Washington is brainstorming the new American concept of "small steps" diplomacy. Its goal is to force Iran to fully return to meeting its obligations under the JCPOA nuclear agreement, while the United States itself will only have to marginally unleash the sanctions floodgates.
President Joe Biden and his team are considering at once several options for reviving the JCPOA. For instance, it is suggested to primarily clear the way for Iran to obtain a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). What a graceful act on the part of Washington – not to unfreeze its own Iranian holdings and let Iran easily sell its oil, but to force it to get into debt and then pay interest on the loan. The next suggested step is to simplify the delivery of humanitarian goods to Iran. Another "meritorious" act, given that humanitarian goods should not have been subject to sanctions at all.
And the pinnacle suggestion is to authorize the Europeans to finally engage the long-established INTEX mechanism for euros settlements with Iran, which did not work for a day because of US pressure.
The deadline for US sanctions waiver is off the radar whatsoever. Under any American scenario, Iran will be the first to proceed with its obligations.
To conduct future potential negotiations with Tehran, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken asked Robert Malley, the new special envoy for Iran, to form a negotiating team comprising diplomats and experts having a "more aggressive" attitude towards the Islamic Republic.
Apparently, the new advisers are expected to convince Biden that the Iranians, being sophisticated traders, should appreciate the new American administration's approach to negotiations. But Washington is utterly wrong. The Iranians may be soft and diplomatic, but they are not simpletons. When it comes to sovereignty, defense capabilities and national dignity, Iran always adopts a very tough stance. Too bad that this cannot be apprehended across the ocean.
And this time, Iran's position is firm and positively logical: it was Washington who withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, resuming the toughest anti-Iranian sanctions. It was not Tehran but Europe who has been following the US lead all this time and has also failed to meet its nuclear agreement obligations.
Speaking recently in Tehran, its spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei finally formulated the Islamic Republic's stance: "If they want Iran to go back to its JCPOA commitments, the United States must practically end all sanctions first. We will verify if it has been done properly. If yes, we will go back to our JCPOA commitments." Tehran will not scuttle this approach, Khamenei stressed.
Russia and China go all out in support of Iran, urging the immediate and complete lifting of anti-Iranian restrictions and the return of all the nuclear agreement's parties to their duties.
However, the European parties to the deal are increasingly "henpecked" to echo the United States, and even try to obsequiously anticipate Washington's wishes. Speaking via videoconference at the Atlantic Council in early February, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed to involve Saudi Arabia and Israel in negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program. Echoing the Americans, he also suggested that the Iranian missile program be yet another condition for the JCPOA revival. Both proposals are definitely stillborn. It's hard to believe the French president doesn't realize this.
Tehran does not accept any preliminary negotiations on its ballistic missile program, its role in the Middle East, or wider circle of international mediators. "The JCPOA was not easy to achieve, it took about 10 years to reach it, so no clause will be changed, and no new member will be added to this international deal," Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, speaking at a regular cabinet meeting. And Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stressed in a recent interview with CNN that Iran would never negotiate the JCPOA again, as the deal had been agreed upon.
Last Friday, the US National Security Council discussed, among other things, whether to return to the nuclear deal before Iran's presidential election due in June, or following its results. It's hard to say what Washington does look forward to. Time is not playing into its hands. Judging by the current political situation, candidates from conservative or moderate conservative circles have a great chance of winning the presidential election in Iran. And those are hardly inclined to associate with the West, and much more to enter any negotiations with the United States, risking to get bogged down in them.
Apparently, the process of fashioning the White House's final stance is being delayed.
Meanwhile, Iran is not in a hurry, having adapted to the sanctions regime. And, as promised, February 21 will see its further cutting back JCPOA commitment under the Comprehensive Plan for Countering Sanctions adopted by the Iranian parliament. This time, Tehran intends to narrow cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, reduce the presence of IAEA inspectors on its territory, and refuse to voluntarily follow the Additional Protocol to the Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. At the same time, Tehran will remain committed to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
As for the new American concept of "small steps", it lamentably lacks originality. When the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program between Tehran and the six international mediators (five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) reached an impasse in 2011, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed a "step by step" tactic. "The Lavrov plan" provided for a gradual movement towards each other without infringing on the parties' interests. Back then, the Russian Foreign Minister's initiative invigorates the talks, making their active stage begin in 2013. And in 2015, the text of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was finally agreed upon and later approved by the UN Security Council Resolution 2231.
Washington apparently decided to "borrow" Lavrov's idea, although in a rather grotesque manner. It comes that Iran should be flexible with them and even undertake an additional burden, while the United States and Europe will take their time and ponder for a while. However, any agreement is always a two-lane street. With only one party subject to its provisions, a contract is little more than serfdom. And it’s a safe bet that Iran will hardly run its head into the snare.