Tehran Pushes Washington Toward Confrontation

With Sanctions in Place, Iran's Deadline Will Test American Resolve
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei delivers remarks on Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran Nuclear Issue in 2015 between five permanent members of United Nations Security Council, Germany and Iran on February 17, 2021 in Tehran, Iran.

The Iranian parliament is set to challenge Washington’s commitment to reviving the JCPOA by stepping even further out of compliance itself, presenting the new administration with an uncomfortable choice between an unwanted confrontation and an even less desirable capitulation. 

THE VIEW FROM TEHRAN

Although the presidential transition afforded Tehran a chance to reset relations with Washington, early indications show little shift in either rhetoric or behavior. Indeed, some prominent figures have taken pains to erase any distinction between the Trump and Biden administrations.

Hossein Dehghan, a military adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and currently the only declared presidential candidate for the country’s upcoming elections, recently gave an interview in which he said that, while “the Biden administration talked about diplomacy, multilateralism, and interaction in the international arena as well as returning to its international commitments, [nevertheless], we still see the same policies from the newly elected administration as we did from the Trump team: not lifting the oppressive sanctions against Iranian people, continuing to block Iran oil revenue in foreign banks while we need the money to fight against the coronavirus pandemic.” Dehghan concluded, “Altogether this means the continuation of Trumpism in international relations.”

Other government officials have echoed Dehghan’ssentiments. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Khatibzadeh recently noted, “It’s a pity that the current (US) administration has become an accomplice in the previous administration’s violation of commitments. This is not a constructive approach and must end.” Khatibzadehdenounced the Biden administration for “following in the footsteps of Donald Trump,” and contended that Washington has maintained the same “maximum pressure and crimes” against “the Iranian nation.”

AN APPROCHING DEADLINE

It is likely that absent the alleviation of U.S. sanctions, in less than a week, Tehran will formally reject any further snap inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency beginning February 21. This comes within the framework of a law passed in December by Tehran’s conservative-dominated Majles.  “Our law is very clear regarding this issue,” Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei told a televised news conference last month. “But it does not mean Iran will stop other inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

The shift would mark a stark break with Iran’s previous deviations from the JCPOA. In the assessment of Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington, most of Tehran’s other moves to undermine the agreement, such as uranium enrichment, could be speedily reversed. “But the steps that are coming, I think, do pose a more significant risk and are more difficult to reverse,” she said. Although Rouhani and the Majles have so far stopped short of threatening to expel IAEA inspectors, any loss of access will likely fuel speculation that Tehran is engaged in illicit activities. The risk “underscores the importance of restoring full compliance with the JCPOA before Iran takes these steps and develops this new knowledge,” Davenport said.

To date, President Biden has given no indication he plans to reconsider his campaign pledge, so often repeated, to maintain American sanctions until Iran returns to full compliance with the JCPOA. February 21 will mark the first test of that commitment. If history is any guide, Tehran is the more likely party to back down, with desperately needed sanctions relief hanging in the balance.