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December 4, 2020

Middle East Roundup: Iranian Parliament Plays Bad Cop, But Biden and Rouhani Remain Committed to Return

This week, Iran’s parliament passed a bill that forces the government to accelerate its nuclear program. Also, Zarif mentioned the bill is reversible if Iran and the U.S. come back into compliance with the JCPOA, while Biden again reiterated his commitment to return to the deal. Please see our breakdown and analysis of these events below: 

Iranian Parliament Plays Bad Cop, But Biden and Rouhani Remain Committed to Return

  • New Law Forces Government to Escalate Nuclear Program; Zarif Says it is Reversible
    • Iran’s Guardian Council, a legal body that must sign off on all parliamentary bills, ratified a bill on Tuesday passed by Iran’s parliament forcing the Rouhani administration to accelerate the country’s nuclear program.
    • The bill was written months ago but was never put forward for a vote. The move comes after a top Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated in Tehran last week, sparking fury amongst Iranian politicians of all factions.

    • When the law is fully ratified, the government will be required to take a variety of steps on different timelines. Most importantly, it sets a two-month deadline for oil and banking sanctions against Iran to be lifted before Iran begins barring some IAEA inspections under Iran’s voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol.

    • However, in comments on the bill, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said the bill can be reversed expeditiously, without negotiations: “The remedy is very easy…go back to full compliance, stop making new conditions…as soon as you do that, we will immediately” do the same.

    • Below is a breakdown of the bill:

      • After two months, if the P4+1 are not able to actualize their sanctions relief commitments, including banking relations and Iranian oil exports, Iran will cease its voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol. 
      • Begin enriching uranium at 20% and accumulate 120 kgs at that threshold per year.
      • Increase the accumulation of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU), at 4.5% purity and below, by 500 kg per month. This would be an increase from roughly 170kg per month.
      • Start enriching uranium with 1,000 IR2Ms and 164 IR6M advanced centrifuges within three months, increasing to 1,000 IR6Ms after a year. 
      • In three months, the government must submit plans on reconfiguring the Arak heavy water reactor to its original design as well as plans for a second heavy water reactor within one month.
      • Find a full English translation of the bill here.
    • In response to the ratification of the bill, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, “of course the government does not agree with that ruling and sees it as harmful to diplomatic efforts.” Despite expressing displeasure, Rouhani’s government will be obligated to enact it.
    • Abolfazl Amouei, spokesman of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, said in an interview that, “there is no room for negotiations right now, under the current conditions.” 
  • Biden Reiterates Commitment to Return to the Iran Nuclear Deal
    • Following the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist last week, President-Elect Joe Biden spoke to the New York times Tuesday evening. When asked if he still stands by an op-ed he wrote in September stating his desire for the U.S. to rejoin the JCPOA and conduct follow on negotiations, he said “it’s going to be hard, but yeah.”

    • He went on to say that “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region” is to deal “with the nuclear program.” Then, Biden said, “we’re going to engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program.”
  • Zarif Reaffirms Compliance-for-Compliance Return; Rules Out Renegotiating Constraints
    • In an interview at the Rome Mediterranean Dialogue Conference on Thursday, Dec. 3rd, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reiterated that if the U.S. were to come back into compliance with UNSCR 2231, the UN resolution that codified the JCPOA, Iran will do the same.

    • On renegotiating the nuclear constraints under the JCPOA, he said the limits on Iran’s nuclear program will “never be renegotiated.” On regional diplomacy and Iran’s missile program, Zarif mentioned that Iran “has always been at the table,” but that the West must “look at their weapons sales” to the region and “end their maligned behavior” in these areas.

Key Takeaways

  • The passage and future implementation of this bill will complicate both Iran and the U.S. returning back into the JCPOA. But the path forward remains the same, and the choice has been made even starker for Biden and his administration. Restoring U.S. compliance with its own obligations should incentivize Iran to put its escalation on ice and return to its own commitments.

  • Even though the government must implement the bill, there may be ways for them to reduce the provocative nature of some of the steps. While it mandates enrichment to the 20% threshold, it does not state how quickly, only that it must have 120 kg within a year.

  • It’s important to note that this bill, prior to the assassination last week, was not expected to receive a vote given the deference the legislative body usually gives the Supreme National Security Council on the nuclear issue. The assassination, and the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, completely up-ended these dynamics, pushing the conservative legislature into ramming through a deeply problematic bill that threatens diplomacy and pushes Iran farther away from its compliance with the JCPOA. Trump’s policies and that of his allies in the region helped create space for conservatives in Iran to take power, and now they are reaping what they’ve sown.

  • Conservatives in Iran believe that the bill will pressure the U.S. to return back into the deal. While this might be one reason for its swift passage, there are also domestic political advantages. If the U.S. does come back into compliance and sanctions are lifted, hardliners will be able to take partial credit, claiming that their bill helped pressure the U.S. back into compliance. With Iran’s presidential election on the horizon, the moderate and reformist factions will have hoped that a major achievement of theirs over the last four years, the JCPOA, could be salvaged before the election. Now, hardliners will be able to muddle the debate and dispute the role of diplomatic engagement in relieving sanctions.   

  • The hardliners in Iran are also playing into Trump and Netanyahu’s hands, who have spent months attempting to stifle a JCPOA return. As Biden himself indicated, the path ahead will be hard. However, he should stay the course and swiftly return to the deal in order to salvage nuclear constraints and create a platform for further negotiations. 
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