasse. It seems like each side is telling the other to take the first step. So far, the Biden administration says it’s ready to meet and discuss a process for return. Why have you not met yet?
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif: Well, I think we need to be clear about what needs to be done. Clearly when we agreed on the JCPOA in July of 2015, Iran implemented JCPOA, its obligations under JCPOA, the IAEA verified Iranian implementation in January 2016 and then the United States responded. That was the sequence of events in the beginning. Iran continued compliance; the United States during the Obama administration, more or less, less more than more, complied with JCPOA. And then the Trump administration came, and for four years the United States did not comply. And in the middle of those four years, the United States withdrew from the deal.
Now if the United States wants to go back to the deal, it has to follow the same order that we started. It has to now come back to compliance. As soon as the United States comes to compliance, Iran will comply. This is as easy as that. You see there is a cause-and-effect situation: The United States stopped complying and then after a year or almost 15 months, five IAEA reports indicated that Iran even continued to comply after the U.S. withdrew. And then Iran stopped and reduced its compliance; that’s within the terms of the JCPOA. [Iran still considers itself a party to the deal, though it has formally invoked a dispute-resolution mechanism, reduced its compliance and expanded its nuclear activities.] Now we want to go back to compliance. The party that has started this process has to go back and Iran will immediately go back.
Now, why don’t we talk? The reason for not talking is that there is nothing to talk about. We have an agreement; we talked about this agreement with the same people who are in the White House today, with the same people who are in the State Department today. So they know exactly what it takes to go back to compliance, unless they are not serious about what they’re saying. They want to use pressure and coercion in order to extract new concessions from Iran. That is what Wendy Sherman said in her confirmation hearing for deputy secretary of state and what others have said: that the situation in 2021 is not the same as 2015.
They want a new agreement, they want a wider agreement, they want something else, they want to talk about the sunset clause, they want to talk about missiles, they want to talk about other issues.
That will go nowhere because in the 12 years that we negotiated, from 2003 to 2015, and in the two years that we focused on negotiations, mostly with the Americans, we dealt with all these issues…. Now they want to reopen those discussions, which means another two years of unnecessary discussion. So there’s nothing to talk about.
We are ready to agree to a choreography—that is, the U.S. taking steps. and as soon as we can confirm that those steps have been taken, we can take our steps. And the process of verification for Iran is very clear; the IAEA will verify that we have complied.
NM: Let’s talk about this process. What is the timing and the sequencing that Iran would agree to?
JZ: The U.S. can implement its obligations tomorrow, in 20 days, in a month, whenever. There has to be an executive order. It’s clear what sanctions need to be removed. There are roughly 800 sanctions that President Trump re-imposed; there are roughly another 800 new sanctions that President Trump or Congress imposed; and there are some re-designations. President Trump re-designated certain [non-nuclear] entities in order to move them [the sanctions] away from nuclear-related issues to other issues. The Biden administration knows better than anybody what they are.
So first there has to be an executive order to return [to the JCPOA] and lift all these sanctions, basically terminate executive orders and waive congressional action, and that waiver needs to come into effect. As soon as that waiver comes into effect, that is as soon as the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) allows transfer of money, transfer of oil, transportation, shipping, and all of that, then Iran can come back into compliance immediately. Our compliance doesn’t take time; IAEA can verify it and it’s clear what we need to do.
NM: And how long are you, Iran, prepared to wait for the U.S. to make this return?
JZ: As long as it takes for the U.S. to return …
NM: So you will officially stay in the deal until the U.S. comes back?
JZ: Well … We are using [the JCPOA’s dispute resolution] paragraph 36 contingency. And based on the decision of the Iranian parliament, which is now law and we are obliged to implement it. [Iran’s parliament recently passed a law mandating that Iran further expand its nuclear program if the U.S. does not come back to the deal.] If the United States continues its lack of compliance, it means that Iran will take new steps, as it is very clearly and transparently defined in the law. And the law is addressed to the government. It is not an ultimatum to anybody. It’s a domestic law addressed to the government of Iran and we need to observe that law. As soon as the United States goes back to compliance, everything will reverse.
NM: You said that you knew and have met with Joe Biden when he was a senator. Has President Biden, after he became president, surprised you or acted differently than you expected?
JZ: No, I didn’t expect him to act differently. I think the U.S. continues to be in the policy review process. But if it is in the policy review process, it should not portray itself as having changed its policy, because it hasn’t. What we see as U.S. policy is exactly the same as the Trump administration; we haven’t seen any change in policy. We’ve seen Secretary of State Antony Blinken boasting about basically preventing South Korea from sending a fraction of our money to a Swiss channel, which was basically established by President Trump in order to at least create a front that the U.S. was not preventing humanitarian trade…. by extension of that logic it means that Secretary Blinken is preventing us from using our own money to buy food and medicine. That amounts to an international war crime.
NM: There are a number of dual-national citizens detained in Iran; there is British-Iranian Nazanin Zagahri-Ratcliff, Americans Siamak Namazi and his father Bagher Namazi, Emad Sharghi, and Morad Tahbaz who was detained with a group of Iranian environmentalists. Why are so many dual-nationals in prison? Why haven’t they been released yet?
JZ: Well it is interesting that you only name dual-nationals that are imprisoned in Iran and not dual-nationals that are imprisoned in the United States. There are quite a large number of them imprisoned in the United States purely for sanctions violations. One is being harassed today and for the past two months treated like a criminal because he wrote articles about Iran and provided consultation to our mission in New York. [Kaveh Afrasiabi is accused of being an unregistered lobbyist.] So this is not a one-sided situation. Unfortunately, the United States has been treating Iranian-Americans in the United States in a discriminatory way in addition to preventing, in the Muslim ban, Iranians from even coming to the United States and visiting their relatives. Now hopefully President Biden has lifted that [travel ban] but continues to imprison Iranians for …
NM: But why is it also happening in Iran?
JZ: The United States says that these people violated the law. Our judiciary says that these people violated the law. I have proposed that as foreign minister I can intervene only if I can have an exchange. So what we want to do is to exchange those Iranian-Americans with these Iranian-Americans. All of them are Iranian-Americans. And I made that proposal in September 2018 …
NM: That was under President Trump. Are there any talks going on right now for exchanges?
JZ: Unfortunately not. We haven’t received any proposals. But we have said we are prepared for a universal exchange of all Iranian prisoners, Iranian-Americans and other Iranians who are imprisoned in Europe, imprisoned at the United States’ request in Africa and elsewhere, waiting for extradition or being unduly punished, and we will release people who are in here in prison charged with crimes. And I’m not in the judiciary and not privy to the information the judge was privy to, so I cannot judge the decision of a judge and a court. So let’s leave it at that. There are prisoners in the United States, there are prisoners in Iran and elsewhere. We can exchange them all.
NM: President Biden is also interested in follow-on negotiations, beyond the JCPOA, about other issues including Iran’s ballistic missile program, its regional presence, and he has even talked about human rights. Is Iran open to discuss any of these issues with the United States?
JZ: The ballistic missiles issue and the regional issue were discussed in the JCPOA. And the decisions we reached in the JCPOA reflects our discussions. The fact that the P5+1 decided to continue the restrictions on arms to Iran for five years [in a separate 2015 arms embargo], which just ended last October, the fact that they decided to continue restrictions on missiles for eight years until confidence is built about the purely peaceful nature of our nuclear program, these are all addressed in the JCPOA. The problem with the United States and its Western allies is that when they deal with something and it’s not to their 100 percent satisfaction, they want to re-open. We dealt with all these issues… we had shouting matches about these, but we dealt with it. And the outcome was what we have in front of us. The Supreme Leader here in Iran said very clearly that if the United States were to pass the test of JCPOA, then Iran would consider other issues.
But the United States miserably failed, not only during the Trump administration but even during the past two months of the Biden administration.
So if the U.S. passes the test of JCPOA, which doesn’t seem very likely, then we can consider other issues. But I don’t think the U.S. would be prepared to discuss those issues. Is the U.S. ready to reduce its arms shipments to the region? Twenty-five percent of the entire arms sales to the world are sold to our region, and none of it to Iran. Are the U.S. and its Western allies prepared to stop that? That’s a very lucrative market and I don’t think President Biden wants to do that.
Saudi Arabia spends nearly seven times as much as Iran on weapons. Are they prepared to bring that down? Because it’s not [just] about Iranian disarmament. If it’s about regional issues, are U.S. allies prepared to do their share? Is Saudi Arabia prepared to stop its aggression in Yemen? Is Saudi Arabia prepared to stop supporting terrorists in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan? These are very open questions that will be asked. But we have said very clearly that we are prepared to talk to our neighbors in the region. The six countries in GCC [the Gulf Cooperation Council] plus Iran and Iraq are the countries in the Persian Gulf region, and we’re always ready to talk among the eight countries of the Persian Gulf.
NM: Talking about the GCC, there is a growing alliance between Israel and some of the GCC countries. How has this affected Iran’s calculations in the region?
JZ: It unfortunately affects their security calculation, and let me explain what I mean. Some of our neighbors in the Persian Gulf have always tried to buy security through proxies. Their proxy at one time was Saddam Hussein, more recently it was Trump, and now they want Netanyahu to be their proxy. Obviously it doesn’t work. It didn’t work with Saddam Hussein, it didn’t work with Trump, and it certainly will not work with Netanyahu. What Netanyahu will do is to bring the war to their territory. And I think they are badly mistaken in doing that. But we are prepared to talk to our neighbors and even suggested to them, three-four years ago, a regional security arrangement; we suggested to them a non-aggression pact; we suggested the HOPE initiative (the Hormuz Peace initiative). All of these are on the table, and the countries in the Southern part of the Persian Gulf can decide to come back to the region. I can assure them that Benjamin Netanyahu can hardly keep himself out of prison, let alone provide them with security.
NM: And some of these GCC countries want their Western allies, especially the United States, to be present. Are you willing to sit down with everyone at the table to discuss reducing tensions in the region?
JZ: We believe that tension in the region is caused by the presence of foreign forces and they are not the cure; they are the malady. We are prepared to talk to our neighbors. The United Nations can provide an umbrella under UNSC Resolution 598, which gives our neighbors in the southern Persian Gulf the assurance that there will be an international umbrella.
NM: Iran was one of the first countries hit by the virus in the region. It’s the epicenter of the pandemic in the Middle East, with nearly 2 million cases and over 60,000 deaths officially reported. Where are you getting the vaccines; from which countries? And what is your timeline or plan for vaccinating the entire population?
JZ: We started vaccinating the population a couple of weeks ago, started with health professionals, and continue with medical workers and the elderly and people in the vulnerable segments of the population. Unfortunately sanctions by the U.S., whether they admit it or not, have prevented Iran from making its payments into Covax. It delayed our payments into this global facility for vaccines by about four months. We finally did it in January, but that delayed the process.
Right now, our medical community, the equivalent of your FDA, has agreed on an emergency basis to accept the Sputnik vaccine and the Sinopharm vaccine, and Sinovac is in the process of being approved. We have three Iranian vaccines undergoing second- and third-phase trials. The vaccine co-produced between our Pasteur Institute, a 100-year-old vaccine production facility in Iran, and Cuban pharmaceuticals is now ready for its final trial phase and hopefully mass-vaccination.
It is regrettable that the West is hoarding vaccines, and it’s an issue in the international community while during this pandemic, countries outside the West are hardly having access to any vaccine. This pandemic has to be addressed globally; you cannot address it locally, and unfortunately, just like in other cases, the West doesn’t see it that way.
NM: Well there’s also an order from the Supreme Leader banning certain Western vaccines, especially those produced in the United States and the UK. How does that come into play when you talk about the West and vaccines?
JZ: There is a debate in the medical community. The decision by the Supreme Leader was not initiated by him. There were requests from the medical community about genetically modified vaccines, that are called mRNA, and Pfizer and Moderna are of that type. But we are getting other vaccines under Covax, we are getting AstraZeneca, which is a Swedish-British vaccine, we are getting Indian-British vaccines.
NM: And finally, there are rumors that you may be the reform candidate for the presidential election in June. Will you run for president?
JZ: I will not.